At sunrise, pilot Ray Arnold tucks a dozen orange mailbags into his Cessna 206, and climbs into the cockpit to begin his weekly postal route in central Idaho’s vast Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area.
“Besides the usual letters, bills, catalog orders and prescriptions, I’ve delivered everything from appliances to propane, a piano, a pig, chicks and llamas,” says Arnold, 76, who lives in Cascade, Idaho (pop. 939), where he owns Arnold Aviation and manages the municipal airport.
“I take dogs and cats to the vet or sick people to the doctor, too,” Arnold adds. “Some people in the backcountry have satellite phones and Internet, but they don’t always work, so I also relay messages.”
Arnold has navigated the remote mail route—the only aerial wilderness route in the contiguous United States—since his flight service landed a contract with the U.S. Postal Service in 1975.
When he’s flying the three-hour route, Arnold departs by 7 a.m., mindful of the weather and occupational hazards: turbulent mountain winds and occasional wildlife on the short dirt, grass or snow-covered airstrips carved into the forest or the narrow canyons along the Salmon and Middle Fork of the Salmon rivers.
In 2011, Arnold and employee Walt Smith, 35, delivered 5,043 pounds of mail, flying more than 17,100 miles to secluded ranches, outfitter lodges and a University of Idaho research station in the 2.4-million-acre wilderness area, a destination for anglers, hikers, hunters and whitewater enthusiasts.
“Getting mail in the backcountry is like Christmas” in the summertime for the 100 people at 21 stops served every Wednesday or Thursday between June and December, says Carol Arnold, 75, office manager and Arnold’s ex-wife.
During winter, Arnold lands each Wednesday on 10 snow-packed runways, outfitting his plane with skis if conditions require them.
At Shepp Ranch on the Salmon River, managers Mike and Lynn Demerse welcome the roar of Arnold’s aircraft engine. “Hardly a week goes by without Ray delivering a critical part to maintain boats, appliances and our lodging,” says Mike, 63, who has operated the guest ranch since 1975.
His wife, Lynn, 54, adds, “It’s beautiful to live here, but also vital to have physical contact with the outside world, either a letter, greeting card or care package.”
Without Arnold, getting the mail would be an arduous trek for Dave and Chris Dewey, who manage Pistol Creek Ranch on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
“There are no roads to the ranch, and motorized vehicles are prohibited in a wilderness area,” says Chris Dewey, 56. “We’d have to travel 20 miles by foot to the nearest vehicle, then drive another 30 miles to the nearest post office.”
In 2009, the Postal Service considered eliminating the 200-mile airmail route to save money, but renewed Arnold’s contract after an outcry from backcountry residents who depend on the weekly deliveries and thank their carrier with hugs and homemade pastries.
“I keep doing this because of the people,” Arnold says. “After all these years, we’re like family.”