Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Departure From Controlled Flight

'Departure From Controlled Flight' is the dry aviation term used to describe loss of control of one's flying machine.

Two days ago, in Nevada, I made a takeoff run towards the edge of a 600-foot bluff. This was a zero-wind forward inflation, not the best way to take off, but I'd just completed a successful flight and was feeling confident. However, while checking out the takeoff track, I had worried it was a little short, and that if I didn't have enough speed at the edge, I'd drop and smash into the rocks on the terrace ten feet below. I'd put my fists on my waist, thought, taken a deep breath, filed away the the worry and made my takeoff run.

Not enough speed; the wing inflated on my run but was just shy of giving lift when I went over the edge;
I slamed into the boulders;
I pitched headfirst--a certain departure from controlled flight--and my wing flopped and then surged ahead;
I had no thought except that if i didn't recover in the next instant I would curl up in a crash position;
I went over the edge just in time, my boots swung below me, I applied a bit of brake to stop the wing surge;
The wing popped into shape;
I glided away from the bluff and down to a safe landing a few minutes later.

Now I'm in crutches with a severe sprain / strain / bruising to all the muscles of the left foot. I will be on crutches for at least the next few weeks if not a month or more. I have not yet learned how to carry a cup of coffee while hobbling with crutches.

No Alaska this year--too tight, timewise; but I have two books to write (and a third to edit), and it looks like I'll be in a seated position for some time.

Above, a frame from my helmet camera, a moment before impact; I'm a few inches above the ground, speeding along about 25mph, and about to impact the rocks; below, a strange and fun collage of images from my helmet camera, stitched together to give a general impression of flying in this beautiful desert environment (click for enlargement).

Look at those brambly, hardy shrubs! Look at those lakes of sand! See that open sky! What wonders there are in each of those blue-black boulders, older than aomebas!

Mery Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In the Land of the Frost Giants

Thinking of Iceland again, recently, for a few reasons. Will I split the narrative out into several chapters of a larger book? Will I condense the whole tale into a single book chapter or magazine article? Will I rewrite the entire thing, knowing so much more than I did when I drafted it out, five years ago?

A fragment that invokes good memories for me, describing life in perpetual fog and mist, day after day, 40 miles into the ice cap.

In the mist, I saw four classes of things -- things I wanted to see; things I definitely did not want to see; things simply inexplicable; and a very few real things.

I saw faint shapes which I hopefully attributed to be landmarks of some sort, landmarks I'd expected to see and hoped to see as confirmation that I was actually moving forward. There, that must be the Haabunga Ice Dome! But, no; simply a billow of snow ambling across the ice cap, like a tumbling sagebrush. There, now that grayish blob must the the end of this hill I'm climbing! No; just a shadow cast by the cold moon across a low, fast-moving cloud, and the slope did not level off. Finally! The Grimsvotn Steam Cauldron, maybe two miles ahead! No; a few steps along the dark, expansive oval is just a small depression ten feet wide. Lights? No, Cameron; just a snowflake which has glittered, particularly brightly, for an instant in your headlamp beam. Crevasses, dead ahead! No. The broad smear of grey turns out to be sastrugi, a low ridge of snow sculpted by the wind...Rocks! What are rocks doing here? But they're not rocks...illusions, again, this time I find no explanation for what appeared to be a pile of dark boulders...I arrive at the point where they seemed to be and there is nothing but snow.

The strangest illusion was that of an enormous pair of legs, knees in the clouds, striding across the ice cap ahead of me. I stopped in my tracks and dropped my jaw. The mirage lasted only lasted a moment, but was distinct...I watched as the gargantuan legs took one, and then two giant steps, a mile at a stride, right across my path, then faded into the gloom! Perhaps it was a hallucination...or perhaps it was the Frost Giant Ymir, a primordial character of the Norse mythos, up from Hell to inspect the ice cap. Ymir, the Icelanders say--and have said, and sung, and murmured in their warm sod huts for a thousand years--was formed early in the universe. He arose from a mist liberated by the melting of ice in Hell by a blast of baking air from the burning hot region of Muspell. As Ymir aged, his body spawned the chaotic Frost Giants. In Odin’s quest to understand and control the Cosmos, he killed Ymir, and the Frost Giants drowned in the torrent of giant’s blood. Ymir’s body dissembled, forming the Earth. As a human being, my relation to Ymir was intimate: humans were the maggots that squirmed through Ymir’s flesh. So it was a sort of recursion; it was my own squirming thoughts that brought Ymir back to the ice, in the vision of enormous striding legs.

I smiled; blinked; shook my head; scraped ice from my goggles; looked down at my compass, and continued my march.

I found that the only way to combat the illusions was to force myself to fear nothing and to expect nothing; to simply exist. This reduced my universe to a small bubble of perception, a small bubble of consciousness. Behind, only memories; ahead, only vague expectations. I need only think of here, now, this moment, the next step converted from the future to the present in an endless loop.

Only a few times did I see real phenomena.

