As autumn comes to an abrupt end, and the snow begins to fall, it is a good time to reflect. Life can often be very mundane; the same schedule day in and day out. At times it has felt like my life is filled with only the drab, the relentless grind, the longing for wishing, wanting, and working toward a future day. As I briefly pause and look back over the last few months I realize how much color is actually in my life. Color shining forth not necessarily in specific adventures, but the friends along the way that embody the color of life. Paragliding, although beautiful and breathtaking, is a lonesome pursuit once you are in the air. However, whilst on the ground, this pursuit often presents a colorful collection of personalities. It is this collection of close knit friends, family, and fellow adventurers that bring so much color to my life. My feet dangling thousands of feet over the mountains, circling with eagles and touching the clouds…well, that is just a bonus.
It is amazing what can happen in just 24 hours. Especially within the realm of paragliding. If your lucky you can bag one good, solid mountain flight within that timeframe, but five? Yeah, our short excursion to central Utah this weekend yielded just that. These are not short nor small sessions in the air, but high altitude, high alpine type flights.
The high desert is a fickle place to fly a Paraglider, riddled with unique dangers and intensities in the air that often do not get the respect they rightfully deserve. Through the years I have been taught this respect, sometimes in a not so pleasant way. I have seen too many pilots treat the conditions in these desert mountains just like those of the training hill. Unfortunately, that approach is a bit like petting a dragon, and thinking your just petting a kitty cat. Thus I am very cautious when I approach these desert mountains. As autumn unleashed Clark, Keenan, and myself looked closely for just the right weather window, and when it happened, we went.
We were joined by Jeff, Mike, Bob, and of course our ever faithful driver Amber. The first late morning flight began from the 11,200 foot summit of Monroe Peak just as the small autumn clouds began to form above. In the zero wind conditions Keenan and I made quick work of the small thermals and after a few turns found ourselves tickling the underside of the clouds…and the rhythm of the day begins.
As evening starts to give way to night we sneak in one final flight off the summit, just as the clouds part. The sky erupts in golden splendor reflecting the beautiful autumn colors below. Cross Country (XC) flying is fun and all, but absolutely NOTHING compares to a high mountain flight in the smooth evening air. No adrenaline, no rush, no miles, lines, or expectations; just a heavenly beauty and divine feeling in the soul that cannot be replicated with ones feet on the ground. Folding our gliders in the grass under the dancing purple sky, a few of us recognized what just happened and couldn’t wipe the smile off our faces. That 30 minute flight was hands down one of the most spectacular flights I have perhaps EVER had in my flying career……and believe me, I have had a few.
It has been a few months since I first walked off that plane into the rain filled skies of Alaska. My bulky pack full of fabric and string which through the years has become just another extension of my body. Over those few short days adventure flying in Alaska I learned a few lessons about myself, others, and was endowed with some much needed mental clarity. Through the last twenty years I have spent a fair bit of time in the Alaska wilderness, mostly behind the lens of a camera, but through it all I have come to know one indisputable fact. It rains in Southeast Alaska, like a lot! If it is not raining, then it is usually blanketed in low hanging clouds. If you do get a rare glimpse of the sun, it is likely because it is really windy up high. So needless to say, when we put this little paragliding expedition together, I was less than optimistic about the flying potential. However, in my mind, Alaska is always a good idea, so I was the first to drop everything and make it happen. As I walked off the plane in Juneau, the rain was already falling….ahh, southeast Alaska!
Lesson 1: Never Again
When it comes to another paragliding trip to Alaska, I tell people I will never go back. Why? Because from the day we landed our bush plane into the rainy town of Skagway, until the time we flew out under the rainy skies of Juneau we had the most ridiculous weather you have ever seen. When I say ridiculous, I mean the most amazing, sunny, no wind, thermic, incredibly perfect flying weather you could ever imagine. This never happens in coastal Alaska, let alone for 5 days in a row? It was a fluke of nature, and honestly I can’t even comprehend a stretch of coastal Alaskan days ever being so good again for paragliding. So, that is why I say never again!
