Rider of the Storms

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La Niña is raising hell with Mike Dorris. Winter storms have grounded McCall Air Taxi for the past week and Dorris, who holds one of the U.S. Mail contracts for the western half of Idaho's Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area, needs to fly. Under most circumstances, neither wind, rain, snow nor hail can keep the U.S. Mail from its appointed rounds, but during the night, all four have raked McCall airport. This morning, Dorris compares the grim long-range forecast with the intermittent patches of blue sky and realizes that if he doesn't fly now he won't be able to fly for another four days...if then.

But Dorris faces greater pressures than the mail. Ranch hand Tim Hall is overdue back at the South Fork Ranch on the Salmon River, and the snowbound mining town of Warren, Idaho, needs supplies. Dorris squints at the western horizon, then shakes his head. It's clear he isn't happy with his choices but says, "We'll give it a try—and if the weather falls apart, we'll turn back."

Hall and photographer Beth Ricciardi quickly squeeze into the back of the ski plane and I climb into the right seat. Dorris starts the engine and taxis onto the runway, the plane's 5-foot-long skis skimming across the rutted snow. When the temperature gauge rises, he opens the throttle and we start to slide between two 5-foot walls of snow.

We have barely cleared the eastern ridges when the weather falls apart. The promising patches of blue suddenly close as the wind hits us from three directions at once. Surrounded by black thunderheads dragging white veils of snow across Idaho's Salmon River Mountains, the Cessna is hammered by riotous cross currents that drop the nose, lift the right wing and make the six cases of beer, five boxes of food, one crate of mail and three wide-eyed passengers shake, rattle and roll in discordant harmony. Mike Dorris might have a reputation as one of the world's best backcountry pilots, but I'm beginning to wonder if, in this case, his judgment has lapsed.

As the Cessna drifts in the Salmon's strong upstream winds, Dorris turns to Hall and, raising his voice to be heard, yells, "You think Tom has got the horses off the strip?"

Hall, who has worked on the South Fork Ranch for 10 years, twists to get a view of the strip, then yells back, "It looks like he has!"

"And you say the strip was solid, no mud?"

"It was when I left last week, and Tom said it's still in pretty good shape."

Dorris puts the Cessna into a hard left turn between the rocky canyon walls, then banks hard right and points the nose at a small pasture divided by a rough dirt landing strip. Turbulent winds sweeping off the Salmon Ranch's rock cliffs have downgraded the short dirt strip into a dicey uphill landing. As Dorris lowers the flaps for final approach, the horses stampede toward the far fence line. We flash over the river, Dorris cuts the throttle, and we sink.

First impressions of Mike Dorris are accurate. At 5 foot, 9 inches and 160 lbs. with thinning blond hair and a self-conscious smile, he is a family man who worships his wife, Leslie, and 6-year-old daughter, Katie. He is also extraordinarily capable—a skilled mechanic and superb pilot who, at the same time, is intensely modest. During his quarter-century of flying into Idaho's backcountry strips, he has seen everything capricious nature and foolhardy men can throw at him. In the course of transplanting drugged wolves, evacuating rattlesnake-bite victims, risking his own life to save plane crash survivors and delivering pizza pies to bored rich kids on river trips, he has skidded off icy runways and once almost clipped a lodgepole pine on take off. But he's never stuck a plane—never crashed, and in this country of explosive thunderstorms, fickle currents and deep canyons, that says a great deal. Equally amazing is his sense of humor, patience and optimism—all essential traits if you're going to run a wilderness air service—or race on the U.S. Ski Team.

Born in Burley,daho, Dorris graduated from high school in the spring of 1973 and was offered a development spot on the U.S. Ski Team in 1974. His father, Bill, advised him to go to college, but Mike wanted to race. He traveled with the U.S. B team in Europe during the 1975-76 winter and raced well, but without financial backing he couldn't afford to return to Europe the following season.