One night it was cold and clear, the best conditions for pulling on ice. The stars did not shine, they burned white, and they did not glimmer but blazed evenly, as though Earth's wavering atmosphere had been ripped away by some terrible cosmic catastrophe. I leaned back against the rigid sledhut traces and gazed straight up. Ice encrusted on my mask cracked away, and small chips trickled down my neck. I shivered and stared out at the universe. I may as well have been suspended in the inert depths of interstellar space. I felt far from the warmth of any star. The contrast between the blackness of empty space and the blazing stars was stark. In the black voids there was only distance, only emptiness. The punctuations of starlight were absolutely still. The void was not disheartening. It reminded me of the value of any spark of warmth, and life.

My mind reeled, first with abstractions, then facts, then further abstractions on distances, geometry, and vague concepts of time and space which I have yet to master. My thoughts spanned and closed gaps, leapt others. Soon I stood with a blank mind. I was a single spark of life staring into the the enormity of the cosmos. I realized that I was not staring out at any one thing. I was of course a speck of self-aware cosmos, contemplating itself. The enormity and improbability of all of it were overwhelming. I breathed deeply of the supercooled air, and moved on.

Later, a fountain of amber light washed across the sky like spilled liquid, stopping me in my tracks. Aurora! I said out loud, as a gout of flaming red burst above and left and then faded almost immediately. Then an amber swath seemed to waver like an enormous tapestry fluttering in slow motion at an impossible distance. It, too, faded, replaced by dim green columns illuminated from within, their infinitely-distant tops tilting towards one another. For half an hour I stood transfixed as my sweat crystallized inside my shell suit, and I tried to commit the fantastic images to memory. And, as always, the cold finally convinced me, nudged me, to move along.

Another real phenomenon I saw was the icy expanse I was travelling across. For brief moments the mist and cloud would part, and I would be granted a view of the starlit snowscape, seeming to stretch out from my position infinitely in all directions. It was ruffled, like a windblown lake, but stopped in motion, and here and there a grain of snow gleamed star-white. But cloud and mist always returned, speeding in to blur and then obliterate. The mist was wet, chilling my lungs and glazing my clothes with a cracking armor of ice.

I kept marching, heading for the Grimsvotn Ice Cauldron. I approached it around 3am on the 22nd of December, having traveled since 7pm the night before. It was only an eight-hour day, but the last two miles were an interminable steeper slope that took everything I had and ground me down to a nub. When I reached the top of the slope I dropped to my knees, gasping in the snow. I looked East. The mist had lifted somewhat, and an icy plain fell away before me towards the cauldron.

Vapor billowed up from the volcanic vents under the ice then rose straight into the supercooled air and froze, forming a mile-high column of crystals that glittered in the moonlight, a natural wonder of limitless value.

(c) 2009 Cameron McPherson Smith

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Up There

Big winds overnight, with elm pieces clattering down from the sky. This morning, out past the city, you can see far enough to see that the tall trees and farm buildings and barns—even the oceanic hills—are all just the surface, that we all live under an ocean of air. Massively larger than anything ever built, clouds twist out in slow motion, plum-colored at the horizon or on hills where they pile up, shredded higher than this, then thinning out much higher. Sheets of white slide over the hilltops like a great lid; the sun lights them from within. Rafts and rags of them slide slowly overhead like titanic ice floes. I know that if you slipped through above those clouds there would be furrowed plains of mist, that you would need sunglasses to protect your eyes. I watch the forms move as long as I can, standing in front of the library, until my eyes hurt, then I jog inside.

I want to be up there, not down here. My patience is worn. There is too much to do up there, too much to learn to be scrabbling around down here, my mind immersed in the prehistoric past. Keep going, I think, keep going with those thoughts, do what you have to do; get up in the sky, learn about it, build a life around it.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pressure Suit Progress

The complex operation of gluing the helmet neck-ring to the pressure garment itself is done; I made this a little more complex than it needs to be....but at least I know that, now :) In the photo you see the neck ring bound to the suit itself, and the use of an upturned flower pot holding the neck ring in place for me to work with it. The unfinished textiles coming up out of the neck ring are a cosmetic issue only, but will be cut back a bit for pilot comfort.

The breathing gas intake and exhalation hoses have been customized and bound to the demand regulator and the helmet, respectively. The process is slow and iterative; I have to just sit and look at things for a long time, then in 'dry', glueless runs, try a series of connection and structure options before finally commiting to a design and building it. Below, gluing an airtight union from the breathing gas supply to the regulator (a SCUBA diving regulator, for this prototype pressure suit) with industrial cement that takes a week to cure.

And below, looking over the various hoses.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Alexei Leonov Floats in Space

When I was 13 I wrote a letter to cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, in Moscow, USSR. I'd read a children's book he'd written and illustrated about his experiences in space. Below, Leonov tells what it was like to float freely in space. He was the first human being to step out of a capsule and float freely. I may have posted this here before...if so, that doesn't matter. The clip bears review;

A year after I wrote to Leonov I recieved his reply--in the form of a short letter typed on horribly thin, patchy Russian paper--telling me that the way to get into space was to work hard and stay in school. Somewhere, slipped inside one of my two thousand books, I believe I still have the letter.

Thursday, November 5, 2009


Date: Thu, 05 Nov 2009 11:39:26 -0800 [11:39:26 AM PST]
From: Cameron McPherson Smith
To: Steven L Mitchell
Subject: RE: "The Fact of Evolution" book sample material

Hi, Steven,

Whew, the sample chapter (about 4,000 words) and sample chapter excerpt (about 1,600 words) are finally proofed! Just going over the proposal one more time, and I'll finally get all this off to you tomorrow. I'd do it tonight, but if I don't get some grading done tonight I'm going to have a student mutiny on my hands!

