Spring weather pulls paragliders to Eagle River

Tuesday, April 18, 2017 - 22:52
  • Chris Reynolds of Big Lake flies a powered paraglider over Eagle River, March 23, 2017. The community is a popular destination for members of the local paragliding club, Arctic Air Walkers. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • A powered paraglider on the frozen surface of Fire Lake March 23, 2017. Eagle River is a popular destination for members of the local paragliding club, Arctic Air Walkers. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Chris Reynolds of Big Lake flies a powered paraglider over Eagle River, March 23, 2017. The community is a popular destination for members of the local paragliding club, Arctic Air Walkers. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Star photo by Kirsten Swann Reynolds packs his powered paraglider on the frozen surface of Fire Lake, March 23, 2017. With its longer days and warming temperatures, springtime signals the beginning of the flying season.

When spring comes to Alaska, strange birds take to the skies above Eagle River.

They float down from Mount Baldy and glide over rooftops, trees and traffic, spinning slow circles over the Old Glenn Highway. Invisible currents send them soaring upwards, but gravity pulls them back down. Eventually, they come to rest at landing zones around Fire Lake, colorful cloth canopies splayed across the snow.

“In the springtime, we fly here a lot,” said Big Lake resident Chris Reynolds, snacking on an energy bar while packing up his paragliding gear on the frozen lake surface one March afternoon. “This is one of our biggest paragliding sites in the state.”

Mountainous topography and an accessible, central location combine to make Eagle River a prime destination for paragliding pilots throughout the region.

On clear days, gliders launch from an open meadow on the side of Mount Baldy or from the summit, landing at designated sites at Fire Lake or the Harry J. McDonald Memorial Center. The pilots are members of the Arctic Air Walkers, an Alaska paragliding club offering safety training and education, site preservation, flying guides and other pilot resources. Most fly traditional paragliders. Some pilots, like Reynolds, fly motor powered versions.

It’s a close-knit group formed around a solitary sport, according to members.

“Sometimes everybody will be off work and everybody will just come out and go flying,” said Alicia Sam, preparing to head up the mountain for another flight.

Her love affair with free flight started when some friends picked it up more than four years ago, she said. After watching, waiting and wishing, she connected with an instructor who showed her the ropes and helped her earn her first pilot’s ratings, she said. These days, she goes up as often as she can.

“Oh, man, it’s amazing, it’s magical up there,” Sam said. “It’s just truly magical.”

When the weather is sunny and calm, she might join more than a dozen other paraglider pilots in the skies above Eagle River.

Veteran pilots say they’ve watched the town grow up beneath them. Suspended from a canopy hundreds of feet in the air, they’ve seen new buildings and roadways carved into the valley floor. Eagle River feels different from the sky.

“It’s a three-dimensional world,” said Reynolds, gazing toward the mountaintop above him. “Standing on the ground, you’re looking at two dimensions. In the sky, it’s a three-dimensional world, so you’re looking at things completely differently.”

Most paragliders travel about eight feet forward for every foot down. With no lift, it takes just a few minutes to fly from the Baldy ridge to Fire Lake, where paragliders will descend some 500 feet to land on the ice below, Reynolds said.

“We don’t come down because we want to,” he said, laughing. “Gravity does that for us – we’re all about finding convective lift.”

Luckily, Eagle River is home to forces that can send a paraglider thousands of feet into the air.

After taking off from Mount Baldy, pilots can ride ridge lift – the air that blows up off the mountainside. They find thermals – rising columns of warm air – through skill and sheer luck. Thermals fixed in place are known as “house” thermals. On the ridge below Mount Baldy, pilots aim for a house thermal located over an actual house, Reynolds said. Other thermals dot the surrounding woods and neighborhoods.

“You see the eagles flying around all the time? We’re in the same thermals they are,” he said.

With its longer days and warming temperatures, springtime signals the beginning of the flying season. By mid-March, the Anchorage area enjoys roughly 12 hours of daylight, which means more convective lift and more time in the sky. The best time to fly, Reynolds said, comes around 5 p.m., when warm air radiates off the sun-baked western ridgelines.

This time of year also marks the beginning of cross-country flights. Paragliders launched from Baldy catch thermals and ridge lifts all the way into the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, Reynolds said. With the right conditions, pilots can stay aloft for hours, taking off and landing at sites between Girdwood and Wasilla. Eagle River is in the thick of it all.

“It’s getting really busy now,” he said.

Contact Star reporter Kirsten Swann at [email protected]

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