Seeing the North Woods from the air is therapy

  • Updated: March 19, 2011 - 5:36 PM

For this longtime flyer Up North, there are three seasons: floats, wheels and skis.

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International Falls pilot John Smuda, 76, considers flying his Piper Super Cub therapy that gives him a sense of freedom when he�s feeling down. He marks the season by his landing gear, skis or wheels or floats.

Photo: Curt Brown, Star Tribune

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INTERNATIONAL FALLS, MINN. - The calendar and songbirds might say "spring," but up here on the Canadian border, longtime pilot John Smuda tracks the seasons by the landing gear on his beloved 1954 Piper Super Cub.

"It's skis to wheels then wheels to floats," says Smuda, 76. "Then back to wheels and then skis."

The three-way split isn't evenly divided like a hockey game, mind you. Smuda has logged 7,000 hours, mostly flying people who want to fish and hunt in Canada or in the forests of northern Minnesota. He's had summertime floats on the plane for lake landings for 3,400 of those flying hours, skis for another 3,000 hours and wheels down for the short spans in between.

"Winter's over and the birds are chirping but it's usually the later part of April or the first part of May before the ice is off the lakes," he says. "So there's two or three weeks there with the wheels on before I can put the floats on."

The son of Polish immigrants, Smuda spent his early years in Little Falls, the same childhood home as a more famous pilot, Charles Lindbergh. Smuda's family moved up to International Falls when he was 6. He's been flying for 54 years and just survived his 70th winter, one that included a low of -46 one morning.

"It's wasn't all that bad -- came and went," he says. "I remember 52 below once and the key is walking outside at a slow pace so the cold air in your lungs takes it easy."

A friend once urged him to escape his frozen home and move to an airstrip in Missouri.

"I told him he'd have to make snow for the skis on my airplane," Smuda says. "I guess I just like the environment here, the berry picking, fishing, hunting, trapping and wild ricing."

Smuda lives within earshot of the tiny municipal airport in International Falls.

"You can see my windsock -- it's just beyond them trees," he says, pointing with his gray eyes.

For five years, he cared for his second wife Lilly, 80, whose Alzheimer's disease has robbed her of her memory and the ability to walk and talk. She lives in a care facility now and doesn't recognize her husband of 25 years. She used to love flying with John. Now she mostly sleeps.

When he grows lonesome, Smuda fires up the 150-horsepower engine on the Super Cub and takes off over the North Woods.

"To me, it's like therapy right now," he says. "If I feel down, I get up there and you just feel so free from everything."

He's got a big ring on his finger in the shape of an eagle, a gift from his daughter. He remembers 15 years ago, spotting a pair of bald eagles just off his propeller.

"I slacked off and they flew beside me," he says. "Wing tip to wing tip, like we were in formation."

CURT BROWN

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