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Flying with Eagles

An immature golden eagle frequents Woodrat mountain, above Ruch. He is a master at showing off. He will drop into a stoop, folding his wings at his sides. After a moment he spreads out to his fullest, catching the air, ascending back to the level where he started.

He repeats this in a slow circle around me. His arc traces a continuum of cosine waves. When he is finished he draws up close to my wing tip. He makes eye contact. I can see it in his eyes. He says, "Your turn."

Why do we fly? To watch eagles show off. To see what it is like up here. It is quite something.

Paragliding is a young sport. Designed as a means for mountaineers to descend after a climb, it has evolved into its own sport, for descending and ascending. Wings are making extraordinary technological leaps. A Brazilian pilot recently traveled over 285 miles. In February of 2007, a woman from Germany ascended to 32,000 feet — not intentionally. Typical of young sports, records fall regularly.

People often mistake paragliders for parachutes or parasails. Parachutes slow one's descent after leaping from an airplane. Parasails drag tourists around the Southern Hemisphere, usually behind a boat.

Paragliders are wings. Pilots inflate them like kites, from ridge tops. The wings use weight to move forward through the air, and generate lift from this motion. In still air, a paraglider will only descend. But the air is rarely still.

We use ridge lift and thermals to climb up into the atmosphere.

A thermal is a hot air balloon — without the balloon. Air lies in gullies, on slopes or in a field until the sun warms it enough. Providing that some air is heated more than surrounding air, a "bubble" will begin to rise above, and colder air will take its place.

Remember lava lamps? A light bulb in the base heats the mix of water and oil. Colored bubbles get hot and rise to the top of the lamp. They cool and drop back down. Rising air is just like that. And that rising air is our engine.

We find thermals around likely sources — sunny hillsides, freshly plowed fields. We blunder into lifting air, and rise, up to 13,000 feet in the Rogue Valley. Reaching the top, we strike out in search of another column of lifting air.

In this way we can travel cross country. Though it is by no means easy, pilots frequently travel 20 miles from Ruch to Grants Pass and back again. Find a thermal, climb up, move ahead, find another. It is exhilarating.

The Applegate Valley boasts some of the best, and most technical flying in the United States. This year, two of the three major U.S. competitions will be held at Woodrat Mountain. Pilots will attempt to fly routes up to 55 miles that crisscross the valley. Woodrat sits at a perfect intersection of two regularly colliding masses of air. There, the mild climate and low mountains create a playground of cross-country options.

Hayden Glatte, a local pilot, flew from Woodrat to Weed, Calif. Hayden is ranked 8th in the U.S among paragliders.

Last Easter, Hayden and I launched from the summit, flew over Jacksonville and landed at my home in Central Point "¦ twice. It is that good.

People frequently mistake this for an extreme sport. Some aspects can be, but that is by choice. Traditional paragliding is sedate — a thinking sport. It requires concentration, a strong understanding of meteorology, and adaptability. Completing a 30-mile flight from Grants Pass to Shady Cove is more mental than physical. Success is far more satisfying than leaping from an airplane.

It is a sport — like fly-fishing — at which women excel. Men resort to brute force if we can't master the technique. One cannot muscle the atmosphere. Women are often intuitively better at finessing the wing in the air.

There are accidents — one is, after all, suspended above the ground. But risk management allows one to take only those risks with which you are comfortable.

Kevin Lee teaches paragliding in the valley. Voted U.S. Instructor of the Year for 2006, Kevin has a very low-pressure approach.

For years, he has been nurturing pilots from the training hill at Emigrant Lake, to intermediate slopes in Hornbrook, Calif., and then on to Woodrat. Kevin's approach works well. His students typically continue with the sport. He counts Hayden among his graduates.

Each year, Kevin leads a group of pilots to Ecuador, where they enhance their tourism experience by flying above the landscape. Last year, we flew from an Ecuadoran volcano down through the clouds and over an Incan ruin.

Not your typical bus tour.

So why do we do it? Well, it does provide relief from the first and second dimensions. In the air, the world transforms into an entirely different place. Getting home is not a matter of negotiating highway 238, but rather whether Forest Creek and John's Peak got enough heat that morning. Which way is the prevailing wind? What is the temperature-lapse rate? Each way we look at our world in a different light adds depth.

And there is that one eagle that likes to show off.

Paul Murdoch is a paraglider pilot with the Rogue Valley Hang Gliding and Paragliding Club.

Writer and hang glider pilot Paul Murdoch launches from Woodrat Mountain. - Photo by Josh Morrell