Cameron M. Smith, PhD
Department of Anthropology
Portland State University
Portland, OR 97210

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Photo of a radio dish outside Barrow, Alaska, taken last winter. Judge the size by the ladder!

I remembered taking this image on hearing a bit of Coleridge the other night, while watching "Proteus":

"And now there came both mist and snow
And it grew wondrous cold;
And ice, mast high, came floating by
As green as emerald."

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Evolution of Creativity

Liane Gabora writes some of the most though-provoking and thrilling things I've ever read. Her work on the evolution of creativity goes after the heart of the behavioral variation that has allowed hominids to survive for the last four million years. Below, an abstract from her paper, Revenge of the Neurds: Characterizing Creative Thought in terms of the Structure and Dynamics of Memory;

ABSTRACT: Empirical results suggest that defocusing attention results in primary process or associative thought, conducive to finding unusual connections, while focusing attention results in secondary process or analytic thought, conducive to rule-based operations.

Creativity appears to involve both. It is widely believed that it is possible to escape mental fixation by spontaneously and temporarily engaging in a more divergent or associative mode of thought. The resulting insight (if found) may be refined in a more analytic mode of thought.

The question addressed here is: how does the architecture of memory support these two modes of thought, and what is happening at the neural level when one shifts between them? Recent advances in neuroscience shed light on this. It was demonstrated that activated cell assemblies are composed of multiple ‘neural cliques’, groups of neurons that respond differentially to general or context-specific aspects of a situation. I refer to neural cliques that would not be included in the assembly if one were in an analytic mode, but would be if one were in an associative mode, as ‘neurds’.

It is posited that the shift to a more associative mode of thought conducive to insight is accomplished by recruiting neurds that respond to abstract or atypical subsymbolic microfeatures of the problem or situation. Since memory is distributed and content-addressable this fosters remindings and the forging of creative connections to potentially relevant items previously encoded in those neurons. Thus it is proposed that creative thought involves neither randomness, nor search through a space of predefined alternatives, but emerges naturally through the recruitment of neurds.

It is suggested this occurs when there is a need to resolve conceptual gaps in ones’ internal model of the world, and resolution involves context-driven actualization of the potentiality afforded by its fine-grained associative structure.

Friday, October 23, 2009


Eleven months after starting my research and assembly of materials, I'm close to having the prototype pressure suit assembled for testing.

Below, cutting old wrist cuffs off the suit.

Below, cleaning the PVC wrist wrings for suit union with pressure gloves:

Below, gluing PVC wrist wrings to suit;

Below, wrist wrings glued on and bound with hose clamps; the clamps will stay on for a week as the glue cures.

Below, the wrist ring glued on and secured with hose clamps, which will stay in place for a week as the glue cures.

Below, working on the neck seal.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Another Bard

Benjamin Bagby--one of a long line of bards--tells a tale.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

"Poor, forked radish."

Orson Welles, from 'F For Fake'

"Now this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole western world; and it's without a signature.


A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man. All that’s left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked radish. There aren’t any celebrations.

Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust; to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish.

Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash: the triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes.

A fact of life... we're going to die. 'Be of good heart,' cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced - but what of it? Go on singing.

Maybe a man's name doesn't matter all that much."

The wonderful phrase, "poor, forked radish", comes from Thomas Carlyle's essay "The Hero as Man of Letters (1846), quoted below:

Strip your Louis Quatorze of his king gear, and there is left nothing but a poor forked radish with a head fantastically carved.

Friday, October 9, 2009


From 'Exploring Animal' by Ben Finney and Eric Jones, a chapter in the book "Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience":

"Man is the animal that has professionalized exploration. It is the juvenile of most animal species who do the exploring...before settling down on a limited geographical range from which as adults they hardly stir. Modern man...follows a similar pattern of juvenile exploration--of the waterholes and sacred places of the desert or of the sights and experiences of touring Europe or backpacking in the Sierras--before settling down to the routine of adult life. Yet some adults do not give up their exploratory bent and in fact they make a career of it..."

"Ethologist Konrad Lorenz...notes how humans retain a range of juvenile behavioral traits into least some of us retain our childhood curiosity into maturity."

Below, a juvenile explorer of the skies, Amelia Earhart; the photo is from NASA history archives. I know, I know, they're not using 'juvenile' in a pejorative sense, it's just a little funny.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Spiral Dive

In the first video, a pilot enters a thermal (rising air column), makes a mistake or two RE brake control, and his wing enters an uncontrollable down spiral; luckily he properly deploys his reserve parachute, which saves his life. Pilot Joe Parr does a good job of keeping his head in this situation. Note that at the last moment, though, of landing in the trees, he should stiffly grasp his own neck to prevent sharp branches from puncturing critical blood vessels.

You can recover from some spirals, though, in fact you can practice them, as seen below in a nice demonstration of inducing a dive and then recovering from it:

In Alaska, I won't have to worry about flying into thermals--all the air will be particularly and uniformly cold. Still, good lessons, including "Better to throw the reserve earlier rather than later."

