Flying Outside the Lines
October 4th, 2012 by Elisabeth Kramer

Floatplaning provides a freer form of flying for pilot Stephen Ruff

With more than 30 years of experience, pilot Stephen Ruff has flown as far north as the Arctic Circle and as far south as Mexico. He hopes to someday expand his business by adding another plane and pilot.

With more than 30 years of experience, pilot Stephen Ruff has flown as far north as the Arctic Circle and as far south as Mexico. He hopes to someday expand his business by adding another plane and pilot.

A half-mile off the end of Upper Priest Lake, an old-growth cedar grove harbors trees 1,000 years old. Some, now 10 feet in diameter, sprouted during the height of the Mayan Empire; others came later, as the Vikings hung up their sails.

All shelter an oasis of ferns that grows parallel to a tan wasteland of typical Idaho scrub.

It is here, beneath the weight of centuries, that pilot Stephen Ruff most likes to fly.

In his more than 7,000 hours of flight time, Stephen has piloted countless trips north into the Arctic Circle and thousands of miles south into Mexico. He has cruised over Montana’s Bull River and braved storms in the Yukon Territory.

Of all those places, Upper Priest Lake is one of his favorites to visit.

“We can land and taxi to this gorgeous sandy beach,” he says. “We tie the plane up to a tree and take a group of people in there hiking. It’s very small, but it’s a nice little place.”

The flight to the lake is a short one from Stephen’s home base in North Idaho. Docked at Dover Bay Resort Marina, Stephen’s Cessna 206 holds five passengers and is the sole plane of the Sandpoint Seaplane Service. Dubbed “Julie Julie” for the double “j” in its registration number, the plane operates on wheels in the winter and on floats in the summer.

Typically, summer is the service’s busiest season. This year though “the phone is ringing,” Stephen says business has been slow.

“It’s hard right now with this economy to be hopeful about something down the road,” he says. “It’s more about doing the best job we can, to give the people who come onto our service the best time we can. We’re just taking it a year at a time.”

When Stephen began dreaming of flight at age 15, his top destinations featured humid jungles more than the evergreen hills surrounding Dover Marina.

“Originally, I wanted to be one of those missionary bush pilots,” he says. “Back in that day you had to have about nine years of college to do it and I just couldn’t put myself through that.”

Instead, Stephen opted for a commercial pilot’s license and aircraft mechanic certification before heading north to Alaska.

“We were 180 miles from a gallon of milk,” he says of life in the Alaskan village of Bettles. “It was tough, but we had a lot of flying so we were very, very busy, which was good to keep the lights on.”

As their family grew, Stephen and his wife, Darene, opted for a home closer to convenience. They left behind Alaska’s busy but frozen runways for the more forgiving fields of Middle America, where the couple raised their five sons on a Midwestern farm.

But Stephen missed float flying in his new landlocked home so he began researching spots in the lower 48 where he might open up shop—a difficult task because of federal regulation that limits the number of locations open to float planes.

Eventually, he decided on North Idaho, an attractive option, Stephen says, because the state still has “a lot of open water,” while offering his family “a community life.”

Since the Ruff family arrived in Idaho nine years ago, most Sandpoint Seaplane trips have catered to tourists interested in Lake Pend Oreille or nature-lovers seeking adventure out in Montana. Stephen offers tours lasting 20 to 45 minutes as well as hourly charter rates, which he says is the best deal.

Depending on the flight, he will pick up clients at private docks, but warns them they will have to help turn the plane around for takeoff.

It is landing, however, that proves trickiest when handling a float plane. It is also the part Stephen says differs most from piloting a wheeled aircraft.

“There are no breaks, so you’re kind of like a boat, but you don’t have a reversible prop to stop you,” says Stephen, who in 36 years of flying has never had an accident. “You have to use very excellent judgment when you pull up to different places. The plane is mobile until it’s tied.”

Despite the hazards, Stephen says a seaplane’s fluidity and flexibility are what first attracted him to float flying and remain his favorite parts of being a pilot.

“I love the feeling of float flying,” he says. “To me, it’s one of the last vestiges of freedom and liberty. You have the freedom to have your own decisions on whether a lake or a stream is or isn’t a good place to land and takeoff. You’re not just always reading off of a map. You get to go explore.”