Mission Accomplished

Flying Back to Childhood in Northern Idaho

Story and Photos by Mike Kincaid

Rushing from the woods with the morning sun at our backs, our rescue team discovers we’re being tailed, very closely.

As our stalkers move in, Connor dodges to the right, Justin weaves to the left, and I jog in place. Piper sneezes, then dog-laughs. The grandkids and I, and probably even Piper, know the identity of the followers, but we play along. It’s fun to be young and have only shadows chasing you.

Every summer I get to be a kid again. My fountain of youth lasts as long as my grandkids visit, during what is hot weather to northern Idaho residents, but pleasantly mild to these Texans. Their hometown of Round Rock is almost two thousand feet lower than our place on Canfield Mountain in Hayden, and the topography here offers them all kinds of new adventures. It’s my mission to explore with Justin, who is ten, and Connor, seven. As in any mission, a lot of planning is needed to pull it off with success. As team leader, my code name is “Pa-Pa.” My skill set includes getting the kids way too riled up, and making root beer floats. My co-conspirator, “Grandma,” assists the mission with necessities such as grub, prizes, cookies, and rules.

Our mission is sometimes constricted by the over-protectiveness of their mom, reminding me of humorist Sam Elverson’s observation: “The reason grandchildren and grandparents get along so well is that they have a common enemy.” I think their mother tends to get a little over-excited if, for example, Justin climbs halfway up an eighty-foot pine tree in our back yard (try that in Round Rock), but maybe that’s just me.

Way before the kids arrived, I prepared a mission list to be accomplished during their eight days in the Northwest. It focused on outdoor pursuits unique to our area. When they were presented with the list, the kids chose only two attractions that carried a price of admission: a boat cruise with pirates on Lake Coeur d’Alene and a theme park. Everything else was just outside our home in the hills, at nearby Hayden Lake, or accessible with the airplane I use in my flying business.

Consider the following to be a de-briefing of our mission.

Day One: Too Windy to Fly in a Small Airplane or Take the Lake Cruise
First, we formed a rescue team to join the imaginary search for the boy who fell from the hot air balloon and now wanders the woods of Mount Canfield (clues carefully placed by an unidentified, elderly couple residing in our house). Second, we flew cheap, polystyrene model airplanes (cheap is key, as they will get broken). Third, when the kids wanted to defy gravity right in the backyard, we threw a rope over a deck beam and tied an old pole to MacGyver, our swing. Fourth, we tried to remove bike skid marks from the driveway Grandpa just spent two weeks and thousands of dollars redoing. (Note to self: even though the driveway clean-up was not actually on your list, and even though you stored the grandkids’ bikes on the lower lot, up which only goats can easily climb to the front of the house, next time don’t assume the boys can’t somehow drag them up when you aren’t looking, and don’t assume they won’t think your beautiful driveway won’t look better with skid marks permanently ingrained in the non-yellowing finish.) Fifth, observing the boys’ feigned looks of remorse, I made root beer floats.

Day Two: Still Windy
The search to find Balloon Boy continued, with another trek into the woods. More clues were found, which meant more prizes from the super-discount store, and more of Pa-Pa’s famous root beer floats. In their favorite game, Monster, Grandpa chased them around the house making strange noises (not those from his knees), until everyone collapsed in exhaustion and laughter. At the hangar, we did a pre-flight on the plane. Mission leader flew a not-so-cheap polystyrene model airplane, this one with an electric motor, while giving the kids a little dual instruction. Mission leader promptly crash-landed (unplanned), which was no big loss in adventure, as the kids pulled the old golf cart cum airplane tug out of the hangar and raced around at speeds topping eight miles per hour until the batteries had had enough fun for the day. We launched a couple of cheap kites from the super discount store, which broke in the downdrafts (unplanned).

Day Three: Wind Finally Calms

The kids made use of all those hours watching Pirates of the Caribbean movies, as they boarded a menacing-looking boat on Lake Coeur d’Alene, hosted by the lovely pirates, Mad Molly and Iggy, and piloted by Captain “Calico” Jack. Not only did the boys solve the mystery of the sunken treasure, but Connor took down a rough pirate in a swordfight. The weather was perfect for a high-seas adventure and the cast of renegade sailors rivaled the performances of Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz. (Note: mission leader has not actually seen the movies, but bases this assessment on excitement on the faces of the kids.)

Day Four

It started with another early-morning hike to search for more Balloon Boy clues. Mission leader used his entire bag of airplane mechanical tricks to try to fix the wrecked radio-controlled airplane, but that went about as well as his piloting skills with said aircraft. Kids had to settle for flights in a real airplane, sweeping over lakes and the Bitterroot Mountains, one kid at a time, each getting the hang of the controls of the seaplane before a splash-in on Hayden Lake for a picnic with Grandma and their mother, and the catching of a miniature smallmouth bass. Back at the airport, the kids raced around in the old golf cart like slow-motion NASCAR drivers, again wearing down the batteries, then caught grasshoppers for inspection. We upgraded the kite fleet to $5 models (what happened to the ones we made from newspapers as kids?). In a light wind, the boys got plenty of exercise, sprinting up and down the mountain ridge road in front of the house to get their kites airborne. The day was finished with rope-swinging, tree-climbing, Grandpa chasing them, and of course, root beer floats.