Monday, October 5, 2009

Flight Preparations

The countdown;

72 days (1,742 hours) till I go to Alaska, and the pressure is beginning to be tangible. I've done so many expeditions now, and so many alone--this will be my sixth alone to the Arctic in Winter--that I know the feeling of 70 days out, of 30 days out, of 10 days out, and so on. 72 is close. I have to close doors, and start retreating from anything not related to survival. There are flight plans to make, charts to prepare, communications to sort out. Ammo to be sent to Alaska in a hazards box, with bear spray, as well as flares and smoke grenades. All the food to plan out and prepare and pack, but not so soon it spoils. Time to make the list of lists.

I need to do checks of every item. Right now I'm starting with my paragliding harness, flying clothes, and helmet. Below, a series of images of late-night inspections and modifications. Don't, Cameron, forget anything! Errors now will be magnified later.

I've just read about a British expedition who've just been rescued off a glacier in Patagonia. On the first week of their expedition a storm came up and ripped their tent, leaving them bare to the storm; then the tent blew away. Looking at their gear selection, I see a terrible choice for their tent, and that they were using standard, rather than reinforced, poles. Somehow, also, they seem to have lost their 60+-day food supply, which is baffling; in that kind of terrain you just can't let your pack--containing a spare stove, fuel, at least a week of rations, matches, candle, space blanket, communications device and so on--out of arm's reach. I mean you just don't do that. All things I've learned, and am still learning. Reminds me how 'thin' a lot of my proposals on the ice actually are. Reminds me to keep doing what I've been doing; my procedures have kept me alive. Every detail will be attended to.

Above, cutting foam block to customize the seat block, a 6-inch thick protection for the pelvis and coccyx.

Above, zipping in the seat block.

Above, preparing a foam-block spinal protection system to insert into my flight harness. Flexible and crushable blocks bend with my back, but protect the spine.

Above, the back protection, bound loosely together with duct tape; it is meant to be flexible, not rigid.

Above, mid-torso (below-ribcage) protection added to sides of the spine protection, and the whole system laid into the harness.

Above, zipping the back protection system into the flying harness.

Above, packing the reserve parachute used to make a safe descent in the event of wing collapse, or other disaster. I need to be at least 300 feet above the ground for this to be any use (it won't deploy fast enough, normally, below 300 feet). The last 100 or so feet of any landing are the most critical because you're too high to survive a fall and too low to expect the reserve to save you; so you set up those landings very, very carefully!

Above, reserve parachute release pin insertion; don't mess this up!

Above, manner of releasing reserve parachute; by forcefully yanking on the pink handle, the holdback pin is removed, allowing the fabric holdback panels to open, releasing the chute.

Above, locking reserve parachute riser with crescent wrench.

Above, reserve parachute riser attachment secured.

Above, harness prepped for flight. I sit in it so that I am facing the camera, with legs through the loops at the bottom. Inset shows buckle marked "Left Leg", as it's easy--especially when at 20 or 40 below, to want to hurry getting set up, and make a fundamental error in the suitup procedure.

Above, crash padding suit. Knees, hips and chest are given a little protection by crushable foam padding sewn into thermal undergarment layer.

Above, back side of crash padding garments.

Above, Tyvek oversuit; th is provides no insulation, but is an effective wind-screen shell layer. In the event of landing near a polar bear, the white color might give me some camouflage. The instrument on my right thigh is a variometer and altimeter--the variometer beeps aloud, the tone indicating the speed and direction of either ascent or descent.

Above, fromt view of flying harness and suit.

Above, right profile view of flying harness and suit. Pink reserve parachute handle is visible on right.

Above, back view of flying harness and suit. Pink reserve parachute handle is visible on right.

Above, this year's helmet. I've done away with the windscreen, replacing it with more versatile goggles (I've removed the windscreen from these goggles to prevent fogging; they still provide eye protection from crosswinds, but on the coldest days I will wear goggles with windscreen to prevent freezing the cornea). The rest of the helmet is just bare-bones now; a camera attachment velcro on the top, and a voice recorder on the side, but I have yet to attach main light and the ground-spotting laser.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Synopsis, and Steven Hawking

Book pitches require you to write a synopsis, and that's the hardest thing to do; it has to be short (back-of-the-book-cover short), engaging, a little provocative, concise and accurate; it has to tell the publisher, first and foremost, that people will buy this book (publishing is, like it or not, a business). Here's the synopsis for my space-colonization book, provisionally titled Distant Lands Unknown;

While doomsayers focus on preserving humanity in the short term, one fact about our universe should chill everyone's blood: eventually, the sun is going expand and incinerate the Earth. There is only one way for our species to survive, and that is to colonize space and move away from our solar system.

But mention ‘space colonization’ and many roll their eyes; it’s a technocratic project focused on rockets and robots; it’s too expensive; it’s unnatural; we have too many problems to sort out here on Earth.

Distant Lands Unknown, an anthropological perspective on human space colonization, argues that on the contrary, staying on Earth will cost us everything; and that colonizing space will be a natural continuation of our four-million year history of exploration and adaptation to new environments.

