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Guest Post: Journey to Yellowstone Part 5 & 6

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Wandering on the roof of a super volcano.

Gallatin National Forest

Starting our tour from the remote southwest Montana town of West Yellowstone, our travels take us north toward Hebgen Lake, then further to West to Earthquake Lake. In 1959, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake from a nearby fault line at the Yellowstone Volcano crumbled the landscape. The entire valley shifted, and beyond, the Madison River became dammed by landslides from collapsing mountains. This formed Earthquake Lake, which ultimately flooded the valley and drowned the surrounding forest. Half a century later, the valley has reclaimed itself with both spectacular, and haunting, results.

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Madison and Firehole Rivers

Upon entering Yellowstone National Park from the West Entrance, the road leads you through the Madison Valley.

Here, the upper Madison River flows gently to offer some of the best fly-fishing in the world. It’s tributaries, the Gibbon River and the Firehole River, are also amongst some of the most abundant fishing rivers in America. Here is a gallery of the vistas and hydrothermal basins along 30 miles of the Madison and the Firehole.

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Firehole River

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Excelsior Geyser Crater

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Grand Prismatic Spring

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Old Faithful Geyser

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Darkness and Convection

When the sun went down, Yellowstone lit up.

Vibrant sunsets, billowing storm clouds and a combination of both of those factors ensured remarkable views were on stage every evening.

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 The Gibbon Basin

With it’s roots at Norris, the Gibbon River meanders southwest as an upper tributary to the Madison River. Flowing through some spectacular thermal areas along the edge of the volcano caldera, the Gibbon Valley reveals some astonishing panoramas and landscapes, along with a diverse blend of out-of-this-world geothermal formations. Follow along and travel up the Gibbon River to uncover the colorful features hidden within these rolling valleys.

 

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Gibbon Falls

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Artist Paintpots

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Norris Geyser Basin

The Norris Geyser Basin is the hottest thermal area in Yellowstone National Park. Sitting atop the convergence of 3 fault-lines in the Earth’s crust below, Norris contains a wide variety of active features. From geysers that continuously erupt or vent, to motionless springs of calmness and serenity, follow along as I tour this extraordinary landscape, a place so strange and bizarre that even modern science can’t fully explain some of the geological events that occur here.

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The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Many aspects of the geology surrounding the canyon are still a mystery to today’s geologists, however one thing is certain: it is an absolutely grand and magnificent sight to behold. Hydro-thermal features emitting heat in the area for centuries ‘baked’ the rock, softening it’s composition and causing it to erode at a much faster rate. Additionally, the rock was exposed to sulphur emissions, which reacted with the iron in the rock to create the spectacular yellow and orange hues of the the canyon walls; alas, the name Yellowstone.

 

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The Upper Falls

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The Lower Falls

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Up The Yellowstone River

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The Madison Junction

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After two amazing days of discovery, uncovering the hidden secrets of this magnificent place, it was time to head back to the town of West Yellowstone to relax and enjoy a well-deserved beef dinner with some delicious local beer. The time had come to settle in for a final night of camping before the long journey home. With our restriction of travelling on a compressed time-frame, we were barely able to cover only a fraction of what Yellowstone has to offer. Countless geysers and hydro-thermal features lay spread around the hundreds of miles of roads and trails across the plateau; it was an impossible feat to try to explore everything that this magical place has to offer in only 2 short days on the ground … I’m already counting down the days until I can return to explore even deeper into this natural wonder!

Flying the Wyoming Backcountry is next in Part 6!

PART 6

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West Yellowstone, MT (6,649ft) to Cody, WY (5,102ft)

via The Continental Divide, The Sylvan Pass and The Shoshone Valley. 

