by Mark Dale
You should have been there!
You should have been here yesterday!
You should have flown two hours ago!
You should have...
These are variations of a statement that I am loath to hear from fellow pilots. Goading remarks, sometimes unintentional, that tell me I missed the best flying because I wasn't "here" or "there" to take advantage of an exceptional window of opportunity for soaring. Usually spoken by those who are fortunate enough to devote all their free time to a favorite site for hours on end, day after day, awaiting good conditions. Or by those who have the knack (read: luck) to encounter great soaring just about anywhere they go. For us poor working stiffs who have homes to maintain, family responsibilities, or other interests that compete for our limited time, seldom comes the moment when we can say the "you should have" phrase. But that's what I'm about to do. It seems so rare that I have a chance to utter these words that I'll just proclaim them in writing. This way I don't have to repeat it umpteen times for all you other pilots and friends who have so often started the slow burn by saying that dreaded sentence.
Paul Southerland and I decided to go down early for the Tillamook Dairy Air Fly-in on the Oregon coast. We mainly wanted at least one uncrowded day to fly, so we chose Friday, the day prior to the weekend event. After enduring grey skies and pounding rain along much of the drive through Washington, we were delighted to encounter a sunny spring morning in Portland upon our arrival. Our first destination was the home of Steve Roti and Tina Pavelic, two of the main organizers of the event. Steve obtained the latest weather forecasts, which were somewhat ambiguous, and soon we were following him westward into the coastal mountains. Grey skies and rain returned, persisting all the way to land's end. Steve gave us a tour of the three main flying sites (Sollie Smith, Oceanside and Andersons Viewpoint), all of which were too wet at the time to fly. Afterward we set up camp at Cape Lookout State Park.
Before long the grey skies lightened, the drizzle stopped, and by mid-afternoon we were driving to Oceanside, where some Oregon pilots were flying sled rides. From the takeoff knoll, we looked down upon the picturesque town and beyond to the ocean, where several whales were blowing spray and feeding just offshore. A few hundred feet from these leviathans were dozens of brown, cigar-shaped bodies belonging to sea lions dozing on the rocks.
The westerly breeze was not quite strong enough to soar when I flew, but the novelty of a new site, especially one as unique as Oceanside, makes even a short flight enjoyable for me. By the time Paul and I returned to launch for another go, the breeze had increased somewhat and turned northwest. Steve then took a second flight, and began soaring a narrow lift band just to the north. At about the same time, we heard over the radio a pilot at Andersons Viewpoint reporting straight-in winds of 6-8 mph, which is getting damn close to soaring conditions there. After a moment of indecision, Paul and I bolted for Andersons.
When we arrived the winds were coming in at 8-10 mph, one pilot was soaring about even with launch, Mark Telep from Oregon was setting up, and a crowd of some fifteen onlookers had gathered. I wasted no time in taking to the air after Mark, and was soon soaring the cliffs just to the south. Now, for those of you who haven't flown this particular spot, the best flying is on the south side of "the gap," a discontinuity in the cliffs caused by a steep-sided ravine. To cross the gap requires somewhat of a commitment and a certain amount of faith, for if you cross too low and sink out, it will take divine intervention to prevent you from landing in the trees, or worse, in the pounding surf at the bottom of the cliffs. A real pilot's nightmare, that surf!
So, it was with some trepidation that I flew across the gap with about 700 feet of altitude above the churning sea. Sure, Mark Telep was already beyond the chasm and way above me, and gave assurances over the radio that there was plenty of lift over there. Still, I found it a bit nerve-wracking. As I glided over the ravine, the lift disappeared. I wasn't sinking much, but at some point a decision had to be made to continue or turn back. Nervously I kept looking over my shoulder, trying to determine what limit I was trying to push. The looming cliffs ahead grew larger, and the sound of the crashing waves at their feet louder as I approached (not to mention the sound of my pounding heart!). After what seemed an eternity I started to rise. And rise, and rise, and rise. Soon I had joined Mark 1400 feet above the ocean. And for the next two and a half hours I enjoyed one of the most unique and spectacular flights I have yet been privileged to undertake.
The cliffs, the surf, the primeval forest below, sandy beaches stretching for miles both north and south...these things combined with the saltwater scents and the smooth laminar lift, made for a most sublime experience . At times we had to force our canopies to descend as we were pulled up into the bottom of the clouds that were blowing through. Just as things would become uncomfortably chilly, the sun would throw its warming rays out from the west. Occasionally I would fly with my hands off the brakes, using weight shifts to turn, in order to give my numb fingers a chance to come alive once more. After a while, we were joined by Paul, Steve and some others, but there were never more than six gliders across the gap.
We spotted a bald eagle's nest with two mature adults taking turns bringing food to their fledglings. Someone saw a black bear cavorting in an open area. A couple of pilots flew all the way to the point of the cape and back (over two miles one way). I made it about three-fourths of the way out, but my eyes kept being drawn to the big trees and the big surf. My paranoia got the best of me and I proceeded no further.
After 7 p.m., a little cold and a bit tired, I flew north towards our camp. The lift was good all the way, and I circled hundreds of feet above my tent, descending to the broad sandy expanse of beach in a dreamlike state. I had to just stand there and drink it all in...the sounds, the smells, the unforgettable images indelibly painted in my mind. To all of those who missed the Friday afternoon flying at Cape Lookout...you should have been there!
|Mark Dale is a Seattle, Washington paraglider pilot. This story first appeared in the Northwest Paragliding Club newsletter. Reprinted with permission of the author.|