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Icy AdventuresIcy Adventures

Ultimate getaway for an eclectic group of friends

Ice fishermen, winter sports enthusiasts, and snowmobiles dart back and forth between the shore and ice shelters dotting northern Michigan’s Lake Mitchell and Lake Cadillac. Setting up over the shore, a Piper Super Cub approaches Lake Mitchell into the wind, using two ice shanties as runway edge markers. The 150-horsepower Cub touches down softly on its tundra tires in the three-point attitude, rolls along the ice, and then lifts off, headed to a frozen cove for another romp. A group of two dozen pilots from all over the country, of all skill levels and ages, have gathered at Cadillac’s Wexford County Airport for a weekend of skiplane flying adventures, despite one missing key ingredient—snow.
Icy Adventures

The group has been gathering twice a year for the past two decades at Northwoods Aviation to fly the fixed-base operator’s Piper J–3 Cub and Super Cub on skis in the winter and on floats in the summer. “It’s a bad habit of throwing two parties a year to fly airplanes on water of varying consistency,” explains Rick Durden. He’s a flight instructor, aviation attorney, and writer who started getting together with a few family members and friends and continued expanding the invite over the years to include a retired four-mission astronaut, a rocket scientist, airline pilots, a mountain flying expert, a police officer, doctors, and other lawyers, among others. These pilots have two things in common: They are all close friends of Durden or of someone else in the group and have a “love of adventurous aviation, something a little bit out of the ordinary,” Durden says, perched on the amphibious floats of a red-and-white Aviat Husky. “Some of my best friends in the world are here. And getting together with them through this is great; I just love it.”

Politics and religion are taboo for the weekend—bringing up anything remotely controversial is a sure way to get bounced off this exclusive invite. The pilots and their families reminisce and share stories about their children and parents, their work, and latest flying adventures—on the clock or off. “Half of it is true, you just have to figure out which half it is,” pilot and photographer Nigel Thompson quips about the flying tales.

Good flying, good friends, good food, good drinks, and bad jokes are the key ingredients each summer and winter, and maybe that’s why no one seems bothered by the lack of snow and bitter cold winds gusting to the mid-20s. Tucked inside a cozy 1930s-era restored Works Progress Administration lounge heated by a pellet stove, the pilots chat; snooze; munch on chili, chicken chowder, chips, brownies, and other sweets; and spoil Maverick, a yellow lab whose big brown eyes help nail his begging face.

  • Photography by Mike Fizer
  • Rick Durden, the mastermind behind this eclectic group that has been gathering in Cadillac, Michigan, twice a year for 20 years, comes up with a plan on the fly when skiplane weekend arrives sans snow.
  • Maverick waits patiently in hopes that Kyle Struck will share his snacks.
  • Nigel Thompson (red shirt) chats with friends while they watch from the warmth of the Northwoods Aviation hangar for the Super Cub to taxi in.
  • When friends get together to fly, food isn’t far behind. Karen DeRuiter makes sure the pilots stay warm and well-fed with hearty soups.
  • An airline pilot, flight instructors, a former corporate pilot, and a rocket scientist swap stories in the warmth of Northwoods Aviation’s restored 1930s-era Works Progress Administration lounge.
  • No snow? No problem for this Super Cub on tundra tires! Frozen Lake Mitchell makes a perfect place to touch down.

“Super Cub’s back,” Durden’s daughter Amelia exclaims periodically, breaking through a dozen side conversations to alert the pilots of their opportunity to be the next to fly. Amelia has grown up with the group, bringing friends for the weekend to go for a flight, and to play at the hotel or lake, from the time she was about 8 years old. “They’re all extended family,” says the 28-year-old, who came in from Iowa for the weekend. Her Uncle Tom, Tom Tann of Toledo, Ohio—who remembers feeding Amelia in her high chair—worked in the pit crew at the Indy 500 and instructed in Citation Xs at FlightSafety. “I’m here for the people,” says the 73-year-old, taking a break from sharing tales of the edge-of-the-seat flights he had throughout his professional career.

While Tann skips the flying, other pilots take turns bundling up to head out into the cold and the bright yellow-and-blue Super Cub. Durden lives in Idaho but always comes back to Cadillac to orchestrate the two weekends and provide free instruction, so his friends pay only $100 an hour for the airplane rental. The Super Cub, still on its 26-inch tundra tires because of the lack of snow, is perfect for landing on the rough frozen lakes.

David Gell, who has a Ph.D. in orbital mechanics, flies remote controlled airplanes most of the year while he works on getting back his medical certificate, so the weekend get-togethers with Durden in the summer and winter are his “semiannual aviation fix.” Gell was flight instructing during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan when he met Durden, who was working as a CFI while enrolled in the university’s law school. Gell had reached out to Durden and his wife in 2011 to invite them to watch the launch of one of the satellites he had worked on, and Durden in turn invited him to the weekend aviation gatherings. “We did the gray hair check afterward and neither Rick nor I had any more gray hair,” Gell says, deeming his flight and lake landings a success.

The Super Cub has a way of bringing a frozen smile to each of its occupants, regardless of their experience level. “It’s been a while since I’ve flown on tundra tires—I’ve still got it,” says Rob Ericson, whose ride these days is a CRJ 900.

After three trips around the pattern, Airbus A330 Captain Steven Crone exclaims, “That’s my fix! Back to the gate.”

Family physician and private pilot Dori Tamagne attended her first seaplane weekend just five days after earning her private pilot certificate. This skiplane weekend is her first, and she uses it to gather advice from more experienced pilots for a VFR cross-country she’s planning from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Wilmington, North Carolina, in the spring. But it doesn’t take her long to put away her planning materials and leave the comfortable recliner next to the pellet stove to head out to the Super Cub. Flying the taildragger with a control stick in high winds and landing on the icy lake was “a little terrifying and fun,” she says, eager to help her nonpilot husband, Dave, into the tandem-seat aircraft for a video flight. “It really is an adrenaline rush, isn’t it?”

On those high notes, after each of their last flights for the weekend, the pilots start heading home one by one, either to catch their airline flights out of Grand Rapids or to fire up their own airplanes. They’ve had their fix—not just their aviation fix from landing the Super Cub on a frozen lake, but their social fix with lighter hearts and spirits that can only come from building new memories over late nights of laughter, food, and fellowship with friends they often only see twice a year. “See you at seaplane?” one pilot inquires during the goodbyes, already looking forward to that next fix.AOPA

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Alyssa J. Miller

Alyssa J. Cobb

AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor
AOPA Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor Alyssa J. Cobb has worked at AOPA since 2004 and is an active flight instructor.

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