A Paraglider flies past billowy clouds after taking off from Woodrat Mountain near Ruch Saturday during the Starthistle . - Jim Craven

Up and away over Woodrat

Memorial Day weekend means one thing to Paul Murdoch — floating off world-famous Woodrat Mountain near Ruch.

Paragliders, hang gliders and spectators will flock to the launch site and primary and secondary landing zones off Highway 238 this long holiday weekend for the 32nd annual Starthistle Fly-in, a three-day bonanza of flying competitions and in-the-air camaraderie.

"We already have people here from New Mexico. It's a perfect chance to get pilots together, but we'll have to see with gas prices how many people will come," says Murdoch, owner of Gary West Meats in Jacksonville and president of the Rogue Valley Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association.

Murdoch, a paraglider who has never tried hang gliding, expects about 300 pilots and their spouses to arrive by Saturday, when events begin.

Starthistle, named for a spiky plant that association members used to encounter — often painfully — is the group's main fundraiser of the year. Money raised goes toward equipment, insurance and community donations.

There will be ample opportunities for spectators, from paying for a tandem ride with a professional pilot, to watching "wings" and gliders launch from the bald top of Woodrat, to sipping wine as pilots swoop in to the LongSword Vineyard landing zone two miles southwest of the primary LZ off Bishop Creek Road on the Hunter family cattle ranch.

Matt and Maria Largaespada, owners of LongSword, say it's a great way to spend the day over the holiday weekend.

"Our tasting patio looks right at the launch site. I can see six guys in the air right now," Maria Largaespada said Monday.

A pilot made an unscheduled landing near the vineyard several years back, she said, "And I thought that was pretty cool. The thermal has to be right for them to get over here, but once they get over it's a better landing. There's no cow patties, and there's water, food and wine. We're hoping for good weather this weekend."

Thirty people could land inside a half-hour near the vineyard, all 50 feet away from the patio, she says.

Local residents should get used to seeing people floating in the sky over the Applegate Valley and beyond. Memorial Day weekend kicks off a three-month swing of events at Woodrat that includes the West Coast Paragliding Championships in June and the annual Rat Race Paragliding Competition in July.

With it being the "Year of the Rat" on the Chinese calendar, Murdoch says he expects big things.

Murdoch says about half of the association's members paraglide or hang glide simply for the thrill of it, not so much for the competition. When the championships and the Rat Race roll around, there might be only three association members competing in either event, he says.

"A lot of people here are into the sport just for the enjoyment," Murdoch says. "That's what Starthistle is all about."

The best times to watch events this weekend are from noon to 3 p.m. and in the evenings, Murdoch says. Spectators can find their way to the primary landing zone on the Hunter's property, or trek to the top of Woodrat Mountain. (The Hunter's land is a working cattle ranch, so members and spectators are urged to respect their surroundings.)

Inevitably, someone will find a landing spot somewhat off the beaten flight path, Murdoch says, but the association has developed excellent relationships with most landowners, so it's rarely a problem.

"Ruch has more landowners willing to let us land (on their property) than virtually any other place in the country," he says.

Janet Hunter, daughter-in-law of ranch patriarch Billie Joe Hunter, says the paragliders and hang gliders are "really respectful. Everybody really tries to get along."

"We enjoy seeing everybody enjoying themselves," she says, noting that she's been watching pilots glide to a stop since she was 18. "It's fun."

Above the cattle and Applegate Valley crops, Starthistle competitions will include a bean-bag drop and a spot-landing challenge, all located in and adjacent to the primary LZ.

"We'll also have awards for the longest flight," Murdoch says, noting that it's not uncommon for paragliders to catch thermals and travel from the top of Woodrat to Grants Pass or Ashland, and then back to the primary LZ.

For more information on Starthistle 2008, including directions to the LZs and to the top of Woodrat Mountain, go to the association's Web site at For information on the paragliding championships and the Rat Race, go to To make a reservation for a tandem flight this weekend, go to the registration tent off Bishop Creek Road of call Murdoch at 261-4900.

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