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MailTribune.com
  • Freedom to Fly

    Southern Oregon is a world-class paragliding destination, with a variety of willing teachers
  • If you've ever dreamed of flying like Superman, paragliding is about as close as you can get. It's fairly easy to learn, and it's like stepping into another world, one full of immense beauty and carefree euphoria.
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  • If you've ever dreamed of flying like Superman, paragliding is about as close as you can get. It's fairly easy to learn, and it's like stepping into another world, one full of immense beauty and carefree euphoria.
    "It's the total freedom you feel when you fly, the fact you are in the moment, like a meditation," says retired nurse Rena Scott, 66, of Medford.
    Her husband, Ron Scott, got her into paragliding. Getting ready to launch at Woodrat Mountain, near Ruch, Ron notes that it's not all a walk in the park.
    "It's a challenging sport. You have to stay in good condition. You need to be mobile and quick on your feet," he says.
    "It's safe if you remember all the guidelines and pay attention to the weather," says Rena. "Don't fly if it's too windy. You have to remember these are the world's slowest aircraft, about 15 mph. So you don't go in wind that's faster than you can fly, otherwise you'll be going backwards."
    "You can't get a cheaper form of aviation," says instructor Christian Rossberg of Jacksonville, "and it's happening right here in one of the best flying sites in the U.S. Every year, the safety increases exponentially and the training becomes more refined."
    A "wing" will cost you $4,000 to $6,000 new, and add another $1,500 to $2,000 for lessons, says Rena. You shop for one that fits your weight and skill level.
    On a warm day in July, with good (but not too strong) thermals, about 15 paragliders pre-flight their "wings," check the steadiness and speed of the upward moving air and begin to pull on their crafts, letting the air fill the baffles, setting up a good "wall" (firm, filled wing).
    When that happens, they sprint toward the edge of the launch area, forcing the wing into the air above them. Then their feet lift off the ground and they begin maneuvering lines to change the shape of the wing, steering it to left or right.
    Paragliding, especially with scads of them on a lovely summer day, looks blissful, poetic and fun — and pilots say that's exactly what it is.
    "Most people, on their first flights, say it's the most amazing thing they've ever done," says instructor Nick Crane of Ashland. "One woman started crying up there in the sky. She was losing it, out of her mind with the experience."
    Typical is Matt Whittaker, 28, of Grants Pass. After swooping in for a landing at Longsword vineyard on his first flight — a tandem flight with an experienced instructor — he shouts, "That was so freeing, so cool. I loved it. If you've dreamed about flying, hey, this is it!"
    Euphoria is not a universal response. He gave his mother, Eve Whittaker, a present of a tandem flight, and while she called it "pretty awesome," she didn't like the part of losing her lunch while up there.
    "My advice is don't go on a full stomach. I'm still dizzy."
    There's no obstacle of age or physical condition, Crane says, noting that his oldest passenger in his tandem glider was a 92-year-old rancher — who loved it.
    Asked for his most memorable moment up there, Rossberg says, "It would have to be the time in the Wallowas, about 13,000 feet, and this eagle pulls up beside me and looks over, right in my eye, as if to say, 'OK, what do you think you're doing here?' "
    Paragliding is sometimes lumped in with "extreme sports," but Crane says, "It's not an adrenaline sport. It's very soothing and calming a lot of the time. It's similar to scuba diving. Awesome and you're in a totally different environment, three-dimensional, right, left, up, down. The closest you can get to that is in an airliner. But here, you have the wind in your face and you control the craft. You're doing the flying."
    The main requirement for paragliding is a desire to fly, says Crane. Only 20 percent of people have flying dreams (the kind you have while sleeping), he adds, but 90 percent of paragliders have them.
    Rossberg used to fly prone, like Superman, in his dreams, but since taking up paragliding, he says he's always seated in his flying dreams, much to his disappointment.
    John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.
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