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Alaska Clarity

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Top of the glacier now in uncomfortable silence trying to figure out how to fly up, out and over the ocean to those mountains in the distance.

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!

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Near the BC/Yukon Border moments after launch. Let the adventures begin.

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!

Al-Can Highway makes a great landing site......now what?
Al-Can Highway makes a great landing site……now what?

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.

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Friends, new and old in the Alaska spendor.

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.

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Crazy bunch of travel companions. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

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.

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Dawn breaks on the wrong side of the border after the sleepless night from hell. I am still trying to forget that damn night.

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.

View of the Alaska Range.  A moment of complete clarity!
View of the Alaska Range outside Skagway. A moment of complete clarity!

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!

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Making it back to Skagway close to 10 p.m. with plenty of altitude to spare.
I am generally conservative and do not smile much, but that last night in Juneau I just couldn't control myself anymore.
I am generally conservative and do not smile much, but that last night in Juneau I just couldn’t control myself anymore.

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!

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Searching for Summer

So there we were in our brand new 2015 black SUV driving along a typical California interstate listening to the low din of the radio. Night had fallen and the cars were clipping along in bumper to bumper rhythm. I look over and notice the speedometer reading 71 mph as Clark launches into another story, casually maintaining pace with the surrounding traffic. Suddenly the dark sky ignites with bright red tail lights and I see the traffic come to a sliding and metal shattering halt.

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As we slide at 71 mph towards the ensuing disaster time seems to stop. I start questioning our judgement in declining that additional rental car insurance. Then like a scene out of The Matrix, time slows as Clark slams the gas, and finds that narrowing gap between the concrete bridge columns and the swerving and twisting cars. We slide through the closing gap whilst breaking tail lights, bumpers, and debris explode all around us. We come out the other end without a scratch and remarkably unscathed. Time quickly returns to normal pace, everyone is okay, the adrenaline drains, and a call from the backseat “Anyone up for Mexican Food?”

Southern California from DEAF Crew on Vimeo.

Searching for that never ending summer of flyable weather, and apparently a good mexican food dinner is always an adventure. That is just how it goes sometimes….well, most of the time really, but that is what keeps me searching (at least for the flyable weather). I left Salt Lake City, not only with three of my good friends, but an unwelcome and terrible cold. We land in Long Beach and with offshore winds, and a fever, nobody is too optimistic. “We head to Elsinore. It will be fine, and flyable…trust me” I say. “We stick to the plan”, which is a lesson I have learned many times now. Several hours later my feet dangle thousands of feet above Lake Elsinore as I watch the sun dip below the surrounding peaks. With over three hours in the air soaring and thermal flying across the mountains I just have to smile, regardless of my raging fever, because I think we just found summer.

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Myself, Clark and Keenan flying along the ridges of Elsinore
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Sick, but still smiling after hours of flying.

I cannot speak much about last night, as I was deliriously sick, but the sun is bright and I find myself in the beautiful land of Santa Barbara. I always love it here. Not only is the atmosphere comfortably welcoming, but the flying is always good. Hooking up with Fly Above All, we get a ride to the top of the mountains. The air is warm, welcoming and bubbling. Keenan and I are the first in the air over the VOR and together we quickly lock into a thermal that allows us to climb a thousand feet over the top of the mountains. We wait for some of the others to launch, but enough is enough and we start heading east across the range. Several peaks, and an hour or so later the lift begins to dwindle and we start fighting our way back towards Santa Barbara. Paul, Clark, Keenan, and I all group together against the cliffs in a small thermal just long enough to get us the necessary altitude to get out of the mountains and into the valley. Paul holds on a little too long and ends up in a small vineyard in the foothills. The rest of us make it out safely. Santa Barbara Magic!

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Clark and myself heading to the valley
The daily fuel stop....Clark style.
The daily fuel stop….Clark style.

The day ends with the group attempting some beach flying with several near mishaps including a tangle with a flag pole and some very prickly bare feet. I choose to forego the beach flight attempt and spend the evening behind the lens filming my friends.

