The peaceful adrenaline of Paragliding over Tahoe
Submitted by admin on Fri, 08/03/2012 - 10:47am
Is it possible to be thrilled and relaxed at the same time?
I learned the answer to this question hanging beneath the canopy of a paraglider as it soared several hundred feet over the forested ridge that runs along the border between California and Nevada on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe.
The excitement of flying through the air under an oversized parachute was matched only by the peaceful beauty of the blue lake below. It's a vantage point that might have left the great Mark Twain speechless.
I first met Ed Youmans several years ago when he was the manager of Diamond Peak Ski Resort. When I saw some pictures he posted on Facebook of him giving tandem rides for his company Daydreams Paragliding, I knew I had to do it.
Our meeting place was Kings Beach State Recreation Area, next to the North Tahoe Events Center. There at 5 p.m. we got a good look at the beach that would be our landing zone in a couple of hours.
With the gear all packed up, we drove to the entrance of the now-closed road leading to the old fire lookout above Crystal Bay. From there, we donned packs of equipment and hiked up the old road, cutting off on a trail before reaching the lookout. Ed told me they used to launch from the fire lookout several years ago, but that it was too low and didn't provide much margin for safety.
Youmans, a certified instructor with more than 1,700 paraglider flights, explained that the Federal Aviation Administration treats paragliders as ultralight aircraft. Under FAA rules, paragliders are restricted from flying in certain areas and must stay out of the way of other aircraft, but otherwise they leave certification of pilots and equipment to private organizations like the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.
After less than a mile of uphill hiking, we reached a clearing on a west-facing slope that comprises the takeoff zone. Ed has logged more than 400 flights from this spot, and he has even equipped the zone with a comfortable bench to sit on and enjoy the view while waiting to launch.
Ed said that the weather this summer has been perfect for flying, with a steady west wind blowing up the slope and creating the thermals that keep the gliders aloft for an hour or more at a time. And this evening was no exception. Except for a tiny bit of clouds to the far south, the sky was clear and blue.
I climbed into rig that is like a backpack with shoulder straps, plus a strap that goes around each leg. Then Ed attached my rig to his as we readied for takeoff.
The launch is probably the most scary part, but it happened so quickly I hardly remember it. After the wind inflated the glider, we ran down the hill in unison for about three steps before being lifted into the sky.
After that, we gained altitude until we were a couple of hundred feet above the tops of the trees and soaring down the ridge toward the lake. Unlike a hot air balloon, you feel the wind go by as you fly, but it's a gentle breeze, even relaxing, and reminds you that you are in fact flying and not just suspended in space.
As we fly past the old fire lookout, Ed makes an easy turn as we head back toward the launch area. There are now three gliders in the air, and we pass by the one that launched after us, which gives the first indication of speed. Judging distances takes some getting used to. I looked down and saw one glider that seemed to be heading into the trees, but in reality it was clear of the treetops by at least a hundred feet.
Ed explained what he looks for in terms of wind and weather when he flies. Looking down at the lake, he pointed out the waves on the water, which tell him the wind is blowing as he likes it. The boats tied to buoys point into the wind like weather vanes. They are pointing to the south west. If they start pointing south, Ed says it's time to go down.
As we go back and forth along the ridge, there is one part where the air seems to turn us slightly as we go by. When I mention this, Ed points down to a three-story complex that is under construction below us, at the bottom of Brockway Hill.
"That wasn't there last year, but now you can feel it," Ed said as he explained how objects on the ground and other gliders affect the airflow.
Ed turned over the control handles and taught me the basics of turning. As I made a very easy turn at the end the ridge to go back downwind, I learned it takes patience.
"The problem with most people at the beginning is they pull on the handle expecting it to turn right away," Ed explained. "And then they pull harder and end up in a steep banked turn."
We were in no hurry, and there was no need for any aerobatics today. The tandem rig we were flying was made to be easy and stable, not for tricks. Just sitting there enjoying the view was enough.
With six gliders in the air at one time, we must have been quite a sight for all the people below, looking like a flock of giant, multicolored eagles soaring back and forth above the ridge.
An hour passed and the sun dropped lower in the sky. It was time to go down. We headed out toward the lake, making slow spirals as we dropped altitude.
On the final approach to the beach, I could see several people watching as we descended to the sand. We were the free entertainment for evening beachgoers.
After a smooth landing, people were coming up asking about what we were doing. Some of them thought we had jumped out of an airplane. One person, a commercial pilot, was asking about how to get involved flying a paraglider.
Trying to get used to standing on the ground again, I found myself asking the same question, so I could again soar like a bird.
You can find out more about Daydreams Paragliding on their Facebook Page, or call (775) 720-9156. They have been flying almost every day and will continue as the weather allows. They offer tandem rides for people of all ages.