Floating on air: paragliding in the Bulkley Valley

Photo Credit: Submitted

Floating on air: paragliding in the Bulkley Valley

👤Matt J. Simmons 🕔May 30, 2014

I’m hanging out with a few keen paragliders at a launch site below Malkow Lookout, just outside Smithers. The spring sun warms us as we wait for the right conditions and discuss air.

Air doesn’t make a sound, but we hear it constantly: rustling leaves, stirring long grass, creaking in the eaves of an old cabin. On its unending travels, air traces erratic paths that are hard to understand, even harder to know and impossible to predict. Yet, that’s exactly what paragliders try to do. They need to know which way the air is moving: where it’s going, where it’s coming from and what it might do at any moment.

Paragliders think about thermals (columns of warm rising air) and about katabatic winds (air flowing down from mountains). They talk in terms like “glass off,” a weather condition that occurs at the end of the day where warm air stored in the earth is released, creating smooth flying conditions that are like the aerial version of canoeing on a perfectly still lake.

In today’s conditions, you can feel the air’s unpredictability: it’s cold as it pours down from the clouds over the Babine Mountains behind us; then it’s warm as it rolls slowly up from the valley below. I picture the air as a living, changing map spread out across the sky.

Think of synaesthesia—a phenomenon whereby a person might experience a link between senses such as seeing colours when they hear sounds. The art of reading all these changing air patterns is like trying to induce synaesthesia.

“Smells like cottonwoods,” says Dave Jones, clad in a one-piece flight suit and helmet, strapped into the harness that attaches him with multi-coloured lines to the nylon wing that lays dormant on the hill.

We’ve been waiting and watching windsocks for about an hour. Then everything happens suddenly. Air lifts the socks up and they’re pointing directly towards us. Jones tugs the lines and the wing arches quickly into the air with a rustling sound. With it above him like a giant kite, he turns around to face the void, leaps forward and up, up, up he goes.

A view from above

Anyone who’s looked up in Smithers on a sunny day with lifting thermals has likely spotted colourful paragliders soaring over town like exotic butterflies. Everyone has flying dreams, but these guys live those dreams. There’s a shared expression on the faces of Jones and paraglider pals Will MacKenzie and Mark Parminter that says it all: slight grin, sparkle in the eyes, sense of barely-controlled excitement.

“I get so many kids come over to me,” Jones laughs. “Whenever I land in town, they come running.”

Paragliding has appeal, but many who originally express interest later back off. It’s a sport with inherent dangers, and that initial impulse is rethought when they learn more. Plus, there are only about eight or so dedicated paragliders in the Bulkley Valley, so beginners have to find their own way.

“Learning in Smithers, you’re kind of on your own,” MacKenzie says.

“We don’t have any instructors here, so you have to make the call yourself,” Jones adds.

That’s not to say this core group of passionate paragliders won’t show a beginner the ropes. But at the end of the day, they explain, anyone flying here has to make risk assessments alone.

The art of flight

Paragliding is like a cross between hang gliding and parachuting. The wing looks similar to a parachute, but it’s designed to be more aerodynamic and—this is important—to go up and across, as well as down. It’s made of cells, pockets that allow air to flow in and inflate the wing.

Modern wings have come a long way from the 1990s, MacKenzie says, when they only had a few cells. Today’s wings have between 35 and 60. Dozens of lines (they look like strings, but are made of a high-strength, lightweight material) connect the wing to the harness, which becomes a seat once the pilot is in the air.

Pilots also carry electronic instruments such as a GPS, radios and a variometer, which measures air pressure similar to a barometer, telling the pilot when surrounding air is heading up or down. All this fits into a backpack and can be hiked up to a launch site. Or, as MacKenzie and Parminter attest, chucked onto a plane and taken with you on a trip.

The pair recently travelled to Roldanillo, Colombia for a paragliding competition. Why go so far? “Well, there’s no flying here in January!” MacKenzie laughs.

But the question most people want answered is, “How dangerous is paragliding?” On the whole, it seems paragliding is no more dangerous than kayaking, mountain biking or other adventure sports. Paragliding’s extreme stigma stems from its origins, MacKenzie says: “When it first started to get big, wings weren’t very reliable. Technology has come a long way since then.”

Jones agrees. “These things want to fly,” he says.

“The cool thing is,” Parminter adds, “the higher you go, the safer you are.” More air beneath you means more time to get your wing under control and, if necessary, throw a reserve parachute.

While wind can be unpredictable, how a paraglider reacts to air movements is what really matters. The thing most likely to get you into trouble is the grey matter under your helmet—or lack of it. Sometimes the safest choice is staying on the ground.

“Yesterday we hiked up the ski hill,” Parminter says. “We got up there and the sky looked angry. There was a strong wind coming from the wrong direction. So we came back down with our tails between our legs.”

It’s this kind of risk assessment—turning back when the conditions aren’t right—that keeps the sport relatively safe. But investing that much time isn’t for everyone.

“At the ski hill yesterday,” Parminter explains, “we hiked an hour up, hung around waiting for the weather to be right, then hiked back down—plus driving time. So some days you lose a whole day just trying to fly.”

But that doesn’t deter these guys. This passion for flying is what lights up their eyes when you ask them questions about the sport. They’re all happy to talk about it. Just don’t ask them when the winds are right. They won’t be able to hear you from up there.

For a quick look at Smithers paragliding, check out a video by local filmmaker Taylor Fox:www.vimeo.com/17199475

While a typical Bulkley Valley paragliding flight lasts up to two hours, there are places where all-day flying is possible. In 1998, Canmore, Alberta-based multi-sport athlete Will Gadd set the world record for long-distance flight on a paraglider at 290 km. After being outdone, Gadd went back up in 2002 and set the record 423 km (it was again beat). Both flights took place in the southern US. Northword contributor Matt J. Simmons caught up with Gadd to ask him about all things paragliding.

NW: How do you describe paragliding in just a few words?

WG: Total freedom. The ability to silently soar through the sky is unique to our generation of humans; none have had it before, and it is amazing!

NW: Why do you do it?

WG: I love the feeling of flight, of the air, and figuring out a very complex environment. Flying is the most challenging sport I do.

NW: What drives you to do long distance flights?

WG: Just to fly so far using only the power of the sun heating the ground and creating thermals. I’m driven by being the best I can be, of learning about the sky, and then flying intuitively through it. … Long distance flying is the purest expression of flight and freedom I’ve found.

NW: Will you try to beat the record again?

WG: I think I will try for the world record distance again, not so much because someone beat my record but because I think I can go farther, and learning how to do it will be a cool experience.

NW: What’s the next big thing for paragliding?

WG: Flying across mountain ranges for many days is a lot of fun. Two years ago I took a bus from my home in Canmore across the Rockies to Vernon and flew home, camping up high at night and having some great adventures.

NW: What’s next for you?

WG: Africa! Flying and climbing there.