Keenan deciding where to land.
Keenan deciding where to land.
Jeff S.....enjoying the view.
Jeff S…..enjoying the view.
Gary headed out to sea.
Gary headed out to sea.

As morning crests I am feeling better, but the weather is not the best. We find ourselves back in the mountains eager to fly, but conflicted with very mixed weather data. Many of the locals decide to stand down due to the swirling Santa Anna Winds, and we all decide to follow their lead. Except for Paul of course, as he decides to launch and has a bumpy, but otherwise successful and safe flight. I am a little conflicted over the day and wish I would have flown, but not flying when things do not ‘feel’ right is never a bad thing I guess.

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Friends enjoying the last sunset in the grass lined cliffs

We continue to chase the wind around the valley and eventually end up atop a cliff area stretching above the Pacific. The wind is light, but good enough for me to play around along the cliff face. The flights are short, but worth every step back up to the top of the cliffs. The day, and our trip ends relaxing along the grassy ledges watching the sun dip into the Pacific Ocean surrounded by new and old friends alike. Summer? Yes, I think we found it and I look forward to coming back again soon.

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The Winter Bond

The cold winter air has set in along the Wasatch Front, including the strong inversions that we are infamous for. With the cold air setting in, the two most common questions emerge. The first is from my non-pilot friends who always ask with a concerned voice “isn’t it cold up there?” The next question is from my pilot friends, one that is never actually asked, but one I hear in the whisper of each excuse. “Is the hike really worth it….I mean it is just a sled run, right?”

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The answers to each of these questions rattle around inside my head as I continue hiking upwards through the thickening sky. “No it is not that cold, we have an inversion, that means it gets warmer the higher up you go.” “Is this hike really worth it?” Well…..it is to me. I find myself hiking more and more these days….well, actually most every day. Most of the time is spent in quiet solitude with just my breath, thoughts, and the crunch of ice under my feet. In order to touch the clear blue skies these days, walking is the required cost. One that I am more than willing to pay. As I step higher and higher up into the mountains, my thoughts turn from the dirty air filling my lungs to the reasons and rewards of why I am doing it.

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Winter is often a time when many paraglider pilots put their wings away for a season. The pilot chatter all around seems to dull to a whisper, like the evening ripples of a high mountain lake. It is a refreshing change to put all ambitions aside and just fly with no ulterior motives other than the pure joy of flight. As I continue upward with burning lungs I am briefly reminded of a scene from the movie Avatar released several years ago. It is a moment when the main character “bonds” with his banshee or bird. As our hero “connects” to his bird, feels its thoughts, its heart, its breath, he is granted the ability to partake in the absolute magic of flight. The feelings of flight that is portrayed in this scene is intensely real, yet extremely difficult to explain to those who have never truly experienced free flight. I can attest that flying at such an intimate level with no distractions, no machines, is indeed a magical experience.

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Winter is a time of calmness, a time when the air can almost stand still. This is not a cold wind rolling over a ridge, or swirling air of different temperatures, but literally motionless air. A type of air that offers some amazing rewards, like creating or re-creating that magical “bond” with ones glider. It is a type of air that allows me to “feel” each and every one of my lines as they connect to my body. I can feel the micro movements, shifts, flutters, tension, pressure and energy all around my wing. I can actually feel the tips of my wing, like feathers at my fingertips. It is a pretty cool feeling.  To me winter flying is a time to reconnect that “bond” with my wing where we become as one. This is the very reason why I do what I do. For I know when that still air around me starts to slightly swirl I can feel it resonate and begin to use its power to climb, to soar, to fly. I have learned that any ol’ dummy (including me) can go up in a thermal come spring thru autumn. However, I have learned that the ability to feel and really understand those micro movements is near impossible outside the still air of winter. When the air gets violent come springtime, will you be “at one” with your set of wings, or will you merely be a passenger? This is the conversation I have with myself with each passing step through this lung burning air.

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I will continue the walk up each day into the blue winter sky searching for those moments of stillness. Moments that will continue to solidify that ever crucial bond between man and wing and offer up the true magic of free flight. Despite the short flights and bad air below, the rewards found in the sky are worth each and every step. Is it worth it? It is to me.