Flight#4: The Sylvan PassDepart: KWYS West Yellowstone   ///

Arrive: KCOD Codyvia// (as planned) // Distance: 106nm // AirTime: 0h59 (planned), 1h03 (actual)

Fuel On Board: 35gal (3.5 hrs) // Fuel Burn: 10.1gal (actual)KWYS Wx// Wind: Calm / Vis >10sm /

Sky: Clear / Temp:21C / Dew: 9C / Press: 30.23” / DensAlt: 8,660ft

From the very beginning of planning this trip, I knew that the Sylvan Pass would be the pinnacle of the many amazing piloting experiences this journey would offer. Challenging for many reasons, I felt it would be appropriate to plan the Sylvan Pass to be the grand finale to this mountain adventure.A glance at the maps immediately illustrates the primary challenge brought by the Sylvan Pass: high, narrow terrain.

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A closer look over the VNC at the Sylvan Pass …ys.xtras10

 

The Pass

The Sylvan Pass rests at 8,537 ft. above sea level; the highest elevation point I would over-fly along the entire 5-day journey. To compound the challenges, the pass is narrow, defined by mountain peaks at over 10,500ft on either side. Additionally, it runs perpendicular to the prevailing winds, commonly from the northwest. As the VFR chart also illustrates, the northern flank of the Sylvan Pass is additionally flanked by 2 more parallel mountain ranges and valleys to the north. It would be wise to anticipate very unstable, irregular air movements here; downdrafts, thermal updrafts, wind shear, mechanical and possibly convective turbulence … I’ll certainly need to keep constant watch on the airspeed indicator here.

The flight was planned for 9,500ft, however over Yellowstone Lake I would climb to 11,500ft for the transition of the Sylvan Pass. High density altitude or not, up here the airplane’s performance is seriously reduced, so plan to start any climbs well before you normally would. Use your best discretion; in convective or turbulent air it would be smart to keep the airspeed marginally faster than’Vy’ (best rate) during the climb, because getting caught in a down-draft could quickly sink your airspeed to a stall while you struggle to maintain altitude… Give yourself a bit of a buffer zone. I won’t go into excessive detail here, but some knowledge on the physical characteristics of your analogue flight instruments,particularly the pitot/static system, is very important. Trust your instruments, but know when they’re lying to you.

It was approaching mid-morning by the time we had the airplane packed up with all 150 lbs of our camping gear from our 3-night stay. With all the baggage, the desire to keep the airplane light was my initial concern, but other factors were at play today. I had the main tanks topped up to about 90% fuel capacity, and virtually no fuel in the rear aux tank. The density altitude was already 8,700ft at 10 a.m., and unfortunately, my airplane was loaded to 94% of max takeoff weight, leaving me not much head room to spare! With all these factors, the airplane performance charts indicated that this would undoubtedly be the longest take-off roll I’d ever attempt in a piston single. I calculated the roll to be 2,600ft plus a further 1,500ft in ground-effect after lift-off, before being able to clear a 50ft obstacle! That’s a total of a 4,100ft lateral take-off distance to clear a 50′ tree! Astronomical numbers for a Cessna 172, and a far-cry from the normal 750ft take-offs I’m typically used to performing back on the prairies, much lower to sea level. Luckily, the take-off distance isn’t going to be an issue since WYS offers along 8,000ft runway topped with great condition asphalt leading pilots to the sky. It shouldn’t be a problem to clear the trees, but no takeoff preparation is complete without identifying a reject-takeoff point on the runway, which I subsequently labelled to be the 4,000ft marker. If flight is not achieved by this point, power to idle, apply full braking.

As I run through the pre-flight checks, it’s hard to ignore the small, but billowing CU’s (cumulus clouds) starting to tower a little, as they rolled off the mountains to the west and the north of the airfield. Though seemingly not a threat, it was definitely something to be conscious of; if I’m seeing vertical development already, then there’s a good chance I’ll see more as I venture into the rough mountainous terrain on the other side of the Yellowstone Plateau. That’s yet another complexity now added to the flight considerations. At this point I can only hope this won’t become a problem for me, but I still have to plan in case they do. My best judgement assured me that I was not likely to encounter any issues, however calling a weather-briefer is certainly one of my ‘must-do’ pre-flight items for any flight conducted beyond the vicinity of the departure point. A short conversation with a weather briefer at FAA Rocky Mountain FlightServices assured me of no convection expected until much later in the day, with cloud bases remaining above 12,000ft, safely above the peaks around the Sylvan Pass. A mountain pass with obscured peaks could be potentially difficult and dangerous to navigate. All complications dually noted, analyzed, and concluded, it seems as if everything should be ok for an uneventful flight eastbound into Wyoming this morning!

