Suspended by dozens of sturdy strings, 175 paragliders spiraled up thermals Sunday afternoon hoping to attain altitudes of a mile high over the Rogue Valley.
From a distance, the sails resembled colorful, upside-down crescent moons against the sky and distant, snow-capped peaks.
"It looks epic," said Brad "Gun" Gunnuscio, a top paraglider. "We always get lucky with the weather here."
The seven-day competition that began Sunday on Woodrat Mountain in the Applegate Valley is part of a national championship for 2012, which comes after 10 years of being sanctioned by the U.S. Hangliding and Paragliding Association.
Woodrat is on every paragliders' map because it has consistent winds that pick up in the early afternoon.
As the inland valleys heat up, air currents from the coast are sucked in, and one of the best places to catch the updrafts is atop 4,124-foot Woodrat.
Gunnuscio and other paragliders master wind energy to maneuver the 70-mile race. Amateur paragliders vaulted off the same mountain Sunday for a shorter sprint around the valley.
From their vantage point, the paragliders looked out over various wineries that are participating in the race, including Fiasco, Fly High and Longsword, Valley View and Red Lily.
Many paragliders targeted wineries for their landings but were warned not to land in an open area near the base of Woodrat, dubbed "Rottweiler field." The property owner warned that his dogs might not be very welcoming. Despite the warning, a paraglider landed in the field and was immediately picked up by a truck with no menacing dogs in sight.
Gunnuscio, a 36-year-old from Salt Lake City, said many paragliders have a fear of heights, including himself. He said he started soaring in 1983 on a hanglider.
A fear of heights is normal for most high-flyers, but once in the air the only fear is the fear of falling, he said.
The actual race often is determined by who can best use the energy of wind, not who can turn a corner the fastest.
"We're all friends until the final glide," Gunnuscio joked.
When the race began, two or three paragliders pushed off at roughly the same time, followed by another three shortly after. As they scrambled down the gravel incline, they pulled on controls to adjust the sail.
Once airborne, the paragliders slipped into a cocoon-shaped cradle that allows them to be recumbent. Inside the cradle are other controls that can be activated by the feet.
A parachute is available in case anything happens. On Saturday, a few paragliders strayed off course during practice sessions, with one getting tangled in a tree. No serious injuries were reported.
Chasing updrafts and figuring out how high to glide are some of the biggest challenges.
"It's kind of like driving," said 27-year-old Bend resident Caroline Lewis. "You have to learn how to manage yourself in the gaggle."
The "gaggle" refers to a group of paragliders all turning in the same direction as they spiral up the thermals, similar to the techniques turkey vultures use to avoid flapping their wings.
Paragliders use mountains and clouds as markers that have rising air currents that will boost them up even higher.
"I hope to be at the base of clouds," said Michael Beck, a 48-year-old Monterey, Calif., resident.
But paragliders stay clear of large cumulus clouds, which have enough updraft to suck them up into dangerous heights, he said.
"When you want to get down, and you can't get down, it's bad," he said.
The race is similar to a sailing regatta, but in the case of paragliders, they rely on GPS to glide to different positions, usually near a mountain, then turn and head in a different direction.
To keep everyone flowing in the same direction, race organizers designate left-turn and right-turn days. Sunday was a left-turn day.
"It's going to be a complete zoo in the air with everyone flying around," Beck said.
Rarely do paragliders collide, and Beck said he's in the competition more for the fun of it. "I'm not going to win this thing," Beck said. "I want to head over there and have a nice glass of cabernet."
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email email@example.com.