Day Five
After another trip to the woods by the rescue team, the kids were given a choice: one, make a forty-five-minute drive to Bayview on Lake Pend Oreille to attend the Fourth of July weekend gala featuring the always-popular camel rides, or two, fly kites. Fortunately, they choose kites. Even with another trip to the store for more kites, it was cheaper, and better exercise. A gusty wind made it hard on the new fleet. One kite spent a couple hours in a tree, until a lucky hit with a rock brought it back to earth. An osprey seemed intent on mating with another kite. A break from the rigors of kite flying and retrieval was provided by the rope swing and Monstering.

Day Six: Fourth of July
It was decided that Balloon Boy could survive another day on his own. Instead, the team opted to hike down the hill from the house to a “secret” fishing pond that must have been a secret to the fish, as well. The boys caught only weeds. (Note: nothing had changed since the mission leader fished with their mother: his job remained to untangle lines and strip weeds from fishing poles). With the frogs bellowing at us, we climbed the hill and retreated to the more familiar turf of the airport, where the kids found a couple of dirt mounds to jump their bikes while their leader readied the seaplane. During aerial recon, we found Calico Jack’s pirate ship, then the barge full of fireworks, staged for the big night.

Mission leader had never seen so many boats on the lake. Flying alongside our aircraft, a banner-plane cajoled the crowd below to buy insurance from a company with a reptile mascot. After a little instruction, and a little bit of assistance, both kids took over the control stick, making perfect water landings on Lake Coeur d’ Alene. Back on the ground, we retreated to the deck for a couple of cool ones (root beer floats) to begin our Fourth of July celebration. The grandkids had seen a few firework displays in the big city, but nothing like the one-after-another show from our deck overlooking the Coeur d’Alene Valley. Beginning shortly before sunset and lasting long after we wanted to go to bed, the display earned plenty of flag-waving and “wows” from the boys. The highlight was thirty thousand dollars of ballistics exploding on the lake in front of the beach, proving that money (donated by local businesses and individuals) can buy a really big show.

Day Seven
By now, it was obvious that northern Idaho’s woodsy adventures entertained the kids, but could they compete with an amusement park spouting millions of gallons of water on a hot day? The grandkids were not strangers to theme parks, but the Northwest’s largest one, 216 acres set between mountain ranges and pines, was a big hit. (Note to self: when dressed in long pants, carrying a camera, and suffering a bad back from horsing around with grandkids, avoid amusement park whitewater rides.)

Day Eight:Grand Finale
The boys were allowed to choose what they wanted to do, perhaps another splash down the tube at the theme park, or another lake cruise. Instead, they opted for one last ride on the homemade swing, playing Monster-chase (the upgraded version, in which the mission leader wore panty hose over his head), and, of course, super-sized root beer floats.

After a briefing on the search for Balloon Boy—who had been found during the night at the summit of Mount Canfield, having escaped wolves, bears, and mountain lions—team broke camp in the morning. The kids and their mom (a.k.a. The Warden) set off to Spokane International for the long trip back to Texas. As they readied for takeoff, the mission leader ascertained their favorite things during the vacation. The homemade swing and Monster-chasing were tied for number one, with flying in the floatplane second. The theme park and pirate cruise tied for third. Conclusion: even these days, kids appreciate the simple things in life. (Note to self: they added that they’ll miss my special root beer floats, saying their mom’s version doesn’t compare . . . and Grandma claims I hate kitchen duty!).

The swing has been taken down and the kites packed away until their retrieval for another summer’s breezes. Inhaling the scent of benzene to remove the beautiful finish on my driveway as the first step toward cleaning off the bicycle skid marks brings home the reality to me that kid time is up. It’s true that grandkids make us feel young again, but after eight days of living like a kid, I feel my age. The speed at which grandchildren seem to grow is even more apparent when you only get to see them twice a year. In a way, maybe that’s good thing. Pa-Pas have only so many Monster chases in them. [/private]

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Mike Kincaid

About Mike Kincaid

Mike Kincaid survived twenty-five years flying airplanes, mushing dogs, and trying to keep warm in Alaska before moving to Coeur d’ Alene in 1996 with his wife Jill. Retired from the Alaska State Troopers, Mike now teaches pilots from around the world to fly seaplanes and writes newspaper and magazine articles, mostly about flying and outdoor adventures. He is the author of the novel Alaska Justice. His website is www.flymls.com.

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