On the navigation side-of-things to consider, there weren’t any alternates along the route, not even remotely close, and neither would there be many safe places to land an airplane in an emergency or precautionary situation along the entirety of the 100-mile route. If I ran into weather, I was turning around. If I had to ditch, it would likely be into heavily forested rocky terrain. Definitely not ideal, but that was the reality of this flight. Further more, it could be over an hour’s flight time to the nearest safe airport if WYS became socked-in with weather. It’s remote here, and many flight routes would require zig-zag patterns in a diversion, defined by the valleys between high mountain ranges. With the luxury of direct-to navigation stripped from my piloting arsenal in these situations, I better plan to take lots of fuel, all the while being prepared to utilize dead-reckoning skills if the need to divert arises. Mountain valleys can look eerily similar to each other in an area unfamiliar to you, and if you aren’t equipped with GPS, VHF-radio navigation is severely limited, if not entirely non-existing below mountain peaks. Therefore, plan to fly with purely visual navigation, or ‘dead-reckoning’. Know your maps; study them, study them again, and keep them on-hand in the cockpit. Don’t trust that your GPS is immune to failure, because it can, and you should be prepared. Making a turn down the wrong valley could quickly unfold into a disastrous situation.

After weighing all the factors affecting this flight, I determine that keeping the airplane light is simply a luxury, heavily overshadowed by the assurance of carrying enough fuel on-board to plan for a worst-case situation, especially in weather that has even the slightest potential to deteriorate. Weather forecasts are seldom accurate, asI was soon about to find out. Plan accordingly! It’s tempting to try and depart light, especially with the high-elevation operations,but given any possibility of deteriorating weather, I took-on the added load of 3 full hours of reserve fuel.

Lets go flying!

 

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Making The Pass

As I cross the clear waters of Yellowstone Lake, it’s time for me to begin the slow crawl from 9,500ft up to 11,500ft altitude to transit the Sylvan Pass (elev. 8,537ft), 20-miles ahead. I have to start this climb early because of the anticipated poor climb rate of only 300fpm at Vy (best rate speed) according to the aircraft performance charts. In actuality, the climb rate was a little better than 300fpm, which gradually tapered to slightly under 200fpm as I approached the top of climb at 11,500ft. Additionally, at this point I had to consider the rules concerning oxygen; without an oxygen supply in the airplane,I’m not allowed to stay above 10,000ft for more than 30 minutes as per the Canadian Aviation Regulations. In American airspace, the rule is actually 12,000ft, but I’ll stick with the ‘safer’ Canadian regulation for this one. Therefore, it was imperative to execute the timing of this climb accurately, to ensure I could keep the airplane at a nice high buffer-altitude above the terrain; I wanted to minimize my exposure to possible turbulent and convective air by flying as high above the pass as practical to keep the ride as smooth as possible. Passenger comfort is of utmost importance!

In addition to poor aircraft performance, us humans also suffer performance-loss at these altitudes, hence why there’s a rule that we can’t stay above 10,000ft for more than 30 minutes without an oxygen supply. We get hypoxia from the lack of oxygen, just as the engine gets suffocated and looses performance. Here’s where knowledge of human factors and psychology play a hefty role in pilot safety. Can you recognize the signs of hypoxia in yourself? Personally, I find that taking slow, but long and deep breaths are an excellent breathing habit to get into. Both in the airplane, and also during day-to-day life. Not only does it allow you to fill your lungs with more oxygen than a rapid, gasping breath does, but it’s also very calming, and helps keep you relaxed and focused; very important things for a pilot flying an airplane. Learn proper breathing, and understand your breathing. At these altitudes, that couldn’t be more important. Know the signs, and stay alert.

