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Riding the wind

By on October 25, 2020 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments
Anneka Herndon flies at about 9,500 feet. with the Enchantments in the background.

By Anneka Herndon

Perhaps you have looked up in the sky during the spring, summer or fall months and seen colorful balloon looking specks in the sky. 

If you don’t know what you are seeing, then this article will shed light on these mysterious floaters, and if you do recognize these as paragliders then this piece will hopefully explain a bit more as to why you might be seeing more and more of these engineless aircrafts in and around the Wenatchee Valley. 

I was one of the kids with a wild imagination and endless sense of adventure, and I was also one of those kids who tied four corners of the bed sheet together and began jumping off things. 

I was sure if I tried hard enough and used all of my concentration, that I could fly. 

Maybe you were one of those kids too, they are out there, and they know that gravity is a tough nut to crack. Little did I know at the same time that I was trying to fly off a ladder with a bed sheet, some of the first paragliding flights in the world were actually happening around the Wenatchee Valley. 

I never let my flying dreams go, and eventually I found paragliding, and for me, I had finally found the solution to my gravitational pull from the earth. Let me explain.

Paragliding is a slightly obscure adventure sport done all over the globe. 

The glider itself is a lightweight, complex structure made from nylon. The canopy stays inflated by air filling cell openings in the front of the glider, and a set of long, thin lines attach the canopy to the harness with the pilot sitting in an upright position. 

These gliders are foot launched into an upslope breeze and have no engine. 

Pilots are able to attain altitude by circling in rising columns of hot air, known as thermals, basically mimicking the actions of soaring birds. By gliding from thermal to thermal, (as birds also do) pilots can fly hundreds of miles in a day, riding the thermals and the wind. 

Landing can be done by choice or sometimes when flying cross-country, a pilot can lose the thermal lift or encounter unforecasted winds which will force them to land in any suitable open space available. 

Paragliding is truly an unparalleled way to interact and experience the geography from the sky, giving views that cannot be seen any other way. 

Thirty years after my childhood flight attempts, I found myself poised on top of Tumwater Ridge, a well-known feature in Leavenworth. My orange and purple nylon paraglider spread out before me, my flight instruments firmly attached. I was suited up with a windproof down coat, battery powered gloves, radio, in reach tracking device, inflight snacks, a compass, and an iPhone with a solar charger battery pack. 

Within my harness was my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent, stove, food and a book. Wow, how far my flying attempts had come from jumping off a ladder hanging on to the corners of my bed sheet.

I watched with patience for a perfect thermal cycle to come gently blowing up the hill, and when it arrived, I pulled gently on my risers and inflated my wing as I have done hundreds, maybe even thousands of times. 

The wing came overhead and progressively took my weight as I stood under it and with one step, I broke free from gravity. 

I used a vario — a flight instrument used in aircrafts to measure the rate of climb and descent — and its beeps to track my progress as I turned upward in the thermals lifting off the warming mountain slopes. 

As I turn, I climb higher and higher over the Tumwater Ridge giving way to views of the Enchantments, the North Cascades and the higher I climbed the more expansive the views became. 

Once I climbed to 8,000 feet or so I glided over to Icicle Ridge where I spotted hikers on the classic lookout over town and gave them a wave. 

I followed the reliable birds upwards and made my crossing to Wedge Mountain. I climbed higher still as the terrain pushed upwards. It was silent except for the chirp of my vario, and the sound of the wind on my face. 

It was so peaceful, the sky and the Enchantments laid out before me. I pushed on past Heart Lakes. Oh my! Looking down on the emerald lakes dotting the high granite terrain of the Enchantments is one of the most stunning images I’ve ever seen in my life to this day. 

I passed McClellen and got a good peek at little Annapurna and at the end stood the mighty Mount Stuart. 

The wind was pushing strong in from the west, so I decided to take my height, about 10,000 feet and turn back for a big, long glide, sliding back over Leavenworth and on to climb up in thermals over Eagle Creek. 

