Kay Chaffey was not afraid of adventure. She learned to fly an airplane before she could drive a car in her home state of Idaho before moving to Northern California.
Kay’s service to her country during World War II in the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) has been documented in many articles. She flew planes in all sorts of weather across the nation to position them for active duty, and received the Congressional Gold Medal for
her service to her country. She used her piloting skills during the dramatic 1964 floods in Humboldt, dropping food and supplies to isolated communities till rivers subsided and roads could be repaired. Her service as a pilot and as a popular dance teacher at Humboldt State University are examples of her commitment to her Humboldt community.
Perhaps less recognized are her contributions to conservation here along the Redwood Coast.
Kay was a lifetime member of the Northcoast Environmental Center and was active in the local chapters of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society during the tumultuous citizen effort to establish Redwood National Park. Kay was a member of the Citizens for Redwood National Park, the local coalition of conservationists that served as eyes and ears for the nation documenting the clearcutting and environmental disaster just behind the thin curtain of forest left along tourist thoroughfares. She was not afraid to use her pilot skills and hiking skills to pull aside that thin curtain to show the world what was happening to her beloved redwood forests.
Kay was frequently the pilot of a rented single prop Cessna 172 or 182 airplane to fly photographer Dave Van de Mark over the moonscape clear-cuts and remaining forests. They would remove the passenger side door to assure a clear view for Dave’s camera in spite of the cold and danger. She would fly high enough to get reconnaissance shots showing there were untouched forests worth saving, as well as exposing the magnitude of the devastation. Van de Mark recalls they once flew up to about 15,000 feet altitude in the small plane till lack of oxygen made them dizzy. But usually Kay was cautious, carefully going over the checklist and hesitant to fly too low for closer shots. She did, however, fly along Redwood Creek below ridgelines—flying in slow, tight circles for a shot till the plane would shudder. If the engine had failed, they would have crashed into the remote valley.
Kay’s courage and dedication to saving redwoods nearly got the better of her on a rafting trip with Van de Mark to document the beauty of the forests and logging destruction along Redwood Creek. The following recounts a story remembered by Van de Mark:
In February 1967, Kay and Dave were going on a raft photo trip down Redwood Creek to document recent logging activity. Snow covered the ridges above Redwood Creek. Kay’s husband, Keith, dropped the two off along Bald Hills Road and left to stage his car downstream near the Tall Trees Grove. They hiked the inflatable raft and equipment down to the swollen Redwood Creek. They launched the raft and started their journey down Redwood Creek past primeval forests.
The boat hit a submerged branch that punctured one of the two air chambers, dumping them both into the swift cold water and ruining Dave’s cameras. They pulled to shore inside the roadless and unlogged Emerald Mile of Redwood Creek. They were four or more river miles upstream from what is now known as Tall Trees Grove and determined it would take them days to hike through the redwood forest with no trails to reach Keith. The only choice was to hang on to the remaining floatable part of the raft and be carried by the frigid current to Keith’s waiting car.
Though Dave felt the numbing effects of hypothermia, Kay began to have a stronger reaction with severe shuddering and irrational thoughts of letting go or telling Dave to let her go—which would have meant her death. Fortunately, Dave was able to hold on to Kay until they reached Keith. The experience strengthened the friendship between Kay and Dave and was symbolic of their dedication to saving this future National Park.
Kay was rewarded when she attended the dedication of Ladybird Johnson Grove in 1969. She continued to work for increased protections and recognition of the beauty of the redwood environment.
Kay Chaffey died in her home in Oregon on August 21, 2017. The Northcoast Environmental Center is proud to have called her a friend and is grateful for her decades of support.
Read her obituary on the Lost Coast Outpost, written by Bob Doran, here: www.lostcoastoutpost.com/2017/sep/25/obituary-kay-chaffey-1920-2017/.