Distant Lands Unknown humanizes space colonization by putting it into the context of human evolution at large. Using dozens of examples from the four-million year history of human expansion into new environments, the author focuses on two staggering tales of human colonization—the prehistoric colonization of the Pacific islands and the high Arctic—to show that space exploration is no more ‘about’ rockets and robots than Arctic colonization was ‘about’ igloos, or Polynesian colonization was 'about' voyaging canoes.

Still a little rough, but you get the idea.

Another, shorter one, requested by my prospective publisher;

The sun is eventually going to burn out, so unless humanity colonizes space we will become extinct. The time has come to begin colonizing space, and this book explains why space colonization isn’t about rockets and robots, it’s about humans doing what we’ve been doing for four million years--finding new places to live.

And, below, some good advice from Steven Hawking, from an item in New Scientist:

Eventually, Hawking said, humanity should try to expand to Earth-like planets around other stars.

No such planets are known so far. But even if only 1% of the 1000 or so stars within 30 light years of Earth has an Earth-size planet at the right distance from its star for liquid water to exist, that would make for 10 such planets in our solar system's neighbourhood, he said.

"We cannot envision visiting them with current technology, but we should make interstellar travel a long-term aim," he said. "By long term, I mean over the next 200 to 500 years."

Humanity can afford to battle earthly problems like climate change and still have plenty of resources left over for colonising space, Hawking said.

Friday, October 2, 2009


Too beautiful for any words I can conjur. Video by NASA, music by Rune Foshaug of Norway.

This is where I want to be--out past everything, passing giant planets, not talking, just moving out past everything, looking, absorbing, getting away from human ego. Yet here we are, confined to Earth, gunning each other down at record pace. Well, at least we have sent out Voyagers I and II, for well over 30 years they've been out there, sailing; they still occasionally send in data to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Next year I'll go to JPL, in the capacity of a writer, and see how all this works.

One viewer's comments really struck me:

"...this is everything that is right in the world. Everything that truly matters is right here, eventually coming to one's thoughts if they sit long enough and watch and listen."

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Equilibar Engineering

Well, I said no more pressure-suit updates for a while, but a nice note from Dave ____, at Equilibar came in, a goo dindication of where I am at present; working on the pressure relief valve which will dump exhaled breathing gas from the helmet/suit at exhalation...if all goes as planned!


The Equilibar regulator can be operated at very low exhaust pressures such as those you mentioned with no problems [and in near vacuum]. In fact we pride ourselves on the performance at low pressures. Do you have a pressure that you wish to maintain inside the suit/helmet? It would seem that somewhere close to 1 atm would be needed to sustain lung function. We also need to understand the flow rate and our quick experiment suggests that about 10scfm seems to be appropriate. Of course that rate is based on subject not performing heavy work--our tester was only standing and exhaling into a flow meter.

If we have your best estimate of those those variables we can give your an estimate for our appropriate standard product. And, from there we can explore the rest of the challenges


To clarify things, I replied to them with some information, and the following crude sketch of my pressure suit; we'll see what happens next. Immediate plans, though, are to suspend this project as I need to get cracking on preparations for Alaska this winter!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Scale and Intensity

A thrilling Sunday afternoon at the park, bringing up my wing and turning to sprint down the little slope with the wing wanting to lift off...Good training for launches in a place where a blown launch is survivable! And with good winds I even managed about five, 2-4 second 'flights', which is pretty remarkable in a park in NW Portland! Every time you bring up the wing it's a real adventure, I have no idea what will happen from moment to moment, I have to continually adjust to the wind. Good to see my muscle memory is still there, I make my corrections automatically and without fuss, the wing stays up over my head, just pulling straight up, wanting to fly!

Even a 2-second 'flight', a glide at an altitude of two feet, is thrilling and rewarding. Being two thousand feet up, as you see above, doesn't really add to the intensity; to tell the truth, altitude is your friend because it gives you time to react to problems, whereas flying low (as you see below, where I'm just touching down) means you don't have that time.

So, scale and intensity here are not cleanly linked; a two-second, ten-foot high flight burns as bright as a twenty-minute, two-thousand high flight.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Gliding Flight and a Note from Praxis


A hawk does not know when a gust is going to bring it up, or slide it swiftly at a tree; the hawk cannot see the air. What the hawk can do, and does moment-to-moment, is adjust to the circumstances. Fighting the air is foolish, but good reactions are sufficient. A rising gust and the hawk simply wheels over and drops, smoothing its way back into glide. The hawk's flight is equal parts proaction and reaction.

And, below, part of a nice note back from Praxis Books, leaders in space exploration books. Though I find it hard to think about space colonization--the frustration with a world in perpetual war and wretchedness for billions is almost overwhelming--but the fact is this: if humanity stays on Earth, it will be incinerated with the rest of the solar system when the sun eventually collapses. Now that is simply a fact of plain physics, the sun is going to collapse on itself and then expand in a superhot helium blast, swallowing up the whole solar system. Ergo, a species that doesn't figure out how (or, more importantly, ante up) to move to other worlds, burns up. That's it, end of story. It's spae colonization or incineration, and I mean of everything; the pyramids, every flower, every jellyfish, every sculpture, the Globe Theatre, the the Library of Congress, Antarctica, all of it, gone. As H.G. Wells put it, "It's the universe, or nothing." So, my long-simmering ideas about why humanity must press itself to colonize space, a topic that so many people find 'far out', which only increases my frustration, well I've finally pitched these ideas as a book, to Praxis, and in the first pass, they've liked it, so they've sent the following note. I put it here for a chuckle, because it's so completely British, in every way;

Dear Cameron

This sounds an interesting project. To evaluate it we will need you to complete an Author's Questionnaire (AMQ). Please send the completed AMQ to us as an attachment, as well as a 500 word synopsis, made up of an historical backdrop setting the scene for the book, followed by promotion/information text detailing the content and attributes of the book and its importance, together with a draft Table of Contents, with subchapter headings where appropriate. Any specimen material would also be helpful.

