A True Paragliding Story by Downwind Dave
I'm standing knee-deep in a swamp at the north end of Lake Chelan about 200 feet from the Stehekin road. I'm dry (except for my feet), but the wing's a little damp. Two minutes ago I was flying 10 mph backwards with big-ears, knowing that if I went too far I'd be blown out over the lake, which is 1300 feet deep in places. I don't have a life jacket, and there aren't any boats in sight. My recent experiences with backwards flying came in really handy, but I still haven't learned to like it. Valley winds, however, are a fact of life in mountain flying.
Actually, backwards flying is pretty straightforward. You just use the ears to control your descent to arrive just above the last trees before your LZ. The stronger the wind, the less directional control you have. If the wind is, say 40 mph, you go in the direction of the wind--period. With weaker winds you can crab but not much. When your backward motion stops, you make a quick turn downwind, then you fly back upwind in the lee of the trees. If the tree line is broken, there probably won't be serious rotor--just turbulence. It's comforting having a swamp below because it can break your fall without drowning you.
The important thing in backwards flying is that you have an LZ behind you. You can help ensure this by flying as far upwind as you can before you hit the inevitable valley wind. In most valleys the wind picks up only in the bottom 1500 feet, but today in the Stehekin valley the wind layer is 3500 feet thick. When the lake level is high, there are no good LZ's in Stehekin. There's a big ranch and an airstrip up the valley, but you can't get to them if the wind is from the north, and the boat dock parking lot is too small if the wind is strong. There's a road along the lake shore, but there are wires between the road and the water. Today it's the swamp or worse.
Why am I here when I could be casually (and safely) soaring at Tiger mountain? Well, if you could have experienced the first part of the flight, you might understand. Imagine thermalling at 8800 feet completely surrounded by the North Cascades--Bonanza, Goode, Logan, the Sawtooths. The lake is 7700 feet below, and the Stehekin River meanders north into the distance. I'm in the first party to ever fly paragliders here. (More about my companions later.) Of course, the 5700 foot hike-down alternative had nothing to do with my decision to fly. Sure, I could see the white-caps from launch, but no guts no glory.
I had been planning this flight for at least a year. We'd drive up the Twisp River to the War Creek trail, then hike 10 miles to Boulder Butte (7400 feet). After a pleasant flight down to the town of Stehekin we'd catch the 2:00 boat to Chelan, winding up the day with a fly-down from Chelan Butte. It was too inconvenient to check out the launches and LZ's in advance. We'd just use what was there. Bruce Tracy and Dave Verbois were quick to sign up for the adventure, and we planned it for Thursday, July 14. Bruce's wife Marie would pick us up in Chelan.
We started hiking before 7:00, and, after a scenic hike, we arrived at the summit of Boulder Butte before noon. Unfortunately, there were no launches anywhere close--just trees and rocks. We met two Stehekin locals who kindly gave us some hints concerning LZ's, but the prospects didn't sound too good. We decided to traverse north along the ridge toward Purple Mountain in hopes of finding a launch. That scrambling traverse reminded me of my days as a mountaineer, and I was starting to get a little low on energy--my water had disappeared a long time ago.
After half an hour, Dave V. picked out a rocky gully, which he visualized as a launch. Bruce and I continued on then stopped to watch Dave fly out into the center of a large bowl. All looked good until he got to the 4500 foot level and encountered valley wind rotor off the ridge on the north side of the bowl. Unable to exit to the lake, he headed for a patch of low maples at the bottom of the bowl. We watched with fascination as his pink Corrado was completely swallowed up by the trees. "Dave, Dave, are you OK?" After a short delay, he announced on the radio that both he and his wing were fine and that he was looking for the trail, which was fortuitously quite close. Bruce and I decided on a different flight plan.
After another half-hour of traversing, Bruce and I each found excellent launches on the west shoulder of Purple Mountain which continued to form the north ridge of the bowl, with Boulder Creek below to the north. We decided to fly down that ridge to the north end of the lake, neatly avoiding Dave V.'s rotor. Bruce had elected to bring his little Brizair to save weight, but I had my trusty B2. After launching about the same time, Bruce went down, and I went up 2000 feet. I figured I had enough altitude to get well north of the lake end, but I knew Bruce didn't. I watched with fascination as he was swept along the lake shore at an ungodly speed, yelling something like, "My ass is cooked." Soon it would be my turn.
I could have boated around for a while at cloudbase, but I was afraid the winds might actually get worse (if that were possible). I set a northwest course towards the ever-so-tantalizing ranch, but deep down, I knew that the swamp was my destiny. Too soon, my forward motion stopped, and I started to sink. I managed to crab out from the Boulder Creek valley to the Stehekin valley, but by then I was flying backwards, experiencing the full force of the wind. Was I having fun yet? Not exactly. Standing safely in the swamp was more fun.
I carried the sodden wing to a nearby driveway, and a helpful resident, who was a former glider pilot, let me dry it out. He gave me a gallon of cold water and a ride to the boat dock. I know it's hard to believe, but he actually asked me how he could learn to fly a paraglider!
Then it was time for the Great Reunion on the deck of the Stehekin
restaurant. Turns out that Bruce came down in deep water after a
hairy landing some distance south of the dock. After an
invigorating swim, he managed to haul his wing up the steep bank to
a trail. His radio and camera survived, but the vario didn't. When
I talked to him on the radio from my swamp, he sounded quite shaken,
and that's unusual for Bruce. A few six-packs later, with improved
dispositions, we told our story to the locals, who, despite their
normal skepticism of outsiders, seemed truly impressed. Since we'd
missed the boat, we chartered a float plane, which Dave V. co-piloted
back to Chelan. So ended another typical flying day in the North
Cascades. Oh, I almost forgot, Marie wouldn't let us fly Chelan
Dave Kruglinski, Bruce Tracy and Dave Verbois completed
their flight from Purple Mountain to Stehekin on July 14, 1994.
For a remembrance of "Downwind Dave" Kruglinski, click