Having moved a few years ago from the mountainous Boulder CO to the flatlands of Gainesville FL, I have come to expect that some of the adventures I enjoyed while in Boulder would be no more—such as paragliding. But one day, while doing a kayak trip on the Ichetucknee River near Gainesville, I notice a small sign advertising paragliding nearby. Because I so thoroughly enjoyed paragliding in Colorado, I am thrilled to realize I could do it again in Florida. I soon talk a kayaking buddy—who has never gone paragliding but is as much of an adventurer as me—to give it a try. Finally, after a few weeks of waiting for our calendars to clear and for the wind conditions to be calm enough, we find a free Saturday. We sign up for the “Introductory Course” with the Silent Flight Paragliding Club, which includes a half-day of education, glider control (“kiting” with the paragliding canopy), launch techniques, and landing techniques.
After we sign the requisite waiver forms agreeing that we understand the sport was potentially deadly, we are taken to a large, open, flat field which has numerous “runways” mowed in different directions to account for changing wind directions. We are given instructions on “kiting,” which involves running with and inflating a canopy, and learning how to react to where, above your head, the canopy is flying, since you need to know how to adjust the canopy to keep it flying directly over your head. I feel like a complete idiot as I frantically and incompetently run around “kiting.”
Then, after the humiliating, humbling experience of kiting, we are taken to a runway for some “bunny launches.” One at a time, we put on the harness, get the canopy behind us with the seemingly hundreds of strings running from your hands and harness to the canopy untangled, and have a thin tow line attached to the harness. (see photo of me, upper right) The string looks so thin that we are wondering if it would be strong enough to pull us up into the sky, but are assured that it is 700-pound “test line.” The tow line runs down the middle of the runway in front of us for several hundred yards, where it loops around a metal pole at the end of the runway, and then doubles back to the launch location, where it is attached to a motorized winch.
Abruptly, with no preliminaries or chance of backing out, we are told to crouch forward, when all systems are go. The winch is turned on, and on a count of 5, the person hooked up is told to run hard down the runway. Within a few steps, the tension created by the winch harshly lifts you nearly straight up in the air (photo on left shows me being lifted skyward in a steep vertical climb). This contrasts with my Boulder paraglide experience, where the launch requires several hard-running steps to manually inflate the canopy.
Unfortunately, in my first launch here in Florida, I cannot resist the natural tendency, when you find yourself high above the ground, to put my arms and hands down at my legs instead of holding my hands up. By bringing my hands down, I initiated braking by the canopy, which quickly brings me back down to the ground.
However, I am able to behave myself in my following launches. The first of them takes me up about 300 feet. The last 2 of the 6 flights perform that afternoon are at about 800 to 1,000 feet. It is breathtaking (see photo of me, at right, in the stratosphere). As in Boulder, the views are for several miles, but this time it is across the Florida landscape, which, near Ft. White, includes many farms and woodlots. The experience is very much like you would expect if you were able to fly. For 5 to 15 minutes, the glider gives you a lot of control as to turns, slowing down, and speeding up. On my last few flights, I am able to do a full circle back to the launch area.
I am still soaring as I watch my friend take his turn.
For both my friend and I, the experience is stupendously exhilarating and peaceful. Neither of us could resist shouting for joy while we gently sail at 800 feet, knowing that we are in an extremely safe situation, yet one that most people can only dream of because it seems so impossibly fabulous.
Both of us plan to return in the future for several additional flights.