Following internal evaluation, if the project is deemed appropriate, drawing on the referees you nominate in Point 10 of the completed AMQ, we'll send the complete proposal out electronically for peer review. Please be sure to include their e-mail addresses as well as their full postal addresses, including zip codes together with their professional title/affiliations.

Look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,
Praxis Publishing Ltd
The White House, Church Lane
West Sussex PO20 3UR

Reading that, I am right back at Durham, in the shadow of Durham Cathedral!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Lightning Sprites and a Beautiful Landing

No surprise that things go on, up in the sky--every moment of every day--that we don't understand.

Below, a very beautiful landing in very difficult conditions; equal parts skill and luck, I think!

Bravo, Buddah!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sting Ray, Ecuador

A sting ray lifts from the sea floor off Salango, Ecuador. Every time one came up, startled by me and shooting away into the murk, my heart leapt at the sudden billow of sand.

Regarding their longevity, the Animal Diversity Web report:

Some researchers estimate that the largest sharks and rays may not reach maturity until 20 to 30 years of age, and that they may live to maximum ages of 70 to 100 years or more...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"So, I am safe emerged from these broils!"

After 'work' -- teaching human evolution at two universities -- I retire home, a bubble of quiet solitude, where I can spend hours alone and finally thereby see things in focus. One of the things I do is work on my High Altitude Balloon Project, photographed below, where I'm examining a breathing-gas regulator at my workbench.

Another I do, and will do increasingly between now and December, where I'll once again take on the very real pains of not being with my family during the Christmas Season, is work on my gear for the upcoming expedition. From here on out, no more photos of the Pressure Suit project -- from here on out, I need to be doing training flights, test flights, and preparing all my gear for the Arctic Winter conditions.

One source of inspiration comes from John Keats' play, "Otho the Great". In Act 1, scene 1, the player Conrad says:

"So, I am safe emerged from these broils!"

I love this line; Conrad is safe, and proud to be safe, and proud and astonished to be safe and alive. How many times have I thought the same thing, in essence!

"So, I am safe emerged from these broils!"

Thursday, September 3, 2009

One Step

One moment on land;

One moment in the air;

...the next moment an explosion of bubbles, pieces of one world being dragged into another, dragged down with the sinking body, obscuring vision until things settle, the silver spheres surge up and away, back to where they belong in another world, and--as one gawps in disbelief for a few moments--the forms of a new world begin to slide, first into position, then into focus.

Respect to all who step into something new.

In the photo, an early 'hard-hat' diver steps off a pier (I've been unable to find the source of this image).

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


What a beautiful instrument. Based solely on atmospheric pressure--which is lower, the higher one moves through the atmosphere and approaches space--this instrument indicates one's altitude. Inside the cylindrical instrument (the cylinder, extending a few inches behind the indicator, is not visible in this photo) is a very sensitive capsule of air in a thin-walled tank; as the tank expands (as pressure is lowered with increasing altitude) or contracts (as pressure increases with decreasing altitude), its motions are translated into the turning of a series of toothed gears that in turn rotate the hands on the dial, indicating altitude. The instrument requires no power, a big point in the design of my flying machine.

Like all instruments, this machine points, generally, at reality; but things other than sheer altitude can effect atmospheric pressure, leading to an erroneous altitude reading...these are things I need to know about, and which I am learning about as I research the variables of the exploration of the stratosphere.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ecuador Update

Home now, and processing my photos (although I'm shooting digital now, I 'm also still shooting some film, and it takes time to develop...imagine that!) and trying to find the time to write it all down...that's the hardest to do, because to write, for me, takes time. I need large blocks of uninterrupted time to sit or pace or stand in the shower, or do whatever I need to slip my mind backwards, time-travel really, back to the moments so I can feel the sand in my shoes, so I can hear the faintest gust and taste the seaweed-water in my mouth again. The slightest interruption makes this impossible. So, finding that time...that's the hard part.

Below, for the moment--as images and words of Ecuador are reforming the experience, bringing it here to Portland whereas it all actually happened thousands of miles away--a sketch for yet another helmet, this time for my Arctic flights this winter.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


Guayaquil, again, on the way back to Portland. Some first impressions, scrawls...

In Salango, at night, I lay in a shaky bamboo cabin dumbfounded by the crash-upon-crash-upon-crash of breakers. I cannot see the swells approaching shore, but I sense their even rise-which has so often elevated and then lowered me-I sense their precise rise higher at the appointed line and then they topple forward and come down with unblievable sounds; the crashing of great swords; the faintest echo of colliding galaxies; the hiss of hurrying electrons; the sound of acres of metal sliding against acres of metal.