However, he continued to race in the U.S. Dorris recalls, "I went to Spring Series a season-ending circuit of top U.S. competitors in 1978 at Squaw Valley and won three of the slaloms and did well in the giant slalom. Unfortunately, the races I won, Phil and Steve Mahre didn't enter." The absence of the dominant Mahres meant Dorris' wins didn't carry as much weight. Even so, when the season ended he was ranked third nationally in slalom. As a result, he was invited back to the U.S. B Team, but he had already accepted a sponsorship from Rossignol to race on the pro circuit. His ski career ended after three years of mixed results on the dual course format, when he decided to return home to McCall. Summing up his pro career, he says, "I didn't do as well as I thought I would and kind of wished I had stayed amateur."

Now, more than 20 years later, it's clear his racing experience has paid off. When Beth and I meet Mike for a day of skiing at McCall's Brundage Ski Area, it is alternately sleeting, snowing and raining on top of 6 inches of wet powder. Mike shows up in 12-year-old, rear-entry boots and a pair of 210-cm Atomic giant slaloms. Studying my own shaped Dynastars, he apologizes for his ancient equipment, then guides Beth and me into glades where a thick fog drifts among the lodgepole pine and subalpine fir. Despite his long skis and the horrific conditions, with visibility often down to just a few feet, Dorris proves to be an incredible skier. Legs pumping, skis arcing through the heavy snow, he quickly fades into the fog, where he stops and waits for us. When we find him, he apologizes for the conditions, then turns and floats downhill until the fog again closes around him. Some of Dorris' ability can be written off to a home hill advantage, a percentage more to his years ski racing, but the rest is simply raw talent.

He also seems to have a natural knack for timing. Dorris' 1981 return to Idaho was felicitous because his father, Bill, who flew Corsairs and Sea Planes for the Marine Corps during World War II, had started McCall Air Taxi a few years prior and was looking for help. Having worked previous summers for his dad, Mike already had his pilot's license and, at 24, went to work shuttling supplies into the backcountry. Bill, a legend in his own right, would later admit that Mike was the best pilot he'd ever seen, not surprising considering how much practice he got flying ski routes with his brother, Pat. The two took turns alternately landing on backcountry ridges, where one would ski while the other flew the plane down to a pickup point in a designated meadow. Mike's love for flying eventually led him to buy the company from his dad in 1985, and McCall Air Taxi now owns two airplanes and during the summer leases 10 more to supply river trips.

Cambridge, Idaho, river outfitter Jerry Hughes has flown with Dorris for years and confesses, "Mike's an incredible bush pilot, maybe even the world's best bush pilot." Hughes also says Dorris is both professional and patient to a fault. "He will do anything he possibly can to help you out," he explains. Included under the broad heading of helping out is the time Dorris flew to a remote strip to help a friend unstick a ski plane. As soon as he touched down, Mike's plane promptly broke through the snow's crust and sank to its belly. "It took us four hours to dig them out," Dorris remembers. "And two days to pack out a runway with snowshoes before we could get airborne."

Dorris also helps with wolf relocation, flying the controversial predators to remote sites. Typically the wolves are sedated and laid out in the back of the plane. But Dorris was recently flying two wolves when one started to come to and began to snap at him. A similar incident occurred with cougars that woke up at the wrong moment. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had loaded a mother and two nearly grown kittens into dog kennels, and it wasn't long before they started hissing and banging around in the back of the plane. By the time Dorris landed, the cats were fully awake—and angry as hell. Humans, not animals, however, often present a greater challenge. Consider two pilots who screwed up on final approach and cartwheeled across a rugged backcountry strip. Dorris happened to see the wreck as he flew overhead and landed shortly after to help stabilize the two men. He remembers, "It tore the airplane up pretty good. The tail was hanging in a tree, and when I got there one of the pilots was limping down the runway with a mule to ferry his injured friend out to a flat place where an emergency Flight For Life helicopter could land. He had head injuries, a broken shoulder, both legs were pretty well shot...though he spent months in therapy, he did survive."

