The writer's boots jut out from beneath the tandem paraglider as Mount Shasta looms in the distance. - Courtesy of John Darling

The air up there

There's a moment of truth when you go tandem paragliding for the first time. It's when your highly experienced expert pilot, close behind you, gets the foil filled with a strong updraft and yells that it's time to run with all your might off that steep slope just ahead.

Almost at the edge, we find ourselves running on tiptoes as the thermal rushes up Whaleback Mountain — and in one breath-stealing moment, we have escaped the surly bonds of gravity and bank left into a full and stunning view of Mount Shasta.

In seconds, we are thousands of feet up. Is this really happening? That is the first thought. I am really up here in the world of the eagles, with no tray table and no seatback in full, upright position.

The 40-foot spread of this wing miraculously bulges above us, fastened to our harness with dozens of strong little cords. I'm buckled into my canvas seat, cozy in my flight suit.

My pilot, Brian Kerr of Mount Shasta, checks with me — "How ya doin? You OK? If you get airsick, be sure and let me know (presumably he would put the wind at our backs)."

"Doin' fine, Brian! This is so amazing and beautiful!"

"Lean left and stay there," he says. "We'll spiral up this thermal."

We lean, and the wing magically arcs to the left as the people on the road cut below and their trucks grow tinier, as more snow-dusted volcanoes surge into view — Lassen, McLoughlin, Ash Creek Butte (a smaller shield volcano east of Shasta), Pilot Rock, Lava Beds, Klamath Wildlife Refuge.

We pass 9,000 feet. It's evening. Being my first time, Brian wanted a "gimme" — a nice, regular set of thermals that can keep us in a 10-square-mile box north of Shasta. If it were mid-day, he explains, we could sail 100 or 200 miles over the Klamath Basin or to Lakeview, something he's often done in his thousand hours of paragliding.

His variometer beeps pleasantly, going faster when it detects an increasingly fast thermal coming up beneath us. Then he tells me to lean, and we ascend its airy stairs.

It's magical, yet so simple. Air streams into the front edge of the wing and aerodynamically flows over it, creating lift. The sun warms the Earth and the Earth warms and expands the air, says Brian, "and the whole thing raises up." It goes on, every sunny day, all day.

And you? If you're serious, you take 10 lessons that cost $1,600 and buy a $5,000 parafoil, which folds up and is backpackable to anywhere in the world, so you can follow the sun to the Southern Hemisphere in winter.

A joyful half-dozen fliers, crammed into Brian's truck and bouncing up the backroads of the Shasta Trinity National Forest, compare stories, one getting swept up inside a cloud, 3,000 feet per minute, and topping out at 21,000 feet, a no-no, but it couldn't be helped. The others gasp.

But at the launch site, things are quiet. Lines, foil, harness and buckles are closely examined. They study the wind, noting the timing and force of various thermals. Lisa stands at the edge for 20 minutes. It is both a meditation and a scientific analysis. Suddenly the "wall" is built by air filling her sail. She takes five or 10 hard steps and the wing is up. So is she. In 30 seconds, she is tiny in a vast world of blue. In five minutes, she is thousands of feet above us.

Soaring with Brian invites meditation. It is peaceful, stunning in its beauty and largeness. This is too easy. What could go wrong? Not much. If it does, you don't need a parachute; you're already in one!

After an hour, we can see the dust of our vehicles on the road to our landing zone, a spot recently enlarged by National Forest Service rangers. They want and invite such back-country sports, says Brian.

We must lose about 3,000 feet, so Brian says, "There are going to be some G-forces. Are you up for that?"

"Let's do it," I respond.

"OK, lean hard left!"

Our bodies rocket out, almost horizontal as we spiral downward rapidly, blood seeming to flow out of my brain.

"We're gonna come in really fast, so don't worry. I will flare it up and we can run in."

But a gust pushed us down, and we come in a bit hard, pitching us on our faces. We laugh and pack it up.

Will I do it again? Will I make it a lifestyle? In youth, I would have. I was passionate for flight. This was a 70th birthday present. I think once is enough. But then, looking over the mind-blowing iPhone pics I shot, gee, maybe it would be a nice lifestyle!

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at

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