By guest blogger Clark McCann
Looking straight down between my knees 6,000 feet to the blue expanse of the Frazier River, I catch a sudden gut-shot of vertigo and fear. Reality check: I’m a mile in the sky, borne forward by a soft paraglider wing that can fold up like a cheap suit when struck by turbulence. I suck in a couple of deep slow breaths, steady my gaze on the distant horizon of snow crusted peaks, and the queasy moment passes. "Okay, you wimp," I tell myself. "You paid for this ride, now enjoy it!" I lean back in my padded harness, comfortable as an easy chair, and look up at my beautiful red wing, inflated with air, bearing my weight—and life—through the winter sky. I make a slow turn to the right to look back at the sheer icy face of Mt. Cheam, where minutes before I had taken off from the gentle south side, turned back across the ridge, then flown out over the magnificent Frazier River valley. Below was a checkerboard of green pastures, in the distance lakes and mountains, as pretty as any landscape in Switzerland.
Less than four hours before I’d left Seattle by car with a half-dozen paragliding fanatics, led by Marc Chirico and his wife Lan, all of us eager to fly off of 7,200 Mt. Cheam in British Columbia. Among us were seasoned veterans with more than a thousand flights, as well as beginners, like me, with less than 100. One brave girl had just seven solo flights. Marc and Lan run Seattle’s most respected paragliding school and have trained hundreds of pilots over the last decade. Located at the foothills of the Cascades in Issaquah, the school sits at the foot of Tiger Mountain, one of the best paragliding sites in the Pacific Northwest.
Driving straight north to Bellingham we crossed the Canadian border at Sumas, then headed East on Highway 1 along the Frazier River. Near a town aptly named "Hope," we climbed aboard a small helicopter that ferried us up to the summit of Mt. Cheam, three at a time. The ride was spectacular, and harrowing, as the chopper ducked around swirling clouds and looked for clear air and a level spot near the summit to set us down. Once on the mountain, we found ourselves in a cold, alpine environment. I was worried about the clouds and poor visibility. What if we get socked in and we can’t fly off and the chopper can’t pick us up? My fears subsided as the mists rose in the warming sun and we caught a window of clear skies to launch from the steep snow slope.
Now, relaxing into my flight, I’m amazed by the smooth air—not a ripple of turbulence. I indulge myself with a series of lazy turns to better admire the view and still arrive at our grassy landing field with plenty of altitude. After a soft touch-down, we give each other high-fives and head to the resort town of Harrison Hot Springs for beers and pizza.
Too exhilarated to drive back, some of us elect to spend the night at the resort hotel, spending hours outside in the warm mineral waters, talking and reliving our winter flying adventure.
If you’re interested in group paragliding, and live in the Seattle area, contact Marc Chirico at Seattle Paragliding for tips, lessons, training and more. For reputable schools in other parts of the country, contact the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association. Contact the Harrison Hot Springs Resort in British Columbia for more information about accommodations.
Clark McCann is a Seattle area freelance writer and adventure sports enthusiast.