Air Mailman Keeps Idaho Backcountry in the Loop

Hometown Heroes, People
on July 15, 2001

To the people who live north of McCall, Idaho, the buzz of a single-engine Cessna rivals any band or orchestra. Isolated ranchers and small-town residents rush out to greet pilot Mike Dorris as if they were welcoming visiting royalty.

Dorris and his brother, Pat, have been delivering the mail to these outpost inhabitants every Monday and Thursday for more than two decades. Because heavy snows make the Salmon River backcountry impassable much of November into the following May, Dorris may be their only link to civilization for weeks at a time, delivering not just mail and supplies but a chance to chat and catch up on news.

Mike fills us in and carries our news back to others, says Janette Shaffer, who often shoos deer and elk off the runway at the McClain ranch for Dorris to land. And if we run out of something the day before, hell pick up our order in McCall.

Mike Dorris route starts with several airdrops. Then he flies into Warren, population 11. In good weather, the 126-mile route takes three hours. But fog and squalls can play havoc with planes too small for navigational instruments. High altitude (Warren is 5,992 feet high) is another hazard.

The air is lighter and doesnt give us much lift under the wings, says Dorris. Now and then, when the plane wont get airborne, Dorris has to shut it down before the end of the runway and taxi back to jettison weight.

After Warren, Dorris stops at the South Fork, McClain, and Yellow Jacket ranches. Some runways have doglegssharp turns that require precise maneuvering. Others are extremely short and uphill. Fresh snow is another culprit. The planes skis can fishtail and sink into the runway.

Sometimes it turns you every which way on a landing, says Dorris. Ive had a plane belly more than once and had one wing laying on the ground.

In Warren, at least half the town will help dig him out and then build a ramp in front of the planes skis, before packing down the runway with snowshoes. Sometimes he ends up spending the night with them. Its this kind of friendship that fuels his flying.

They are a special bunch of people who live back there. Ive grown up with most of them and know most of the old-timers, says Dorris, who, with Pat, also runs McCall Air Taxi, a private charter service.

Last December, Shaffer was particularly grateful for this service when her mother-in-law had a stroke. Tom (Shaffers husband) flew out to be with her, while I stayed with the animals, says Shaffer. Mike didnt want me to be home alone for Christmas, so he flew me out with my two dogs, my cat, and 10 chickens so we could all be together.

Mike Dorris learned to fly from his father, Bill, who was chief pilot for another mail service before starting McCall Air Taxi in 76. The planes had dual controls, and about my early teens, the stuff started to sink in, says Dorris.

He credits his gut instinct and the caution that comes with age for his good safety record. Hes also grown more selective about his passengers.

Dorris still hauls llamas for outfitters and transports wolves for a recovery program. But he draws the line at mountain lions after flying a pair of sedated orphaned cubs into a research center by himself.

That was a mistake, he says. I was fighting weather to get them to the Taylor ranch when I heard the male growling. When I got there, he was more groggy than we thought, but it sure didnt sound like it.

Occasionally, hes responded to emergencies when Life Flight was unavailable. We hauled out one person that was bleeding internally, says Dorris. It literally saved his life.

Most of the time Dorris simply goes about making peoples lives in the backcountry a little easier. Weve already made sacrifices to live out here, says Shaffer, and Mike and his brother make it so we dont have to sacrifice quite so much.