The paragliding over those several days was just life altering good. If I could sum the whole trip up in a few rambling words it would sound something like this: Helicopters to the middle of nowhere, glaciers, airplanes, miles of desolate roads, thermic lift to 8,000 feet above the ocean, paragliding across entire coastal ranges and even across the ocean just to find civilization again. With flights out of interior Canada across provinces, mountain ranges, forests, beaver ponds, and even landing along the deserted Al-Can Highway (scariest landing of my life) miles from nowhere. Awake from 4 am until midnight each day fueled onward with nothing but Cheetos and Gatorade. I was so deliriously exhausted that I actually did eat some fish, much to the entertainment of my friends.
Lesson 2: Others
No matter where I have traveled with a paraglider on my back from the Alps to the Rockies, Southern Deserts to the Pacific Islands I have learned that people are generous. I have found that everything in Alaska is just a bit bigger, and so too did I find the size and capacity of the hearts of the locals. They were so generous in opening up their homes, beds, food, cars, helicopters, and jovial conversation that I was humbly impressed. It was so fun to interact with all the locals who were so excited to be a part of what we were doing, so willing to go the extra mile to help us be successful.
For instance as I landed near the runway one day and started folding up my glider a police car pulled up and asked what I was doing. Oh great….here we go. Not only did he smile a warm welcome, but he became our best friend for the rest of the day opening his home to anything we needed. One of the most generous and genuinely nice people I have met. From then on he was the first one in the LZ to offer a thumbs up or a high five to all of us. All of the local people we met in our journey, from the Alaskan’s to the Canadian’s all were the most generous souls I have had the pleasure of crossing paths with in a long time. Likewise, my travel companions Hal, Jonny, Clark, and Mark were the perfect blend of crazy, funny with a small dash of stupidity that made this adventure so memorable.
Lesson 3: Moments of Clarity
This trip was amazing, but I have to be honest here. As I first walked off that plane, I was already exhausted. Exhausted with the whole paragliding scene, the expectations, the filming, flying, everything really. It felt like just another job that needed to be done and the joy that so often fuels my drive was just plain gone….months ago! The local scene back home these days is all about XC, all about distance, your line on a map, regardless of…well, anything else. I enjoy XC flying, but to me there is so much more to the miracle of free-flight than any line I make on a map. So this deafening conversation all around me had left me frustrated and struggling to remember the real reasons why I choose to fly. Two flights this trip changed my mind.
It was late afternoon, the last day in Skagway when we were dropped off via helicopter on the upper moss covered ledges near the snowline. After launching and finding some productive coastal thermals (miracle) and climbing to 8,000 feet above the ocean I watched the town disappear as I ventured out and across the Alaska Range. I distinctly remember how I felt….utterly alone! Like really alone. There was nothing but glaciers, lakes, mountains and miles and miles of wild land. As I soaked up the landscape, I felt the cold air on my face, cold air in my lungs, and my spirit just calmed to something resembling still water. I was at one with my glider, the air, the trees, the snow, and I had a clear and distinct realization of what I was actually doing. That moment of clarity realizing that this life, this experience is truly a divine gift, and I need to pay attention and realize it. I landed near 10 p.m. back in Skagway amidst friends, old and new, and felt a distinct smile of joy, one I have not felt in a while. Yes, tonight was a gift!
It was the last evening in Alaska above the town of Juneau and I was hiking up for my fourth flight of the day. It had been 5 days since I really slept and I was completely exhausted. We decided to hike just a bit higher into a large sheltered bowl. I knew it was going to be nothing like the last night in Skagway, but decided to tackle the terrain in my own way. I launched and tucked in tight to the terrain. A white ptarmigan took flight and I followed it around the bowl deeper into the mountain just feet off the ground. We crossed the snow line and the mountain erupted in magical air. I climbed, my friends climbed, and alongside the company of a bald eagle we ventured once again high above and out across the Alaska Range. For over two hours we dashed along the peaks. I only had my phone to capture a few fleeting moments, but once again the clarity of how special this pursuit is burned into my mind.
As I stumbled onto the plane to come home amidst the falling rain, my mind was clear. I was reminded once again why I love the pursuit of free flight and that it is uniquely personal. I decided it was time to fly much more ‘quietly’, away from the scene, away from those elements that detract from the real reasons why I personally fly. I decided it was time to start spending more time behind the camera, and less time in front of it. Perhaps that is the reason I seem more silent these days, or why it has taken almost three months to post this adventure. I guess I have just been too busy flying my own way, flying my own quiet adventures away from the conversation. And once again enjoying the view from behind the camera eye. When it is time for clarity, Yes, Alaska, it is always a good idea!