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Upload 11 August 2011

Extracts from a diary:

by Simon Barber

Amelia, Lady Allworthy (neé Amelia Bourne-Phipps) & her friends
(educated adventuresses all, and warrior priestesses, some)
encounter the world after Songmark Academy -- beginning July 1937.

Storm Birds
by Simon Barber

Friday July 23rd, 1937

Off again! A jolly good night’s sleep in the fresh air of the hillsides was quite undisturbed. Still, with a “coincidence” of having an infantry squad reinforced with shamans just happening to be next door, we had nothing to worry about. Indeed, last night before turning in I had an hour’s chat with Jumping Salmon, one of the caribou gentlemen. There is nothing particularly secret about most of our rituals, being what Miss Cabot called “a neat trick if you can do it” and fairly useless to observe unless one can. I need a lot of practice still. I tried the “seeing through fires” to look at the future, though not at our own. Saimmi has advised us that we are too close to our own paths to see them clearly.

I am sure Saimmi and the other proper Priestesses are already looking at what the fates have in store for Spontoon – so I tried to see another place we have seen all too often already, Krupmark Island. My skills do not seem to be up to it, though I did not exactly draw a blank. I had a fleeting vision that somehow seemed to be many years off, of them hosting a sporting event. At least, there was a banked motor racing track like Brooklands though smaller, with something like combined hockey on the inside track, roller skating and motor-bicycle polo on the outer track all engaging in a bloody cavalry style battle as they chased a steel bowling ball cheered on by a most rowdy crowd. Most baffling.

At least we were up bright and early; by six we were all packed and ready to go. A Songmark girl used to living out of a rucksack takes little time to make her toilette. The Synod had arranged an unmarked van awaiting us with driver at the bottom of the hill, and seemed very glad to see us on our way. One wonders if as well as fire, police and ambulance they will someday have emergency shamanic vehicles careering through the streets with bull-roarers hooting in place of sirens and rotating dream-catchers on top rather than flashing lights. What the future holds for a nation combining shamanism and industry should be interesting – perhaps rather than prospecting for oil in the usual way they will build lodges to contact Petroleum Spirits.

An hour of checking the Storm Bird over (it had come to no harm, and the seals Helen had put on the doors were intact) and we were radioing the harbourmaster for clearance. I heard him telling two commercial flights and even a R.I.N.S. patrol aircraft to hold until we were on the way. We cannot complain about quality service in these parts! If they are so keen to clear the way for our landing on a return trip may be another story. Helen muttered about the chances of a timber carrier “unfortunately” spilling logs onto the seaplane way just as we would be touching down.

It was a great relief to feel the hull go up on the step, then with Maria as co-pilot we pulled the Storm Bird off the harbour waters and up the long sound Sealth City is built around. Helen was worrying that as soon as we are out of sight of habitation we should change course to avoid a “tragic misunderstanding” with a flight of R.I.N.S. interceptors she believes are likely to be on our tail. I argued that we have a flight plan and ought to stick to it – the locals are suspicious enough of us already without giving them more cause for alarm.

Actually, our flight plan is already as fast a way out of Rain Island as we could manage. After half an hour the head of the fjord passed under our port wingtip, then it was a matter of following the valley straight Eastwards heading for the Chilapota Pass. Rain Island is a long but fairly narrow country, and at a hundred and sixty knots heading Eastwards it was not long before friendly Canadian territory was in sight. Theoretical sight at least, as the border is only marked by occasional cairns. Anyone can get in or out of Rain Island, though the border we crossed is with a lot of very undeveloped Canadian territory, and one could starve before finding any settlement.

After an hour I handed control to Maria and moved back to where the map was unrolled on the bed. By rolling up and stowing the mattress it makes a rather good chart table with plenty of room on three sides of it, though one has to kneel to use it.

