Cordova Chronicles: The sky is the limit

Gayle Ranney logged 26,000 airborne hours, many in this Cessna 185, shown here with the Cape St. Elias pinnacle in the background. Photo courtesy of Steve Ranney

One of the charms of outdoor adventure is its unpredictability. Even the simplest activity can suddenly test one’s mettle.

Take, for example, one of my favorites – cross country skiing. It’s rather basic – put on the skis, and start polling and gliding.

This winter has provided excellent conditions for just that. The flat areas above and below the Copper River Highway in the Scott River drainage from 7 to 11 Mile are often scoured by strong winds off the Scott Glacier, but this year they have been rare.

So imagine my chagrin, when rather than winds, it was too much of a good thing, namely blue skies and a suddenly warming sun, that turned a mid- March cruise into a slog.

With the temperature rising, a several-mile track set early in the day turned into a slippery nightmare, with the skis not providing any traction when pushing off.

Not a problem. Being old school, I had a bag of different color waxes for various conditions in my backpack. The small tubes are color coded, with a printed temperature range on each metal container.

By the time I made it back to the road, I had changed waxes three times, and was about to resort to red klister, a sticky mess guaranteed to provide grip on everything it touches, which always seems sure to include items besides the skis.  

Light on flat snow can create illusions, and while loading ski gear into my truck I noticed three black shapes several hundred yards away, slowly moving back toward the road.

I assumed it was skiers also battling wet conditions. As they came nearer, I realized it was two very tall individuals, with a somewhat shorter one in-between, all trudging patiently along on snow shoes.

It turned out to be the lanky Ranney twins, Kris and Carl, and their grandmother Gayle Ranney. The Ranney boys are both CHS graduates and have gone on to earn degrees at the University of Oregon and beyond.

The pair became Eagle Scouts here in Cordova and were personifying the very best values it takes to achieve that honor.

Like spending a day with Grandma in the sun.

Surrounded by blue skies and grandsons Kris and Carl Ranney, Gayle Ranney is all smiles after snowshoeing below 10 Mile on the Copper River Highway. Photo courtesy of Dick Shellhorn

Standing there smiling from ear to ear, a sparkle in her eyes, Gayle was, well, sunshine itself. At 80 years young, here she was out trekking around on snowshoes, at an appropriate pace, accompanied by two grandsons.

Gayle was decked out stylishly in a dark-blue turtleneck, with a matching plaid shirt and knit hat, somehow the same hues as the blue skies above.

We chatted for bit. A plane buzzing by distracted us, and she immediately identified it.

That’s no surprise. Gayle, you see, logged an incredible 26,000 hours in small planes, and has written a must-read book about it titled “T-Craft Tales.”

From left, Jewell Collins, Dick Shellhorn and May Ekemo share a happy moment at Long Lake after a nice plane ride with pilot Gayle Ranney. Photo courtesy of Sue Shellhorn

Naturally, the topic turned to flying. I mentioned the one time I had flown with her. It was back in the summer of 1995, when she piloted a Fishing and Flying Cessna 185 to take my wife Sue, her mother May Ekemo, my future son-in-law Tom Carpenter, and I up to McCarthy and Long Lake.

Sue’s mom had always wanted to visit Cliff and Jewel Collins at Long Lake. She had heard much about its beauty as her husband John had made many a trip flying in the back seat of Cliff’s small plane before passing away in 1983.

We boarded the Cessna at Mile 13, and I’ll never forget May and Gayle chatting away on the plane intercom as they sat side by side in the front of the plane, as well as Gayle’s cheerful dialogue and manner throughout the entire trip.

When we landed at Long Lake, Cliff and Jewel were there to meet us, and gave us a tour of their lovely place. It was a lifetime wish come true.

Twenty-five years later, here we were, standing near the very airport from which that flight had departed. I mentioned the trip to Gayle, but was not surprised nor disappointed that she did not remember it.

Can you imagine how many different people and personalities she dealt with in 26,000 airborne hours?

But I will tell you who remembered:

Sue’s mother.

She passed away in 2018.

In her later years, when we would recollect favorite moments, that plane ride would come up, and once again, she would ask: “What was the name of that wonderful lady pilot?”