Bird’s-eye view

“If I had wings, and I could fly, I know where I would go,” Bob Dylan once sang. On Monday, June 4, I lived Bob’s dream and for three hours flew over the Northstate with attorney Paul Persons at the controls of his Cherokee Pathfinder four-seat airplane. I was invited to fly along with Steve Evans and Jessica Rios, members of the Friends of the River conservation group. Their goal was to view and photograph locales to propose to the federal government as possible wilderness areas and stretches of rivers they think should receive national wild-and-scenic-river status. That means no new dams and ensures the rivers are managed to protect scenic, recreational, cultural and ecological values.

We met at 9 a.m. at the south gate of the Chico airport on a beautifully cool morning. The wind had blown with some gusto the day before, so visibility was high. We made our pleasant greetings, Evans offered Dramamine, and while we were waiting for Persons, Evans nodded his head toward the plane and said, “I like to fly in a plane that’s held together with duct tape.” And sure enough, there were two four-inch pieces of the gray tape seemingly holding the front part of the tail section to the fuselage of the otherwise immaculate aircraft. I checked and was relieved to find it was a good grade of duct tape, not that cheap stuff you buy in Safeway or K-Mart. By 9:30, the four of us we’re lifting off the runway, headed north, though our initial route would take us south over Lake Oroville. But first we had to continue north for a ways and swing out beyond the mansions on Keefer Road. Persons explained it was a matter of practicing “neighborly considerations” by not buzzing over their houses.

Once clear, we flew over the great spread of builder Dan Drake’s land that will eventually hold the Foothill East subdivision and then south toward Oroville. The lake is alarmingly low; its exposed brown shores stand out like a muddy bathtub ring from the air. To the west we could see the Sutter Buttes erupting out of the checkerboard design of the rice fields and orchards. From the lake we flew east up the Feather River Canyon and over the magnificent Feather Falls (the 640-foot waterfall, not the casino). Evans is a wealth of information, recognizing distant peaks and canyons that all looked the same to me and giving Persons directions on where to head. As we flew north over the Plumas National Forest, west of Quincy, we could also see lots of clear-cut patches on Sierra Pacific Industries land. “Looks like the haircuts my dad used to give me when I was a kid,” joked Persons, who as a pilot naturally instills a tremendous amount of confidence in his passengers. We spotted many roads on Plumas Forest, roads you can’t see until you are directly over them. Clinton’s roadless plan for the national forests seems to make sense here.

We zipped past Brokeoff Mountain and Lassen Peak, over burned forests where red and gray conifer remains still stood, holding the soil in place. Then we passed over the remains of the Fountain Fire, north of Red Bluff and east of Redding. The devastation was like a moonscape: crisscrossed roads, many of them built to salvage any timber that remained, which, according to Evans, leads to erosion of the soil. “It’s been said that salvage logging is like raping a burn victim.” We continued north toward the looming peak of Mt. Shasta. Over the McCloud River we could see more mansions. Evans explained they were the private homes on property purchased along the river in the late 1800s by wealthy families like the newspaper Hearsts, the banking Crockers and the coffee importing Hills brothers. “They bought the river up for their own little fishing clubs,” he explained.

Finally we headed home, flying over the meandering Sacramento River, which lies like a huge uncoiled snake, curling back and forth in great wide swaths. There is farmland in some places sitting right against the riverbank. Evans said riparian forests and habitat along the river dies out over time. As river shifts it creates new riparian. Stop the river’s meandering, and you kill the riparian habitat. We flew into back over Chico and into the airport from the south. From the air Chico looks like a scale model train town set in some rich kid’s huge basement playroom, where everything, the train, the town and surrounding hills, is connected. But once you’re back on the ground, that perspective disappears, and your world is no bigger than the space in your car as you speed down the road, windows rolled up, A/C and radio cranked.