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Cliffs of the Shoshone Valley

After a few awe-struck moments of glancing out over the endlessness of theRocky Mountain ranges, peaks and valleys, savouring the view, I popped my attention back into the cockpit to run a visual scan of the instruments. Left to right, top to bottom. Everything in the green. Fantastic! Sadly though, I noticed that the timer which I had set upon climbing above 10,000ft was now telling me i’d been above for 21 minutes. It surely hadn’t felt like21 minutes, but now it was time to power-back a couple hundred rpm and let the nose of the airplane gently fall a few degrees. I trim the pitch to maintain a cruising-decent of 100mph, as if to follow the gentle contours of the valley sloping down below me. I certainly was in no rush to get down; the view from up here was absolutely surreal. There was no need, nor desire, to force a quick decent. Once I got the airplane established slowly downward, I made a broadcast of my location and intentions on 126.7, the VFR en route frequency, and yet again I was met with nothing but silence. The frequency was completely absent of chatter during the entire flight.

This place truly seemed to be one of the final aviation frontiers. Of not only uncontrolled, but of entirely uninhibited airspace. As far as the radios could hear, the sky was all mine. As far as the eye could see, the world was all mine. Magical, some might say, that signs of a civilization below were virtually non-existent. The constructs of man haven’t made it here yet. It was the epitome of true freedom, even if only for a little while.

The next string of images contains the final forty-miles of spectacular Rocky Mountain vistas, as I slowly descend down the eastern slopes inbound to the Wild West town of Cody, Wyoming.

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As the wheels chirp down on runway 4 at COD, a feeling of mild disappointment sets-in now that the flight has concluded. With the OAT gauge already indicating 24C a little after 11am local time, the wheels gradually slow to taxi speed as the aroma of hot brakes once again fills the airplane, a final reminder of yet another aircraft system suffering from reduced performance in ‘hot and heavy’ operations.

I exit the runway, cross the hold-short line, announce clear of the runway, and pause for a moment to contemplate where to go next. There were 3 FBO’s here, and all sold fuel, but I had made no prior arrangements with any of them. So, upon landing I gaze around the airfield for a few moments, then point the airplane towards a cluster other small piston aircraft parked near some hangars. Surely, I could find fuel there. As anticipated, I soon saw the fuel trucks parked right in the area I was headed, and was met by an aircraft marshaller upon entering the ramp area who guided me into a parking spot.

Mag check, mixture to idle/cut-off, and the prop flutters to a stop. This surreal flight was officially over.

Flight #5: Across No-Man’s-Land

Departure: KCOD Cody // Arrival: CYQR Regina

via// BigHorn, Bridger, JDN, GGW //

Distance: 404nm // AirTime: 4h05 (planned), 3h59 (actual)

Fuel On Board: 58gal (5.8 hrs) // Fuel Burn: 42.0gal (actual)

KCOD Wx// 

Wind: 030@7 / Vis >10sm / Sky: Clear / Temp: 27C / Dew: 24C / Pres: 30.09” / Dens: 7,265ft


The Long Flight Home

After a spectacular morning flying through the Sylvan Pass, and a short stop in Cody for airplane fuel (and human fuel), I make the necessary phone call to Canadian CBSA to notify them of my impending arrival back into Canada. During a lengthy weather briefing from FAA RockyMountain Flight Services, I was continually ensured of ‘non-convective’ activity by the briefer, and a review of the current and forecast area charts, all indicated little to worry about. But, as anyone would come to anticipate in this hot and humid air,the skies due west of Cody began to look increasingly convective and dark. The route I had just flown through into Cody a little over an hour ago was now filled with large, dark billowing TCU’s. I would almost have considered them CB (cumulonimbus). Thankfully, I was headed in the opposite direction. Time to get moving, fast. The winds were steady and gusty, and heat created strong vertical convection over the rough and barren terrain of the Big HornValley, creating thermals and turbulence beyond anything I had ever experienced before. Almost immediately after take-off from Cody, the turbulence became vividly rough, and worsened as I climbed further out.

