Northwest paragliding

🕔Jul 24, 2007

It’s 7 p.m. on what should be a lazy summer evening, and John Kelson just fell off a mountain.
Well, okay. He didn’t exactly fall off. That part was planned. But catching his wing on a hemlock tree and crashing into a snowy mountainside face first wasn’t.
From his cell phone, Kelson reassures me he’s not hurt or freaked out though.
“I’m just shocked,” he shouts with excitement. “I’ve only had one other crash before.”
In that one other crash, Kelson “popped a few ribs off his spine,” dislocated his hip, knocked himself out and was evacuated by Search and Rescue. But still, he says, all he’s thinking about now is that he’ll have to buy another wing. “I’ve never wrecked a wing before.”
No, John Kelson is not a bird; he’s not a plane; and from his crash tonight, we know he’s not superman. But he is addicted.
He can’t get enough of floating through the air using only strings and a 40-lb, 28-square-metre piece of nylon to balance. In other words, Kelson is a paraglider.
“It’s kind of like a bad addiction,” he says. “It’s something you want to do whenever you can.”
And that is why the Smithers local is on yet another road-trip. Kelson is on his way to Golden, BC, to fly the skies there. But, being the addict he is, he also had to stop in Vancouver to paraglide there too—and will be flying in other places along the way as well.
Tonight he launched off Cypress Mountain for the first time and, despite his spill, was stoked to take in the bird’s-eye views that most people would never experience, he says.
Paragliding is popular in several urban centres—Golden, Kamloops, San Francisco—but “pilots,” as paragliders like to call themselves, are a unique breed in the Northwest.
Smithers is the most popular place to fly in the region, with the most take-off and landing zones, and there are only about six full-on flyers there.
Kelson, who has lived in Smithers for close to nine years and paraglided for 12, is one of them. Larry McCulloch, who’s lived in the small mountain town for more than 20 years, is another.
McCulloch explains the relationship among the elite crew: “Paragliding is a super-dangerous sport and it’s pretty intense, so the kind of people it attracts are real individualists. We are a pretty tight-knit group. We do lots of stuff together, but we all have busy lives.”

Unique Northwest

Though territory is different no matter where you fly, the Northwest has especially rugged terrain—meaning air and land, he continues. “It’s more dangerous here. It’s all uncertain.”
Smithers is unique compared to most places because much of the terrain isn’t mapped out. The land here is also remote, so it’s easier for a pilot to get lost in the wilderness should she or he crash or be forced to land unexpectedly.
The thermals (rising air currents) are different here, too. Unlike other flying hot spots such as California, where the thermals are smoother and more predictable, here they come from the mountains, making them strong but unreliable.
“Sometimes they are big, broad and smooth. Sometimes they are small like bullets,” McCulloch says.Thermals are what paragliders depend on to fly. The pockets of warm air lift pilots up into the sky, giving them more height and more flight. Paragliders try to jump from thermal to thermal, but are also constantly eyeing the ground for a safe landing spot should they not get the boost they’re looking for.
Paragliders in the Northwest can go as high as 12,000 feet, gaining 5,000 feet in just one thermal. Flights can last anywhere up to nine hours. Advanced pilots also use thermals for tricks such as 360s and swinging like a pendulum.
But McCulloch warns, “It’s very dangerous. You can’t see the wind. These are not rigid frames. These are bags with strings on them. Thermals can hit paragliders and make them fall. And if you can’t get out of a fall, you are going to hit the ground and die.”
“Lots of people we know die,” he adds in a stern voice.
McCulloch himself has had many scary experiences and once ended up with two casts on his feet. “I have never crashed badly, though,” he says.
That’s why he believes anyone interested in starting should take a course. McCulloch used to organize instruction courses in the Northwest but the two teachers here died in paragliding accidents.
“People must go into it cautiously,” he says. “And it takes a person with good judgment to stay in it and survive.”
Kelson agrees that flying can be dangerous—hence tonight’s crash, and his bigger one seven years ago. He also preaches the common theory among adrenaline junkies—decrease your risk by increasing your knowledge and experience.
“A course is essential because your friends probably won’t teach you theory. The more you know, the less chance you have of hurting yourself and the more fun you have,” Kelson says. “Air is like a liquid; you have to know how it acts.”
Not that Kelson and McCulloch want to turn anyone off the sport. “It’s like anything. You need new blood, otherwise you are stuck with old guys. And they have kids and jobs,” says Kelson.
Kelson explains he’s tried most of the individual adventure sports such as white-water kayaking, rock climbing and backcountry skiing, but paragliding is the most addictive.
Even a sled run is fun, he says.

Sledding on air

Sled runs, also called “sleddies,” are flights without thermals—pilots simply launch off the side of a mountain and make their way down, drifting. They are shorter, simpler and safer: the perfect way for new flyers to learn.
Armel Castellan would know. Besides dabbling in the sport briefly when he was a teenager, he’s been paragliding for three years. And he’s still only doing sleddies.
That’s because he wants to log at least 35 sleddies before moving on to the real deal. And frequent flying in the Northwest can be difficult because, on average, the weather in Smithers is only good for paragliding about 30 times a year between March and September.
Castellan never took an introductory course, but he is a meteorologist by profession. Therefore, although relatively low on the experience totem pole compared to some of the others, he is up on his knowledge. “I can offer meteorological info that they aren’t as familiar with,” he says. “It’s not just one guy that knows everything. Everybody is teaching things to each other.”
“Most pilots have an appreciation for the weather. You have to. The weather is your playground.”
“Perma-grin” is how Castellan explains the sensation of paragliding. “It’s totally unreal. To fly is a sensation you can’t really put into words. You pinch yourself. You think, ‘I can’t even believe this is possible.’”
Castellan adds that paragliding is an especially special way to fly because all it takes is hiking up a mountain with a piece of cloth—and some technical equipment—in your backpack.
Kelson says it more plainly, “It’s not just a death wish—it’s fun!”
As for finding people to go with, Castellan says that’s easy. “If your ear is tuned to flying, you’ll find at least one of the other interested parties.”
A few people have recently expressed interest in organizing a course. Kelson says to contact him at if you are interested.

Check out for more information on paragliding in Canada, including certified instructors with insurance in BC. Wannabe-pilots should be committed before they begin, as equipment can be costly: a full set-up—including a wing, harness, helmet and vario (an instrument that measures the rate and distance a pilot is rising or falling)—will set them back anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000. Warm clothes and boots for hiking, and for the cold air at high altitudes, are also essential. Some flyers also like to pack a GPS.