Winging it to Adventure

“I’ll fly over the landing strip to scope it out.”


“That?  It’s a dirt road!” I pointed to the weed-filled, unmaintained dirt road.

“Looks good.  Let’s land.”

Who was I to argue?  I had zero control over the situation at hand.  I had to trust my friend and pilot Nadim to safely land his plane in the backcountry of the San Rafael Swell.  Our adventure was about to start. Or, had it already begun?


How do you define the word adventure?  For me, the word has so many personal attributes that help define it.  It’s a personal word. Your definition probably differs from mine.  What you think is an adventure, I might not. And, vice versa. Regardless of your definition, Utah is a state where you can experience adventure in many different forms/definitions.  It’s spring, and it’s time to adventure in Southern Utah.

“Mike, be at the airport at 8 AM” Nadim informed me over the phone.

“Where are we headed?”  I asked.

Nadim selected the time, and I selected the activity: the San Rafael Swell for a canyoneering adventure.  The Swell lies in the central part of Utah and is comprised of canyons, mining relics, slot canyons, ancient human signs, and solitude.   Unfortunately, we had only one day; but adventure by plane would make it possible.


I met Nadim at the airport; and we loaded the plane with gear.  Nadim’s son, Jack, joined us. I was out of my element as Nadim walked around the plane for a visual inspection.  How could I help? What could I do? Truly nothing. I sat in the plane feeling both excited and nervous, but I respected Nadim’s time and routine.

“Let’s go!”  Nadim shouted while buckling his seat harness and turning over the engine.  Within in moments, the airplane purred and the propeller spun in full effect.  I felt nervous with excitement. Yes, I realized I was about to embark on a unique Utah adventure.

Nadim and I conversed up front while Jack read in the back of the plane.  He pointed out Strawberry Reservoir as we soared high above. After 25 minutes, we flew over Highway 6 and Price.  What would take me, on a good day, a minimum of two hours by vehicle, we accomplished in less than a half hour. The 360-degree views were stunning.  In the distance, I spotted red rock. Yep, we approached the Swell.


Nadim banked a turn to the east, and soon enough we flew over the San Rafael River.  I had visited the area numerous times, so I had fun getting my bearings and recognizing places from the past. I did all this internally.  I wasn’t bothering Nadim with my uselessness. He needed to concentrate on landing the plane safely. Our adventure depended on it—as did our lives.

“I’ll pass over the airstrip and check it out” Nadim informed Jack and me.

“Sure…sounds good,” I replied in a confident like I knew what I was doing sentiment.  When I looked over the fuselage, all I could see were weeds protruding through the dirt.  It looked like an old mining road–not an airstrip. But, hey, I call this an adventure.

“Looks good, prepare for landing.”  Nadim simultaneously and systematically pressed buttons all over his dashboard.  He slowly decreased the power on the engine, while he bank-turned to the west. The plane descended.  I imagined a flight attendant reminding me to stow my belongings in the overhead compartment, to return my seat to the upright position, and to buckle my seatbelt.  Of course, none of that happened. I stared out the window and marveled at the backcountry landing strip situated between two enormous sandstone buttes with the San Rafael River flowing through the landscape.   The wheels gently touched Earth again, and Nadim controlled our speed with braking as we slowed on the airstrip.


I was stunned and pleased at how quickly we arrived at our destination.  Mind blowing.  I stepped out of the plane and found myself along the banks of the San Rafael River.  Cottonwoods towered along the river, and gigantic red rock walls created a stellar backdrop. Crazy! Forty-five minutes earlier I stood at the Heber Valley Airport, and now I stood in Red Rock Country.


I assisted Nadim with the positioning the plane, and Jack unloaded our canyoneering gear.  We immediately began hiking to the west—to the Black Box Canyon of the San Rafael River.  We maintained a steady pace along an old mining road put into the area during the uranium mining days.  The blue skies and pleasant temperatures made hiking enjoyable and painless.

“I think this is the route,”  I stated as I pointed to a break in the rocks that allowed us access to the canyon rim.  We carefully plodded our way through rocks and made it to the only rappel. From the canyon rim, we heard the water of the San Rafael River below but couldn’t see it.  I rigged the rope to the bolt anchors in the rock and tossed the rope over the edge.

Rope!”  I yelled instinctively then realized it was meaningless; my voice would not overcome the noise of the rushing water below.