These tales and more come to mind as we bounce across the frozen ruts in the makeshift landing strip at the South Fork of the Salmon River Ranch, stopping just short of the trees. Mike turns the plane, shuts off the engine, then climbs out and shakes hands with Tom Roberts, who helps out on the ranch when Hall flies out to see his wife and three daughters in Moscow, Idaho.

While Hall and Roberts quickly unload their supplies, Dorris studies the towering thunderhead that blocks the way to Warren, 20 miles away. The weather is threatening to ground the Cessna, and Dorris quickly bids the two men goodbye, starts the engine and, as soon as it warms, opens the throttle. Thirty seconds later the wheels clear the frozen ruts and we turn south, upriver. To reach the snowbound mining town, Mike is forced to fly a circuitous course, first west, then north, dodging the violent cumulus that hide snow squalls and treacherous winds.

Due in large part to Dorris' perseverance and patience, we get lucky. The clouds part, the flakes thin and a cluster of snow-covered roofs, weathered wood walls and rusting machinery appears near a short, snowy strip.

Set at the end of a snow-covered road, the town serves as a tourist attraction in summer but is scarcely inhabited in winter, when its population fluctuates between nine and 15 people. Some are retired, others cater to the snowmobilers who follow the unplowed road in from Meadows, Idaho.

The Cessna has just stopped moving when Jan Monson, Warren's postmistress, stops her ATV under the wing. Monson has lived in Warren for 17 years and readily admits that, in winter, Dorris is their lifeline to the outside. "I love Mike," she says. "He's a great guy who goes out of his way to see that things are done right. He's flown in desperate weather to see we get packages for Christmas or supplies for Thanksgiving. He's just a very special man."

Despite the menacing clouds, we take half an hour to explore the town, which climbs a gentle hill above the runway. Warren is composed of one main street flanked by weathered wood buildings. From the smoke curling out of the stove pipes, it's clear some are inhabited, but many are not. Though deserted, most of the old hotels, houses and mining implements are in good repair, and we walk to the empty Warren Bar, where Kristy Salter is fighting the flu on the couch. Kristy and her boyfriend lease the bar, which was built in the Thirties after fire destroyed the original structure. Without Dorris, Salter would be forced to snowmobile two hours to the main road for supplies. Mike quietly interrupts to advise me that the wind has stopped—our cue to get out of town because, within minutes, the wind pattern will likely turn 180 degrees. "We can't generate enough lift with a tail wind," he explains.

The wind is rising out of thed laid out in the back of the plane. But Dorris was recently flying two wolves when one started to come to and began to snap at him. A similar incident occurred with cougars that woke up at the wrong moment. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had loaded a mother and two nearly grown kittens into dog kennels, and it wasn't long before they started hissing and banging around in the back of the plane. By the time Dorris landed, the cats were fully awake—and angry as hell. Humans, not animals, however, often present a greater challenge. Consider two pilots who screwed up on final approach and cartwheeled across a rugged backcountry strip. Dorris happened to see the wreck as he flew overhead and landed shortly after to help stabilize the two men. He remembers, "It tore the airplane up pretty good. The tail was hanging in a tree, and when I got there one of the pilots was limping down the runway with a mule to ferry his injured friend out to a flat place where an emergency Flight For Life helicopter could land. He had head injuries, a broken shoulder, both legs were pretty well shot...though he spent months in therapy, he did survive."

These tales and more come to mind as we bounce across the frozen ruts in the makeshift landing strip at the South Fork of the Salmon River Ranch, stopping just short of the trees. Mike turns the plane, shuts off the engine, then climbs out and shakes hands with Tom Roberts, who helps out on the ranch when Hall flies out to see his wife and three daughters in Moscow, Idaho.