Our problem on this route is having a flying boat and not an amphibian – with no wheels we are crossing the continent at almost its widest point, heading for Boston. Heading this far North puts us into territories rather sparsely settled, but if we are to find enough lakes and navigable rivers we hardly have much choice. The main commercial routes across the continent are now well equipped with navigation aids and great chains of searchlights marking the Great Plains every hundred miles or so like aerial lighthouses for the mail and passenger planes. Up here we are very much on our own, but better that way than trying to find a navigable piece of water to land on in Kansas in the middle of Summer! The route pencilled in takes us rather a zigzag across the So-so Lakes, the Fair Lakes and the northernmost of the Great Lakes, all rather dependent on the Cant’s range and availability of aviation spirit. Still, what with Miss Cabot’s trouble with the law (I should say Molly’s, but the FBI would not appreciate the difference) the logical seaplane route across near Panama and hugging the American coast is out.

Once over the Chilapota Pass, the navigation became trickier as we were confronted with the main range of the Rockies. Someday advanced Flash-Gordon-type flying boats may cruise over at forty thousand feet and as fast as maybe four hundred miles an hour. In the Cant we have to pick our way around the major peaks, though at least we are glad not to be in a Dornier X which would have been straining to get over the passes on ground-effect. It began to get very chilly in the cabin as we passed fifteen thousand feet, and still saw great white walls and peaks towering above us in the distance. For most of the day we threaded between the higher peaks.

The forecast had been for steady tail-winds that had speeded us away from the coast, but as ever mountains make their own weather and by two o’clock we were being buffeted severely in the turbulent air streaming off the high ridges behind us. Worse, a look at the wing edge showed we were starting to pick up icing. The new DC-3s have electrical heating on the leading edges and air intakes, but the Cant is designed more for the balmy Adriatic. Getting higher was hardly safe without oxygen, and indeed the icing would probably get worse.

Although our Aleutian trip was severe enough as it was, at least we did not have to do any flying through that climate. It is something to write to our Tutors about (Tillamook in mid-Winter might be near enough and chilly enough) as we have not had much practical experience at ice hazards. But we know the principles – when Maria called back that we were getting a half inch of ice we knew we could only go down in search of warmer air. Looking at the snowy passes below us, that hardly looked promising. The extra weight was not such a problem but the icing was uneven and throwing out turbulence over the rest of the wing, making the whole aircraft vibrate alarmingly.

Fortunately we were already in sight of one of the major passes, the Nahoraho South Pass at twelve thousand feet. I scrambled back into the co-pilot seat as Maria put us into a shallow dive calculated to clear it by two hundred feet. We were very glad not to be in a Dornier X. The pass was narrow and jagged, with great towers of rock standing up from the ridges all around it (“gendarmes” they are called in Alpine climbing, probably because they are tall, unbending and very hard to get around) and there we almost came unstuck.

It is just as well Maria had not planned to clear the top by only a hundred feet. Without warning we were grabbed in severe turbulence and thrown into a downdraft that had the chart and everything unsecured (which did not include us) hitting the cabin ceiling. There was no time for Maria to do anything but throw open all the throttles – the controls were of little use in air that was dropping all around us.

We missed the top of the pass by about fifty feet, and were still in the downdraft on the far side – fortunately the ground was dropping away steeper than our dive. I think my tail must have been bottled out like a chimney-sweep’s brush! A minute later we could breathe again as the Cant was high above a broad valley with a braided stream winding two thousand feet below us amongst dark pine woods. There was not as much as a log cabin or Indian tepee to be seen – not even a thread of smoke rising through the trees from some hunter’s fire. Definitely an empty landscape and not one to look for a landing site in, even if we had wheels and a landing run as short as my dear Flying Flea. The rivers were one mass of white water from snow melt, and any flying boat going down there would stay there.

The only problem was that keeping low in the warm air forced us to fly up the valley, which was twenty degrees off our intended course and trending still further Northwards. Helen and Miss Cabot were busy with the big chart, while I had a map table on my lap spotting landmarks – it would never do to get lost out here.