Some waves pound the sand like cannonballs, but these are just side-shows. The essence out there is in the rush, the slide, the sand-grinding of the ocean ashore; the billion-billion white noise of eternity. There is no code there, only particles in motion, but suddenly there is communicated to me the sense that I know nothing at all.

The moment passes: Not true: I know something now, I know that these crashes and hisses are important. They preceded all humanity and they will succeed all humanity. You may never understand them, I find myself thinking, but if you don't listen for messages in there you are a fool.

The next day, five fathoms alone under the dull surface of the Pacific, as I glance at my air pressure gauge, I am halted by another sound--a low whistle twisted by distance and water, a low whistle blending into a short, uprising moan. Whale. I breathe the word aloud through my mouthpiece in astonishment, the word roils upwards in silver bubbles. I kneel on the sandy sea floor and hold my breath.

Again, another low whistle, whorled by miles of current and salt and thermocline, but unmistakable. It trips my mind, putting me right back in the bamboo hut. Two whales, I think, dumbfounded, they preceded all humanity and they will succeed all humanity and though it´s time to turn around and swim back in, you had damned well better commit those sounds to memory.

But back in the cabin I cannot reproduce the sounds in my mind. They have already been washed out by fish-trucks, barking dogs, the rumblings of the cat-food factory on the beach. It's Ok,I think, you heard it. You can find recordings. It won´t be the same whales, I chuckle to myself, but so what? You don´t have to hear that twice.

Friday, August 21, 2009


In Ecuador, as underwater, it´s foolish to fight the tide. Í´m being shuttled from one meeting to the next, all in Spanish, para obtenir permissiones for a ´Proyecto Arqueologico de Submarina´ next summer. Hablarmos mucho, cada dia, sobre coordinacion de me universidad y Museo Salango. Me gusta todos.

In the mean time, a promotional video for Wilderness Survival for Dummies (you can get it at Amazon, or anywhere else on the web, or in Borders or other ´brick-and-mortar´ stores); this video was edited by Annie Biggs. Here in Ecuador, with a muy lento connection, I can´t hear or see it, and it´´ll be fun when I get back to have a look!

Till then, enjoy your hot and cold running water! Remember, most people don´t have such luxuries.

Cheers from Pacific Ecuador

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

There is only one way to do it

There is only one way to do it,
and that is to do it.
You can't sit around and wait for inspiration.
You have to go after it with a club.

-- Jack London

So many worries; will the pressure hold; will I forget some item on the checklist (more likely; what item will I forget, and what will be the consequence?); will the demand regulator work? Will the breathing exhaust port clog with ice? What if I have to bail out--how do I cut free of the main liquid oxygen supply and quickly switch to my bail-out bottle, without losing suit pressure, consciousness, and, a little more than incidentally, life?!?

Below, aviation pioneer Wiley Post clambers into his Winnie Mae, clad in his own built-from-scratch pressure suit. Building a strange flying machine of my own, pictures of Post give me the courage to carry out Jack London's decree; you just have to get down to it and do it.

Below, fit-testing my pressure helmet.

A little more tinkering, then off to Ecuador on Saturday for two weeks of underwater exploration.

Below, a message;

The moon bobs in the running river.
Drifting, drifting,
What do I resemble?
-- Tu Fu

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Half Way Down the Earth's Sphere

Lots of planes this summer -- now down to Ecuador, on the equator and significantly closer to the sun, to dive until work calls me back here in early September. Above, a cloudy wilderness from nearly 40,000 feet.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Back to the Pacific Northwest; flying in Nevada didn't work, with the wind daily either too strong or coming from the wrong quarter to allow safe gliding flight. Fight nature? Just Do It? ... No Fear? No thanks; I definitely fear bad flying conditions. I'll wait.

For the moment, some words on a recent night dive. Like most of what I post here, this is a fragment.

Remember this, I think, breaking the surface of the Pacific with the base of my skull and spitting the regulator from my mouth and simply floating, starlight streaming down my mask and vest; remember this bouyancy; this wilderness of salty air; remember the act of breaking a surface, of moving from a microverse of dark confinement to a universe in which photons from unimaginably distant and unimaginable sources rain into my eyes.

(c) Cameron M. Smith 2009

Below, after a night dive with Todd Olson (right).

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Vapor Mountains

Cruising in a jetliner at 39,000 feet, sliding over the lunar scar-scape called 'Nevada'. Harsh sunlight splinters in the scratched lexan window but out beyond there are wonders; blinding white billows of cloud, fat white mountainscapes of cloud as white as paint; and there are bottomless canyons cleaving these mountains of vapor, voids that call for exploration. Expansive sheets of suspended mist are perforated here and there by enormous voids, revealing caverns of air illuminated by stray light. There are inexplicable towers of mist, too, they seem to be drawn upward.

Up here, in the lower stratosphere, we're above 80% of the Earth's atmosphere; despite the brilliant sun I know the air outside is bone-cracking cold, I know the metal of that wing would burn the hand. We can only survive here because we are encapsulated by devices approximating the pressures and temperatures of our terrestrial cradle.

Looking up, the sky darkens rapidly towards the zenith, where it is black. The gulfs of space are in reach. But we are already powering down for the descent...