The rappel, straightforward, was a simple down along a smooth rock face.  We needed no awkward start or some crazy yoga move half way down. Nope. It was simple and easy.  Nadim clipped in and descended the 100 feet or so to the river and Jack followed. We regrouped at the bottom and enjoyed a lunch break.  I attempted to understand what we had accomplished in such a short amount of time. “I need to get myself a plane. Game changer!” I declared.  But, reality sunk in that mine was an expensive, unrealistic dream.


Nadim owns and operates OK3 Air Service at the Heber Valley Airport.  His world is all about air travel. He flew in the military from 1989 to 1999, serving two tours of duty in Iraq. He finished his military career at the Navy Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) in 1997, and spent three years as an F/A-18 Tactics Instructor with the Strike Fighter Weapons School at NAS Lemoore, CA.

His definition of adventure is a lot different than mine. Currently, his backcountry airplane is a Cessna Turbo 206 that is equipped to land on backcountry airstrips all over the west.  Another of his favorite backcountry jaunts, beside Utah, is the wilderness of Idaho.

Moving after lunch, we realized we had to get wet!  The Black Box Canyon is a narrow, sandstone canyon, and the waters of the San Rafael River carved and formed the canyon.  Water flows from wall to wall. Hikers get wet. We inched our way downward from the rock perch to the chilly waters. I scanned the surroundings for any possible way to avoid the water.  Nope! I eased into the muddy waters of the river and braced my feet for impact. I barely stuck the landing; water only rose to my waist. Hyperthermia is always a concern, and I tried my best to keep my upper body dry.


Jack and Nadim followed, and we established our rhythm. We cautiously stepped forward, trying to determine what our feet would touch while bracing for the feeling of not touching anything. We couldn’t see the bottom, which naturally made this water hike more difficult. We continued “blindly.” Never really knowing what or if our feet would touch.


The canyon walls towered above us hundreds of feet.   The Utah desert is a magical place. The water was calm, so I continued to look at this awe-inspiring environment.  The waters of this river had carved the canyon over thousands of years. Now, I waded through it.  Surreal.

Jack and Nadim lead the way, while I brought up the rear.  Nadim yelled, “I think this is a swimmer.” Sure enough. The canyon bottom dropped off, and we swam.  And, swam. And, we swam some more. I monitored my breathing and adjusted my stroke to swimming with a pack and rope on my back in the cold water.  I lost Jack and Nadim, but spotted them again around a corner. They continued swimming, so that meant I had a few more strokes to go. “Land Ho!” they yelled. I saw Jack and Nadim crawl their way out of the water.  All of us shook off like wet dogs.  Soon, we retrieved a dry layer from our packs.


We passed a few cottonwoods as we returned to the old mining road from a few hours earlier.  We hiked eastward this time and toward the plane. “I had never done anything like that,” said Jack.  It was a blast!”

“A good adventure?” I asked

“For sure” Jack responded.  I think Jack fulfilled his definition of adventure as we hiked in unison of pace and stride; soon the plane came into view.  I tossed my bag into the plane and climbed in.

“Ahh…guys, we can’t fly,”  Nadim said. Startled and confused, I turned my head to investigate.  Wheels? Mechanical? Nope. It was the weather. In the western skies, large cumulus clouds had formed and the wind speeds would likely have increased. Thunderclouds moved on the horizon.  The wind is what made Nadim nervous. “I like to play it safe. We might have to wait it out for a few hours or a day. But, I’ll get us back safely.” Nadim stated.


While we waited, we talked about Nadim’s former military days and Jack’s seventh grade year.  We exchanged simple and pleasant conversations protected by the red rock walls of Canyon Country. Nadim looked to the west and shouted, “Let’s go!”   He threw our chairs in the plane, pulled the wheel blocks, and started the engine. Jack and I buckled in while Nadim looked at the plane’s electronic screen, pushed buttons, and checked the audio.  “You guys ready?” Within minutes, the plane was speeding down the runway. Nadim pulled up, and the plane pointed skyward. He quickly turned to the west and flew right over Mexican Mountain.

We crossed the northern part of the San Rafael Swell and flew toward Price, Utah.  We flew in and around lightning. Nadim scanned the radar for clouds without lightning.  “The plane needs a wash.” We flew in and out of a few rain clouds, which cleaned the plane. Ten hours after we departed, we touched down at the Heber Valley Airport.  I grabbed my gear and glanced over my shoulder at sunlight hitting Mt. Timpanogos. What an extended adventure in a condensed amount of time.


You might be thinking that you don’t have access to a plane.  True. Most of us don’t. However, adventure comes in many different forms and definitions.  Whether you have a plane or not. In Utah, you can find and create adventure. You can define it. What’s your definition of adventure?  Who cares? Adventure on.

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