In an hour we were still heading up the same valley, which shows the scale of this landscape and still not a sign of settlement. Fortunately the ice was mostly gone off the wing edge, leaving us a few hundred pounds lighter plus the weight of fuel burned. Just as well, as ahead of us loomed another twelve thousand foot pass, with little option but to go over it.

All being equal we might have spiralled up in a leisurely climb, but above icing height we knew we would run into trouble again by the minute. I took the stick and called for Miss Cabot to drain our shower tank – if we had to force-land down there drinking water would be the last of our problems. Not that five gallons made a huge difference to the Storm Bird, but we have certainly learned by now that every little helps. I pushed the throttles forward and the Alfa Romeo engines responded bravely, our speed picking up to a hundred and eighty knots as we started a “run-up” to the pass. Then it was a gentle haul back on the stick, watching the altimeter, the air speed, the engine revs and temperature and the approaching mountainside – as well as Helen calling out the first signs of icing returning. Oh for a few strands of heater wire on our leading edges and engine inlets! The air speed indicator flickered wildly and dropped to zero, but we were expecting that and knew it was ice blocking its pitot tube. Still, it meant back to “seat of the pants” flying and in the thickening mists that was something of a strain.

Another advantage with a spiral climb well clear of the ridge would be making it easier to go round for another attempt if we found the pass higher than expected. With a rush straight at it, we were committed, and turning the Storm Bird 180 degrees with some rock wall looming out if the mists ahead was not something I wanted to try. But our luck was in, and with three engines roaring at full throttle we cleared Lipanooka Pass by two hundred feet and plunged down the far side – straight into dense freezing fog. It was the kind of fog one could hardly see the streetlights across the road in, let alone navigate.

We have done “Blind flying” before, but always with working instruments, and around Spontoon one is not short of water to touch down on in emergency. Without an air speed indicator we were doubly blind, and the map is rather large-scale for precise navigation. Worse, the icing was returning and our estimate of our position was getting further out by the minute. According to the map we were over the headwaters of the Great Bear River, now draining East towards the very distant Hudson’s Bay – and there were lakes somewhere below if we could find them.

In half an hour, I decided we had better try considering we had two hours of daylight. Throttling back, I started to feel my way down with Helen and Miss Cabot straining their eyes peering through for any sign of solid ground. Without an air speed indicator I had to rely on the sound of the air outside, though we must have been gaining fifty pounds of ice a minute and the weight of the Storm Bird was changing all the time. It made for nervous handling.

At half past four, a rock flashed by in the fog just under the port wingtip – I turned a degree to starboard and we started to drop out of the cloud with about four hundred feet of clear air down to the muskeg swamp. I swung down to the river and started to look for lakes – the first one was too small, and the second had jagged rocks just visible under the surface. The third one looked promising, so I turned and flew low and slow over it while Miss Cabot, Maria and Helen scanned it for rocks and floating tree trunks. Although it is full Summer and far North, with the fog and the shadow of the high mountains the light was fading rapidly and as soon as I could come into the wind I put the float keels on the water. The Storm Bird has twin water rudders that can be spread full lock left and right to act as brakes, and as soon as we came down off the step I slammed them open with visions of just-submerged logs lurking in wait a hundred yards ahead.

Helen has told me the common phrase “hitting a snag” used to have a very specific meaning, a snag being a jammed tree trunk sticking up from the bottom of the Mississippi that paddle-steamers could have their bottoms ripped clean open by. Happily there were none on this lake, and as I cut the two outer engines we drifted in towards the only sandy beach in sight with the centre engine just turning over to give us steerage speed. The keel grated into the shallow beach, Miss Cabot jumped ashore with the anchoring screws and painter, and as soon as she indicated we were held fast I switched off and shut down. It was suddenly very quiet.

