Yes, I am loving me some drones about right now …
This past spring I figured it was time to get into the drone world, especially since we had a new project on our slate that seemed to demand that exact type of footage. Our little documentary, Mt. Shasta Spirit, which at this point I’m not sure is a feature (at least more than 40 or 50 minutes), or a short (less than that), has been a long time coming. Originally I wanted to shoot this right after Dreams Awake, to make it available as a companion piece, but obviously that didn’t happen.
Well, I finally got around to it, and got that drone, a DJI Phantom 4, which came highly recommended. For those of you who don’t know, we first used it on our Inner Sonic Key project this summer in Texas. You can check that out here — Filming On Location.
Anyway, I started shooting some footage on Mt. Shasta in late summer and into the fall. I hiked to a number of spots on the mountain to get as much of a variety of shots as I could. Flying, shooting, and playing with the drone was amazing! And the images were great, as it has a 4K camera. My only issue is that the stock lens is a fixed focal length lens, but hey you can’t have everything, or can you? Yup, recently learned you can put on some other different sized lenses. Yeah, I need to check into that.
Okay, enough of the setup and back to my main story here. In mid September I was shooting on the north side of the mountain, near the Bolam Creek trail head. I drove my vehicle as far as I could on the rough Forest Service road, and then carried my backpack with the drone and all needed accessories to the trail head. The creek was running pretty good, as it had been raining a fair amount lately. I fired up the drone, shot her up as high as I could, and then zoomed her towards the mountain. With my remote control and iPad screen I could see we were acquiring some great footage over the next couple hours.
As I piloted the drone over a hill and out of sight, I suddenly lost the signal. The signal came and went, as I moved up the creek bank, trying to reestablish a strong connection. Then I got a signal that said the drone battery was running low. Now I knew if I didn’t find it quick, it would crash. And no telling how bad that could be, as I had left it at its maximum altitude. Oh hell, a pang in my solar plexus punched me. Crap …
By now it was almost 4 p.m. and I was feeling the time constraint. And I didn’t have an exact location, only a general one. So I headed in that direction, hoping I could see it in the air. But the creek was really flowing and I did have to cross it. I hurried up the bank, found a fairly decent spot, and jumped across. I didn’t quite make the other bank, got wet, but I was close enough to not get swept away by the current.
As I sat on the bank to rest a bit, I heard a loud noise in the heavy manzanita growth. And then a growl. Having had some experience with bears the last few years, I was pretty sure it had to be a bear. I flung myself behind a big rock near the bank to hopefully get out of its view and more importantly, not be upwind from its acute sense of smell. I sat there quietly as I heard it move parallel from me, and actually head in the general direction I was heading for the drone. Also, no one, not even my wife knew exactly where I was on the mountain. And since I was off the beaten path in the wilderness, if anything drastic happened to me, no one who ever find me or my remains (if ever) until probably later spring. Discretion was the better apart of valor here. Double crap …
I waited it out as I watched the setting sun get very low, with probably just enough time to get back to the car. Damn, I really didn’t want to leave the drone here in the wilderness, and also not knowing how bad it would crack up or where that bear was. I vowed to come back and get it early the next day. I got back to the car and drove back home, really feeling bad about leaving it out there and realizing I had grown somewhat attached to it. I had even given it a name, Rocket Man.
Except … the next day the weather really got bad, and there was no way I could get back up there. Same for a couple more days, and then I had to leave to go down south to the L.A. area to take care of some business. I was definitely not happy with how this situation had developed. I was worried I wouldn’t make it back up the mountain until winter set in for good and made it virtually impassable in that area. And then it would probably be late spring before I could get to the spot. And who knows what kind of shape it would be in after all the winter storms. Not good, for sure. Damn it!
When I came back up from down south about five weeks later in late October, there was a fair amount of snow on the mountain. But that first Friday back I saw a window in the weather to try and go retrieve it. I asked my wife if she wanted to join me, her obviously not knowing what she was getting into. I think she figured this would just be a nice little afternoon drive and hike. It turned out to be much more. I brought my remote controller and iPad, hoping I could get a fix on its last location, as well as some firepower in case we met unfriendly wild animals. Especially ones foraging for their last hibernation fuel before their long winter sleep. I didn’t intend for us to be on that menu. I also brought a long telescoping tree pruner with lots of rope, because the very last signal I got had shown a camera image of it hooked up in a tree. I figured in case it was still there I would need a tool like that to have any chance at it.
We got to the creek by early afternoon, and luckily it was dry. So we didn’t have to contend with that. However in the moist creek bed were lots of fresh animal tracks, from both cat and bear. I figured I would have to be on the lookout, as maybe they were drawn to the dry creek since there were some small puddles.
Luckily the remote controller had saved a decent GPS location from the last drone transmission, so we traveled along the creek bed until it looked like we had to turn left (to the east) and go about 75 meters. So yeah, we were in the ballpark! Except … when we turned around that last bend in the creek, there was a vertical rock wall over 100 feet up a big hill right where we needed to go. No way we could get up that. Only way was to back track back down the creek bed, and than angle off to the right (still east) on more level ground. But we still had to slowly climb up that hill, just from the back way.
And just to let you know, there were no trails anywhere. This was wild thick woods, with manzanita and other ground brush so heavy it was difficult to get through, oftentimes up to our waist or more. We very gradually pushed ourselves up that hill, getting closer and closer to that last signal spot. By the time I got to within 5 meters of it, my right pant leg was shredded. The brush had ripped it and exposed about half my leg. And with each step it seemed I was cutting myself more. I tried wrapping it up, but since I was carrying so much I couldn’t keep that secure, Oh well, I just had to rough it and suck it up. Luckily I was only bleeding a bit, and nothing was deep. And to try and outdo me my wife had also shredded one of her pant legs. So between us we had one good pair of pants.
Anyway, I looked around, but didn’t see the drone anywhere, even though the GPS info said we were very close (less than 5 meters). I saw a downed tree and decided to hop up on it for a better view. I did so, scoured the area for a full 360 degrees, but nothing. Hell, we were tired, cold, and frustrated, and to not find the drone just seemed unacceptable. Just as I was about ready to throw in the towel and started to climb off that log, I saw a little piece of white inside a thick bush about 25 feet away. Since my wife was closer to that spot than me I had her investigate …
And whoola! … she grabbed a good hold of it, as the bush had a tight grip on it, and raised it up into the air. Rocket Man! We were both screaming and whooping it up. Wow, we had actually found it, after all that! What a relief … mission accomplished.
Whew, and now I can continue shooting on the mountain (when the weather allows), albeit with a little closer rein on the drone controls.
Author: Jerry Alden Deal
Writer – Director – Producer of Way To Go Media, LLC.
Over the past thirty years Jerry has been hired numerous times to develop and write screenplays for other production companies. During that same period several of his spec scripts were also optioned. ‘Dreams Awake’ was Jerry’s feature directorial debut. He has several other projects in various stages of development. One of which, the feature documentary ‘The Inner Sonic Key’ is currently in post-production.