Tom Brokaw on Patagonia
The next day the weather is still low and wet, but Doug is sure he can fly, and he's eager for me to see the small farms he's developed on the perimeter of the park. The two of us roll out one of his Huskies, a single-engine plane that's the air equivalent of an old Willys jeep. It will land just about anywhere.

First we hop over to his organic honey operation, a state-of-the-art processing plant and shipping shed where local residents are learning new skills and finding steady work. Not so long ago the region was marked by the slash-and-burn attitude of absentee cattle and sheep ranchers who provided only seasonal jobs as they destroyed the forests to make more room for grazing pasture.

Next, we buzz off to another farm rebuilt with the same sensibilities as the main compound – shingled buildings that blend in with the surroundings. Veronica Orias, an enthusiastic and handsome young botanist, is in charge of the tree farm, and she's having uncommon success growing alerce seedlings and other native trees for replanting in the burned-over areas.

Veronica has guests, two uniformed officers of the Chilean national police force, the carabineros. It's a friendly visit, and when they recognize Doug they're eager to have a picture with him, an encouraging sign of the changing attitudes in Chile toward this outsider who moved in and began buying up everything he could get his hands on. After years of suspicion about his motives, fueled in part by his brusque personality and aversion to publicity, Chileans are now beginning to understand and appreciate his altruism.

Before heading home, Doug turns the Husky toward the upper reaches of the park, a series of steep valleys bordered by snowy peaks that may never know the hand of man. The approach to them is ungodly: raging rivers bordered by thick rain forest.

In the backseat of the tiny plane I am overwhelmed by the primal beauty and remoteness of it all. Doug maneuvers through the weather and downdrafts with grace and confidence as he explains over the headset, "Only about 2 percent of the park is accessible, but we've built a visitors center and trails at the entrance. The important thing is, all this will be forever wild."

I've never seen him so happy or so contented. A handsome, compact, and thoroughly athletic man, he's always been known for his no-detail-is-too-small standards and, equally, for his impatience with anyone who doesn't measure up. His intensity remains, but it seems to have been leavened by his understandable satisfaction with what he's accomplishing.

We're flying so low and slow I can practically count the petals on flowers. Doug's bush pilot skills are impressive, but later I hear some terrifying tales of flying in the Andean turbulence. He took a visiting photographer up and ran into weather so violent they were forced into an unscheduled landing. The photographer dropped to his knees and kissed the ground, then realized he was missing a camera. They looked everywhere before Doug discovered a camera-size hole in the plane's Plexiglas sunroof. The camera had been ejected by the force of the turbulence.

Our flight, I am pleased to report, is trouble-free, and I return in time to join Yvon in exploring the fishing prospects on a river alongside the main house. It is packed with rainbows, none much larger than 12 inches, but all of them in fighting trim and little affected by the driving rain and high water.

Later, at dinner, we all fall into a conversation about something that had never come up in all of our previous excursions. It began with Doug asking about the new phase of my life, post–Nightly News. I said I was still adjusting to the absence of daily deadlines and the realities of having just turned 65. I likened my old life to that of an airline pilot. I'd get up early every morning, be handed a flight plan, crawl into the cockpit of daily news, and fly a fixed route to 6:30 every night. Now, I said, I still get up early, but I have to file my own flight plan and the takeoffs and landings are a lot more irregular.

Malinda and Kris join in as we discussed the effect of statin drugs, estate planning, contingencies if one mate goes before the other. Yvon says he'd live a much simpler life. "I'd go somewhere where I could just fish and trade my catch for some rice and other staples." I didn't doubt him, but I didn't think I'd be joining him, either.

But the frank discussion of entering the mortality zone was useful and, for me, another reminder of how much these friendships have meant. The Chouinards and Tompkinses take me to places I may not otherwise go, physically and philosophically. Sure, Yvon has steered me up Grand Teton, and I made it to the top of Mount Rainier via the Kautz Glacier with Doug and Yvon. We were all part of a gonzo kayak trip down a little known river in the Russian Far East. Yet, looking back, as physically demanding as those and other trips were, it was the idea of them and the bonds we formed that linger. They called themselves the Do Boys, and I was happy to be a conditional member.