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Back in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho: (inner) Circumnavigation complete!!

We left Calgary and Ana on September 10th. We had 3 stops planned for what was going to be a Big Day:


- KGEG (Spokane, Washington) to do US customs, a 2-hour flight


- KCOE (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) for the official completion of our “inner” circumnavigation, a highly symbolical 12-minute flight


- KSZT (Sandpoint, Idaho), a place we had chosen to take a break and celebrate, 30 minutes away from KCOE


Apparently becoming an earthrounder has to be deserved because our flight to Spokane was far from easy. We knew there were scattered thunderstorms on the way but what we didn’t know is that they would be embedded in smoke! It was Krasnoyarsk all over again: no visibility, no way to spot the thunderstorms we wanted to avoid. There was however a difference: in the US we had weather data on our MFD screen which, if it was accurate, would help us fly around the densest clouds, even if we did not see them. But of course, radar data always comes with a slight lag, we really wanted to rely on our own eyes rather than a screen. At some point for example, the thunderstorms on the screen appeared to be on our left while we were pretty sure we could see them in front of us. We thought we might be able to break free by climbing but when we arrived at 14000 feet there was still smoke in front and all around us. So here we were in the smoke, with no visibility, amongst late summer thunderstorms over mountainous terrain. Visibility was a little better at 14000 feet than at 12000 so we stayed there for a while and took frequent puffs of oxygen from our canisters. This altitude was also more comfortable to pass the high mountains below. It is often cloudier above mountains than elsewhere and our trip to Spokane was no exception: as soon as the highest mountains were behind us, so were the thunderstorms on our screen, and we hoped this was also the reality because it remained very difficult to distinguish between clouds and smoke. We shot an IFR approach to Spokane piercing through the heavy cloud of ashes and were only relieved at the sight of the runway lights.


Between smoke, mountains and cloud

Happy to see the runway


We asked the Tower to guide us to the Customs area and waited obediently inside the plane, as we knew was appropriate. No one came, so after a few minutes we stepped out and walked to the office to report ourselves but it was closed! Fortunately, there was a 24-hour restroom, open for the occasional general aviation crews and passengers waiting for the CBP officials to show up for their arrivals. When you think about it, it is quite a luxury to have a Border Control Officer come especially for us when all you need to do is fill out an EAPIS and call 24 hours in advance. All this for the small price ($ 36) of one CBP annual sticker that you order online and stick on the airplane to get open service for the full calendar year.


Ready for customs inspection

The precious CBP sticker


“Our” CBP agent arrived shortly after to check our documents and plane. He was very friendly, told us a few things about the area and did not actively search for food or garbage, so we felt a little ridiculous for having been so paranoid, discarding absolutely every edible item in Calgary and making sure we ate every last crumb of Ana’s ham and cheese scones during our flight. Maybe we could have sneaked in a few of her famous scones after all!


With customs behind us, we immediately took off for one of the shortest yet most exciting flights of our trip. Twelve minutes later, we landed in KCOE, taxied to the hangar where we had taken the pictures with Tom’s D-IDEE Aerostar back in May. It was a very un-momentous arrival: after a slow taxi to the solitary Aerostar ramp, we shut the engine off and a uttered a private sigh of relief. We looked at each other, high-fived and then petted the loyal GQF dashboard thanking and congratulating it. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! Or at least, a big part of it…we still needed to go back to Buenos Aires, the true origin of our trip. It took us a while, but we finally found someone at the airport to immortalize our achievement with Alex’ iphone.




After this brief moment of euphoria and glory, we jumped off the wing back to earth and started discussing the smoke with our photographer. Where did it come from? How long had it been around? And more importantly when would it go away? Our plan was to take a rewarding break in Sandpoint but if the town was wrapped in soot that might not be such a good idea. Especially since we had chosen Sandpoint, Idaho for three main reasons:


1. It was on the “Best small cities in America” list and was surrounded by beautiful lakes and mountains that made it look like the perfect place to relax,

2. It had a small and quiet airport where I could practice flying our Cirrus without the stress of having a Control Tower or other airplanes around. Indeed, Alex had done almost all the flying since the beginning of the journey -I feel safer when he flies than when I do- but I wanted to avoid the humiliation of not having flown a single leg upon arrival in Buenos Aires,

3. There was a flight school at a nearby lake where Alex could get his long dreamt-of Seaplane Rating. (Relaxing is important, but not too much of it please!!)


The presence of thick smoke would jeopardize all reasons above. But once again we were lucky: the heavy haze had been around for almost a month, coming and going, but the wind was expected to change the next day and blow it away. That sounded good enough for us and we took off back to the North, to Sandpoint where we landed 30 minutes later. While we were parking on the apron, someone from Granite Aviation FBO came to greet us, they were about to close but we were welcome to stay and borrow their courtesy car until the next morning. Great, that would allow us to bring our luggage to the Airbnb we had booked for 5 whole days -it almost felt like a permanent residence- and get organized.

View from our Condo del Sol appartment

Well deserved break


Our Airbnb was in the Condo del Sol apartment complex on the lake, with a swimming pool and a barbecue area, everything you need for a well-deserved break. We ended up staying two full weeks but really resting only one day (ironically this was 9/11) because the next I started my lessons with Instructor Alex. We flew almost every day and I got more comfortable with flying LV-GQF on the right side, i.e. the side on which I would be if something happened to Alex. In the beginning it just felt like writing with the wrong hand… With my enthusiastic instructor, I cruised all over Lake Pend Oreille, landed in Deerpark (KDEW), in Bonners Ferry (65S),) and did numerous touch and go’s on Sandpoint’s 02/20 asphalt runway (elevation 2131 feet). When the wind had me take off from 02, the pattern would lead me almost straight into a mountain forcing me into a steep-ish turn; when it was 20, the pattern was more comfortable, over the water and a very long bridge that acted as a perfect reference point to turn to final. My favorite flight was around the lake, over the shoreline with the mountains in full sight. Instructor Alex did most of the communications so that I could concentrate on flying the airplane and at some point, during pattern work at KDEW, we suddenly heard someone complain that “there is a guy out there who is not communicating”. That “guy” was us! Our plane has two radios for safety, and we were talking into Com 2, thinking we were communicating on Com 1; we switched to Com 1 and Alex immediately apologized, totally embarrassed… The incident made me feel a little less bad about my own clumsy performances.