Looking down I see Earth below. For five million years, I think, five million years we've been scratching around down there--swimming, running, sailing, trekking, dragging sleds across plains and oceans of ice...even burrowing down! But we've only been coming up here, into the stratosphere, for fifty years. To think we know this place, to think that we can describe it yet, and with a terrestrial vocabulary, is funny.

Down we go, sliding down now towards the dry lakebeds and several days of test-flying my paraglider in preparation for the Winter.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Where Cold Performs the Effect of Fire

"…a frozen continent
Lies dark and wild, beat with perpetual storms
Of whirlwind and dire hail…
The parching air burns frore,
and cold performs the effect of fire."

-- John Milton, Paradise Lost II:587-595.

'Frore' refers to frostlike.

And below, a link to Electric Sky, who currently distributes "The Deadly Glacier", the documentary of my 2000-2004 expeditions to cross Iceland's Vatnajokull ice cap, alone, in winter; the clip can be seen here.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


The first page of my opening chapter in The Best Travel Writing 2009.

You can read the whole thing in the book, or in this PDF file. I've inverted the scans so that the type is white on black; for me, it fits the mood.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Pressure Restraint Gloves

Completed prototypes of the pressure restraint gloves (PRG) and fitted to them to the pressure glove bladders (PGB), which are currently fastened to wrist wrings simply with hose clamps (above, one of many sketches that preceded construction.) Pressure restraint garments fit over the pressurized garments to prevent unwieldy 'ballooning' that comes with pressurization of a full-pressure suit.

In the photo below, the PRG's fitted over the PGB's. Now to fit the wrist wrings permanently, and with an airtight seal, to the pressure suit arms.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

You'll Get Killed Doing That

After 48 hours down with a tooth infection, I'm finally up again and swinging away at half a dozen projects. There is no time to lose! I can't worry about prudence, I can't worry about avalanches or polar bears, I can't worry about "You'll get killed doing that!" (I think, "And you're going to live forever?"), I can't worry about anything but the life energy that flows in me right now, the energy that puts me on my feet every morning thinking about altitudes, pressures, and temperatures; thinking about the things I have assembled before me; the things I will do and not do; how I treat other people; how to stay on track with meaningful things, how to remain serious in a civilization bent on trivia; how to keep my dignity in a civilization that hacks away at dignity. And lowest on my list is prudence. There is no time for that ingredient!

Giuseppe Verdi, Requiem

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Postcard from the Bottom of the Sea

"Postcard from the Bottom of the Sea" (c) 2008 by Judith Barrington; from her recent collection of poetry (of the same title) based on "...her fascination with the ocean and the currents of her imagination..."

It's dark here except for the odd lampfish.
You wouldn't like it--walking's a chore;
trash twenty feet deep and more drifting down
from the oil rigs. Sometimes, although it's rash,
we float up to gaze at the flash of a passing propeller
or sunlight on yellow scum floating far from the shore.

And below, the fifth movement of Berliozs' "Symphonie Fantastique." This is what Michael Collins listened to while orbiting the moon alone as his companions landed on the surface.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pressure Glove

After about a year of fascinating research into the design and building of pressure suits, I'm not just making sketches and drawings of my own any more: I'm building it, I'm assembling the items that will take me as near to space as I can get, by means of a high altitude balloon.

Today, a 'proof of concept' for the gloves. An airtight seal is made by binding a heavy rubber glove to the wrist wring; a low-pressure gauge sits where I plan to mount it to monitor suit pressure at altitudes over 30,000 feet. Several elements of this assembly will actually be made of different materials, but for the moment I'm working to prove, in material terms, my concepts.

Looking past low clouds the other night, the sterile vastness of open space seemed to draw at me, the draw you feel when you stand on a cliff edge. Standing there I wanted to leap out of my sneakers, straight up, and an intense frustration with the fact that I cannot simply vault away from the Earth overcame me. We are aware of a whole universe to explore, just up there beyond those puny wisps of condensation--the Universe is right there in front of you, you can reach out and damned near touch it--and yet here we remain, still hacking each other to pieces over religion, oil, or what have you.

Well, for the moment, more building; integration of the pressure helmet and the construction of the pressure restraint garment, and custom cutting and sewing of the flameproof Nomex coverall, to be insulated with aerogel. And then, build the balloon and the capsule. Two, three years; slowly, slowly, and finally up to the Arctic to fly.

But plenty before that; soon to Nevada, to fly the paraglider in preparation for Alaska in December, then Ecuador to dive, dive, dive in search of who-knows-what in the greens and greys of Salango Bay.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


“I could never tell where inspiration begins and impulse leaves off. I suppose the answer is in the outcome. If your hunch proves a good one, you were inspired; if it proves bad, you are guilty of yielding to thoughtless impulse.”

-- Beryl Markham

My impulse or inspiration is to ascend, to float free, to fly; to be suspended by nothing much, to see from strange heights. To do these I need flying machines; I build them as I learn to fly others. Below, an agricultural tank suitable for converting into a high-altitude ballooning pressure capsule; below that, my pressure suit slowly takes form, cobbled together from a Mig pressure helmet, a diving drysuit, and a dozen other items. Below that, landing my wing on the beach during a test of a customized helmet.