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La Garita welcomes pilots

Modified: Sunday, Jul 14th, 2013

Backcountry pilot Alec Seybold flies through smoky skies while looking down at the patchwork of crop circles last month during the first annual La Garita Creek Ranch fly in.

Courier staff writer

LA GARITA — Tempestuous wildfires wafting plumes of smoke were not enough to deter backcountry pilots from celebrating the Valley skies and its rural airstrips at the La Garita Creek Ranch first annual fly in last month.

On the evening of Thursday, June 21, the day the West Fork Fire doubled in size, the backcountry pilots touched down on the grass strip cutting across the ranch that has been closed to the public for seven years. Over the past few months, the Colorado backcountry pilots group, with the help of ranch managers Michael and Cloetta Spearman, had been preparing the site for the grand opening event, not anticipating most of the state would be engulfed in wildfire. With pilots coming from the Front Range, New Mexico and beyond, thoughts of staying grounded did pass, but curiosity and the chance to play in the Valley got the best of them.

“Colorado is burning, our plan for the perfect fly in went up in smoke, but we’re determined to have some good, safe fun and make the most of it,” said Matthew Schantz, a pilot from Parker who plays an active role in maintaining backcountry airstrips, before the fly in kicked off. “I don’t know what to expect at this point, and things can change at any moment.”

In the end, the pilots cooperated with the unpredictable skies and acts of nature, making the first annual fly in a most memorable experience; one they plan to do again and again.

The ranch, located 10 miles north of Del Norte, offers pilots a place to camp or a cabin, access to catered meals, the chance to trout fish on La Garita Creek and hike, climb or bike through the nearby Penitente Canyon Recreational Area, which has recently undergone a number of site improvements. On the ranch, there are several horseshoe pits and a volleyball court in addition to open space to walk and play. The surrounding area also provides a rich history. Both the Ute and the Anasazi Indian tribes used the grounds for summer camps and later John Fremont, the early 19th century explorer, followed in their footsteps.

Originally built in 1974 with the intention of becoming a place for hot air ballooning, the ranch was a classic western style guest resort up until a few years ago. At its peak, it accommodated 32 guests in a 14-room lodge and offered tennis courts, a hot tub, a sauna, a pool and game rooms. The numerous cabins nestled around cottonwood trees along the creek also hosted many guests.

The ranch’s airstrip is the second in the Valley the pilots have brought back to life as part of a recent movement to resurrect the romance of aviation through rural adventures. In March, the group held its second annual Dunes Swimming Pool fly in, and during the June celebration, they flew in for a visit, exciting the crowd with dusty landings after taking a few laps overhead.

Besides the Valley’s rural airstrips, the pilots also work to protect and improve the state’s 80 rural airstrips on public and private lands. The mission is twofold: ensure safe and reliable rural airstrips for emergency services and promote recreational aviation. In Colorado and many western states, recreational aviation offers the ability to go in and out of nature with minimal impact. The public is allowed to enter pubic lands by the conveyance of their choice, whether its kayak, horse, foot or aircraft.

For more information on backcountry aviation, visit www.flycolorado.org.

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