I worked my way up the drainage to Raptor Ridge, one of the original paragliding launches in the area that always gives up a strong tall climb. 

Once I was back up to the bottom of the clouds I would make my way to check out the views around the town of Plain. 

I had a snack after being in the air for a few hours, which can always provide a bit of solo comedy. 

Trying to shove an entire granola bar into your mouth without letting go of the controls can get a bit tricky and sometimes messy. Eating and drinking water in flight is incredibly important, just as any athlete would do on a long mountain ascent or run.

Though flat landing fields were abundant in Plain, I was high up, tucked up under the clouds, and was simply enjoying myself too much to return to earth. 

So I followed the clouds that were forming, marking the thermals, mapping out the path in the sky to Wenatchee. As I passed Cashmere, I spotted my house, which is always a treat to spy from the sky! 

I linked up Blag Mountain to Tibbets then pushed onto Burch Mountain, which always presents strong boisterous thermals. 

I took Burch’s wild ride to the top then decided it was time to turn back to the southwest and head on home. 

I adjusted my heading south towards Cashmere and glided out over the valley and spotted my house with a large field next to it. After circling downward, I touched down softly, balled up my glider and threw it over my shoulder and walked out of the field to my yard, where I checked the mailbox as I passed by and then folded up my glider feeling so satisfied and lucky to call this place my home.

I moved to the valley in May of 2019 after a flying trip to the area the year prior. 

I decided to commit to buying my first house in Cashmere. I knew from the first time I visited here to fly, that this place was special. It has been only over the past year of exploring and spending time with the local flying community that I have begun to understand what makes the Wenatchee Valley so exceptional for paragliding.

The dramatic hills and mountains that make up the Wenatchee Valley, as well as the low elevation and dry conditions, make for amazing thermals during the summer months. The top of  thermals can reach 12,000 feet, and generally light wind days are abundant. 

Local climber and well known resident, Mark Shipman, has the first paragliding descent from Icicle Ridge in 1987, and has been an avid pilot pioneering many of the first launches in the area. He has helped pave the way for many more to come. 

Raptor Ridge, a small launch up Eagle Creek outside of Leavenworth, held the first National Paragliding competition back in the early 1990s. Competition paragliding in the United States got its beginning there, and eventually migrated a bit north to Chelan Butte in the mid ’90s where National Competitions are still held every year. 

It was not just pioneers and top-level pilots that found the valley to be an exceptional flying destination. 

Hay Canyon outside of Cashmere is the home to one of the best paragliding schools in the country. It is a unique place tucked up in the grass covered hills, providing safe launches, flat landings and consistent winds for beginner pilots learning to fly a wing for the first time. 

Denise Reed has been teaching and running Aerial Paragliding at what is known as “The Ranch” for nearly 20 years. The Ranch was discovered by a couple of pilots in search of the perfect paragliding school venue, and was spotted by one such fellow flying a trike over the area. 

In 1995, the large area of land was purchased by a private party who has preserved the area just for paragliding and it is as such to this day. 

If visitors or locals crave to have the paragliding experience without going through the process to become a licensed pilot, Leavenworth Paragliding offers stunning tandem flights where the passenger can sit back and take in the stunning views of the Enchantments.

With a rich paragliding history in the valley paving the way, and as more locals go through Aerial Paragliding’s school and pilots such as myself discover what a gem the area is for flying, more colorful gliders can be spotted floating above the length of the valley. 

We may launch with hopes to fly to the far off reaches of the Cascade Mountains, or to east edges of the Chelan flats, but sometimes we will touch down close to home. 

We are all friendly, sky-loving folk, so come say hi and ask about the flight. I am sure you will get an entertaining story.

Anneka Herndon grew up in Southwest Colorado. When she is not flying, she works at her hat company in Cashmere called Recaps. (www.recaphats.com) She also 

mountain bikes and skis.

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