To compound the issue of rough air, the airplane was at it’s heaviest the entire trip, being less then 50lbs below MTOW when the wheels lifted up. I needed full fuel for the lengthy flight, and that required me to adjust my baggage loading arrangement slightly to afford the full weight of 108lbs of fuel in the compartment. Furthermore, at over 400nm, and 4h04 planned flight time, this would be the longest flight I’ve ever piloted. Worse yet, the forecast called for a cold front to be sweeping across Southern Saskatchewan around my planned arrival time; this meant I might be steering directly into a game of cat and mouse with thunderstorm cells onceI get near the Canadian border; having all 5.8 hours of fuel on board could surely become a very valuable resource. In the bumpy air between Cody and Billings, all that extra weight meant much more stress on the airframe structure (and crew), as we bounced our way through the localized rising and falling columns of air above the barren rocky cliffs of the Big Horn Valley.

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Though I was within the weight and balance envelope, times like these in rough air with a heavily-loaded airplane call for powering-back the engine a little, and keeping your airspeed indicator safely pointed within the white arc, also known as ‘Va’, the aircraft’s maximum maneuvering speed. What’s ‘Va’? It’s a very important airspeed, so here’s some brief science of flight to explain why: Turbulence is a small localized region of air that is rising, falling, stirring, or shearing at great angles from the relative airflow of the atmosphere. When your wing momentarily encounters this messy air, the relativity of the air flow over the airfoil (wing) is altered significantly for brief milliseconds, causing certain portions of the airfoil to create less lift. This momentarily increases your wing’s angle-of-attack. Immediately, the inertia of the airplane reacts to this sudden change in angle-of-attack, resulting in a strong exertion of G-force on the airframe (and passengers within).

Throttling-back in these conditions has more advantages: it trims down on your fuel burn. This is welcomed, because I was soon to come to the stark realization that this fuel could become more valuable than gold. Unfortunately, not a single photo was snapped on this flight, directly due to the terrible flight conditions. For general safety, all unnecessary objects were stowed away as securely as possible. Through the turbulent first 45-minutes of the flight, not too many words were spoken; both myself and Chris knew this turbulence was rather extreme, beyond anything either of us had ever encountered. I analyzed the situation for many minutes after reaching cruising altitude, as the heavy pockets of turbulence continued to appear in random frequency. Turning around wasn’t really an option, though. Remember that huge TCU that was looming over the mountains near Cody when we took off? Well, Cody’s probably socked-in by thunderstorm now. This left only one option: tighten up the seat belts and carry on. There’s two alternate airports,20-minutes ahead at Big Horn. I’ll re-evaluate the turbulence situation as we get closer …

It’s a physically demanding task to keep a small airplane in straight-and-level flight in these conditions. We got thrown around really good that day, and to add even more complications to the flight situation, as I approached my first waypoint, the airports at Big Horn, my planned route beyond into the Big Horn Canyon was becoming blocked by a quickly-developing line of TCU’s. TCU’s mean one this: heavy convection. Crap. Time to make a quick decision to divert, or, given the compounding onslaught of factors working against the flight, land ahead at Big Horn and terminate the flight entirely. I scanned the sky, and scanned the maps to determine a possible route, an area of seemingly clear skies 45-degrees off-course to my left. This was the direction to Billings, which is an added bonus because it would afford me another opportunity to evaluate the flight conditions, re-factor the fuel consumption penalties of this diversion, and then make a decision to land at Billings 30 minutes ahead, or to continue on.