While Hall and Roberts quickly unload their supplies, Dorris studies the towering thunderhead that blocks the way to Warren, 20 miles away. The weather is threatening to ground the Cessna, and Dorris quickly bids the two men goodbye, starts the engine and, as soon as it warms, opens the throttle. Thirty seconds later the wheels clear the frozen ruts and we turn south, upriver. To reach the snowbound mining town, Mike is forced to fly a circuitous course, first west, then north, dodging the violent cumulus that hide snow squalls and treacherous winds.

Due in large part to Dorris' perseverance and patience, we get lucky. The clouds part, the flakes thin and a cluster of snow-covered roofs, weathered wood walls and rusting machinery appears near a short, snowy strip.

Set at the end of a snow-covered road, the town serves as a tourist attraction in summer but is scarcely inhabited in winter, when its population fluctuates between nine and 15 people. Some are retired, others cater to the snowmobilers who follow the unplowed road in from Meadows, Idaho.

The Cessna has just stopped moving when Jan Monson, Warren's postmistress, stops her ATV under the wing. Monson has lived in Warren for 17 years and readily admits that, in winter, Dorris is their lifeline to the outside. "I love Mike," she says. "He's a great guy who goes out of his way to see that things are done right. He's flown in desperate weather to see we get packages for Christmas or supplies for Thanksgiving. He's just a very special man."

Despite the menacing clouds, we take half an hour to explore the town, which climbs a gentle hill above the runway. Warren is composed of one main street flanked by weathered wood buildings. From the smoke curling out of the stove pipes, it's clear some are inhabited, but many are not. Though deserted, most of the old hotels, houses and mining implements are in good repair, and we walk to the empty Warren Bar, where Kristy Salter is fighting the flu on the couch. Kristy and her boyfriend lease the bar, which was built in the Thirties after fire destroyed the original structure. Without Dorris, Salter would be forced to snowmobile two hours to the main road for supplies. Mike quietly interrupts to advise me that the wind has stopped—our cue to get out of town because, within minutes, the wind pattern will likely turn 180 degrees. "We can't generate enough lift with a tail wind," he explains.

The wind is rising out of the east when Dorris opens the throttle. The ski plane slowly accelerates down the snowy strip. A hundred, then 200 yards pass. I realize the tail wind Mike feared is killing the lift. And still we hurtle on, the skis banging across buried tracks as the trees at the end of the runway loom in the windshield. At the instant when I'm certain we won't make it, Mike increases the flaps, pulls back on the stick and the Cessna labors into the air.

Glancing over, I see he is unruffled. His expression reveals it was close, but not that close. It occurs to me that racing World Cup and flying backcountry ski planes both depend on quick reflexes, good judgment and more than a little courage. And as the Cessna climbs into a threatening sky back toward McCall, I'm grateful Mike Dorris is at the controls.

In the mood for an adventure? Join Dorris for a sightseeing flight in the remote Idaho backcountry, or tag along to deliver mail and supplies. For details, contact McCall Air Taxi at (800) 992-6559.

Riders of the Storm: Photo Essay, Part 1

Riders of the Storm: Photo Essay, Part 2 the east when Dorris opens the throttle. The ski plane slowly accelerates down the snowy strip. A hundred, then 200 yards pass. I realize the tail wind Mike feared is killing the lift. And still we hurtle on, the skis banging across buried tracks as the trees at the end of the runway loom in the windshield. At the instant when I'm certain we won't make it, Mike increases the flaps, pulls back on the stick and the Cessna labors into the air.

Glancing over, I see he is unruffled. His expression reveals it was close, but not that close. It occurs to me that racing World Cup and flying backcountry ski planes both depend on quick reflexes, good judgment and more than a little courage. And as the Cessna climbs into a threatening sky back toward McCall, I'm grateful Mike Dorris is at the controls.

In the mood for an adventure? Join Dorris for a sightseeing flight in the remote Idaho backcountry, or tag along to deliver mail and supplies. For details, contact McCall Air Taxi at (800) 992-6559.

Riders of the Storm: Photo Essay, Part 1

Riders of the Storm: Photo Essay, Part 2