My favorite itinerary

My concentrated flying face


Our frequent visits to KSZT and Granite Aviation exposed us to new people and unusual aircraft:


A club to look forward to joining

and some interesting apron-neighbors


Even though we flew almost every day (the instructor was very patient!), we felt very settled because we were not going anywhere. We shopped online a few times because for once we had a shipping address, and we even had visiting friends: Neville, his wife Lori and their 224RW Cirrus. Neville and Alex had bought that fantastic plane when we lived in Chicago and it was one of the main reasons we decided on getting our LV GQF for our Round the World trip. 224RW used to have three owners: Alex (from Argentina), Neville (from South Africa-yes, he speaks Afrikaans!) and Mark (from the US, because foreigners cannot own airplanes by themselves). Neville, who lives in Seattle, was now the only owner and had just gotten it repainted, it looked beautiful!


Our first and our current Cirrus



During our second week in Sandpoint, Alex started the three-day program at “Coeur d’Alene Seaplane Base” school for which he had had to prepare by getting a medical examination in Coeur d’Alene, so we went there again! KCOE is actually a pretty tricky airport because it has two runways that cross each other and no Control Tower most of the time, meaning you have to rely on the communications and intentions of fellow pilots around you. The latter is not unusual but the placement of the two runways in KCOE is, and there have been a few accidents. So of course, although it was my instruction-week, I chickened out and let Alex land there. We had left a little earlier than needed for the aeronautic-doctor appointment because Alex had found out there was an Aviation Museum in the airport which we could visit.


The Bird Aviation and Inventions museum was open and we were welcomed by volunteers as there was some kind of event that day. The museum was dedicated to Dr. Forrest Bird, M.D., PhD., ScD., an avid pilot who also invented the Bird Respirator, used initially for aviation and then to replace the “iron lung” for people with respiratory problems. We were sure that Dr Bird would be even more proud of his invention today as breathing machines were the ultimate hope for critical cases of COVID 19. We walked through the eclectic display of aviation and other devices and learned that Idaho had quite an aviation history- that had not been mentioned in the Best small towns of America guide 😊-. After the visit, Alex went on to his appointment and came out with his brand-new Medical Certificate, gateway to his next challenge.


A museum in a hangar


Medical complete, another mission accomplished


For three entire days, Alex went to Priest Lake’s CDA seaplane base for theory and practice of floatplanes by instructors Kevin and Bob. Floatplanes don’t really need a runway, just a large enough body of water and there are plenty of those around Sandpoint. I learned that the main differences with a “landplane” are that the floats are heavy so you need to make sure you “step” them on top of the water as soon as possible, else you can’t gain enough speed to take off; also, there are different landing techniques, depending on whether the water below is normal, rough or “glassy”.


The school plane

With Instructor Kevin


Clearly it is not for everyone because on his last school day, Alex participated in a search and rescue operation nearby. A floatplane had had a rough landing across Sandpoint and was floating upside down on the lake; they were looking for the pilot and passenger.


On the last day of our second week in Sandpoint, Alex successfully performed his Seaplane check-ride and can now add this new medal to his license, next to VFR, twin-engine and IFR. He is planning to write a post on this incredible experience -which also included an “epic flight”- soon with much more detail about seaplane flying.


Yeah!


At the times we were on the ground during our Sandpoint weeks, we went on a couple of hikes, a few runs along the lake and swam in the Condo del Sol heated pool.


That was a welcome change from our usual exercise routine which consisted mainly of climbing in and out of the plane, putting on the cover, loading and unloading luggage and in my specific case: wiggling myself into the back seat during our flights when I was too hot or needed a bio-break. We also caught up on watching movies, activity for which we had recreated a perfect homey-after-dinner-Netflix-environment by moving the furniture of our Airbnb unit around. Most days we cooked our own food, also a welcome change from continuous travel, but we did go out a few times even though the restaurant opening hours were very much reduced by staff shortages while we were there (we would encounter these staff shortages again during the rest of our US West Coast journey). Our favorite place in Sandpoint was Trinity at the City Beach, but we also tried of few other restaurants and cafes, most of them along the main avenue of this pleasant and small town.


Trinity restaurant, where some people even come by floatplane.... (not us)

Sandpoint has it all !


The rest of the time we would plan the remainder of our trip – by now you have probably figured out that we LOVE planning! And we are not too unhappy about the results. It was only September, we still had lots of time and many many options to go to Buenos Aires where we wanted to return for December.


We looked extensively into the “best small towns of the US” to decide where we would stop on our way South, knowing that we also wanted to go to at least one large city (Los Angeles, where we had friends) and visit Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.


Neville and Lori had highly recommended Cannon Beach, on the Pacific Coast, but the weather did not collaborate, so we flew directly to a place that was on no one's list...


Of all the places we could choose from, we ended up heading to Portland, Oregon, the only city many people had advised against because of its recent history of riots. Maybe we felt sorry for its ill fate? Or maybe we were just stubborn :)

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