The lake was about five hundred yards long, though at its inlet it was very shallow leaving us about four hundred and fifty yards takeoff run. Not very much to play with. But that was tomorrow’s problem, we all agreed, and with the Storm Bird secure we took a look around the area.

Northern Canada is not exactly Casino Island for amenities, and our view was about a mile of pine forest all round fading into the mist with a solid cap of cloud above. It was not freezing down on the lake, but anyone dressed in Spontoonie costume would soon be shivering. One amenity it had was a good supply of firewood tangled up in the rocks, evidently left high and (fairly) dry by the spring thaw floods. Evidently nobody has been past to use it this year; though we all searched there was no sign of a trail except for faint wild animal tracks. Of course, in the Pulp comics this is prime real estate for Secret Lairs, and one almost expects to see the cliff side slide away revealing sinister indoor air bases and such. If there were any such, they kept very quiet for our visit.

Firewood gathered and a good blaze warming us on the beach fifty yards downwind of the aircraft, we put up the two-place tent and hauled supplies out for the evening. Our first proper wilderness landing! True, we were a hundred and ten miles off course with the low-level route we had to thread between the mountains, but according to the map we are still well within range of Three Claws, the trading settlement on Lake Minnehaweetonka where we hope to find fuel. Exactly which lake we are on is problematical; on the scale of chart we have it scarcely shows up. We are in the right valley at least.

A cheery reflector fire and an opened can apiece of the Rain Island rations we picked up in Sealth City heated in the embers quite cheered us all. The Rain Island Military Syndicate seem to have gone into full production of the range of “one meal cans” we were the gourmet critics for back at Songmark. The salmon and potatoes was very fine – according to the label Rain Island are mass-producing their rations for export, and indeed there are gaps on the label proclaiming “Imported into [ ] by [ ]” which presumably will be filled in by business-furs such as Lars as part of military supply deals. He is into profitable trading; weapons pay well but if there is money to be made in rations as well as munitions, rations will be on his shelves on Krupmark Island.

Miss Cabot and Maria stuck to the “Three Sisters” vegetable stew of beans, maize and pumpkin. It is odd how small the world is in some ways. Looking at those labels they contain two percent seaweed powder, which may well have been harvested on the Penningtons’ old underwater plantation. When we use up our few days’ supply it will be one more link gone to Spontoon, till we return and see how things have turned out. Miss Nuala Rachorshka is looking after them, and promised to send them suitable gentlemen “courting” if they wish.

After a day in the pilot’s seat I suggested some exercise to get the kinks out of my spine and tail. A vigorous self-defence practice followed, with the sandy beach proving an adequate landing-ground as we threw and grappled each other around the lakeside. As I hit the ground somewhat hard I felt the fact driven home that in a month or two, I will really have to stop doing this. Expectant Spontoonie girls are famous for going out in the fields for a day’s work and coming home with the new kitten and without fuss, but that work does not involve getting bounced off the landscape.

Although there was no sun and so technically no sunset, Helen and I chanted the Sunset Song as if we were on Main Island. It may be the first time these lands have heard it. At least there were no vengeful local spirits boiling out of the lake incensed at our presumption. Indeed, I used one of the rituals Saimmi taught us and checked if anything of the sort was around – but there was nothing but echoed and deep-buried sounds from the hills around.

Maria speculated after hearing us that some day if the science fiction films come true, there will be space flying-boats touching down on Mars – the canals are surely wide enough as they are visible from Earth. Any Catholics on the trip will be hard-pressed knowing when to celebrate Easter, with a much longer year and two moons in the skies. No doubt some Jesuit mathematician will have a notable career working it all out.

A quite cheerful evening, all told. Helen got the tent along with Miss Cabot – as usual she says she does not mind hard ground as long as it stays still. I found the gentle swaying of the Storm Bird on the lake a perfect lullaby – by the time the last of the light faded I was already fast asleep.


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