I advised Salt Lake Center of my newly planned route, and carried on as the terrain below slowly morphed into a wide, flat plain; a welcome relief from the rough and rugged terrain in the Big Horn Valley. The flat plains could likely contribute to less convection, and as such, a much smoother ride. With the flight conditions slowly improving to normal, I calculated my expenses of an additional30-some miles being added to my flight distance… There goes an extra 3 gallons of fuel burned. Nothing to worry about yet, this left me still safe with a generous 1.2 hours still in the reserves. There would be no need to land at Billings, so while transiting the airspace east, I cue up the new route waypoints in the Garmin and on ForeFlight, and continue the journey back North.

Beyond Billings, the duration of the flight north towards the Canadian border was relatively uneventful, other than a growing line of scattered TCU’s starting to develop up to seemingly 20,000ft over the fabled ‘no-man’s-land’, a vastness of Montana wilderness between Billings and Glasgow, virtually devoid of human population. Though not an imminent threat, this new line of TCU’s were still threatening enough to try to avoid, which ultimately resulted in some further course deviations to steer around… Unfortunately, that’s more fuel burned. That extra 12-gallons of fuel weight doesn’t feel like so much anymore. Again, it’s time to re-calculate the new flight times to confirm the fuel situation.

A few more mild bumps and shakes across a hundred miles of Nowhere, Montana, and eventually Glasgow passes below my left wing, along with the dodgy line of smaller convective clouds, dispersing behind me. All that’s left now is the Canadian border nearing ahead and 80-odd miles of Southern Saskatchewan prairie. Unlike the crossing into the USA, crossing back into Canadian Airspace requires very little, aside from having an active open flight plan, and a phone call to Canadian CBSA prior to your flight’s departure, to notify of your arrival. Once I’ve crossed, thirty-miles north of the line into Canada, I’m able to make my first radio contact with Winnipeg Centre so I can continue my flight-following back into Regina. I could have continued uncontrolled, but I’d rather talk to Canadian Air Traffic Control to ensure my flight plan made it over. Nearing the final destination, Winnipeg Center passes me off to Regina Tower for my final landing instructions. The seemingly endless 4-hour flight is nearing it’s close. The broken cumulus layer above me begins to appear more scattered, revealing a glimpse of sunshine as I get Regina in sight about 15-miles to my North. Time to get the weather:

CYQR Wx// 

Wind: 300@11G22 / Vis >15sm / Sky: BKN@6000 / Temp: 26C / DewPt: 11C / Press: 29.93” / DensAlt: 3,752ft

Regina Tower clears me for a left base runway 31, sequenced #2 behind a 737 on short-final, but ahead of a Q400 in the #3 position on a 10-mile final. ‘Keep the base tight’ was the instruction from the controller… Power to idle, and a half-mile-final, the wheels let off the song their final chirps as the rubber is finally reunited at 70mph with it’s home pavement. Welcome home! After exiting the runway, I taxi to the Customs building and follow the proceedings of a CBSA Officer using CANPASS. A quick, painless entry back home. One last taxi back to Apron 3, the home base for myself and the airplane, at the Regina Flying Club.

Mag check.

Mixture to idle/cut-off.

The engine flutters to a stop one last time as I crack the door and lunge my legs out for a serious stretch.

This most spectacular 5-day journey has unfortunately met it’s conclusion.

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My Employer. My educator. My mentor. The Regina Flying Club.

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I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to the Regina Flying Club for allowing me use of the airplane for these extraordinary 5 days, as well for the opportunity to work and learn from the many pilots, maintenance, and ground staff over the years. This historic hangar is like an organism of knowledge, and without the collaborative effort and teachings of everyone, this amazing experience would never have been possible. Additionally, I would like to thank my friends and family, who, in one way or another helped make this all a reality. Thank you all for an experience I will not soon forget! Allow me to dedicate this documentary to all of you, for everything that you’ve done.

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Finally, if you’ve made it this far, thanks for letting me share this journey with you!

I certainly hope you’ve enjoyed the ride. Perhaps you even learned a thing or two.

Maybe I’ve even inspired you to go out and trying something different, to explore new horizons.

What ever you do, never stop learning.

Do what sets your mind alive, and always spread your wings.

 

Keep your head in the clouds.

-JF

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