Paragliders soar with the eagles

Posted: Monday, August 04, 2003

"This is what we call para-waiting," said Jack Kreinheder, clad in a black flight suit. Rainbow-colored Kevlar strings trailed, connecting him to a bright yellow wing made of ripstop nylon. He wore a backpack, attached to a harness, which held a foam pad to cushion him from any rough landings.

Kreinheder faced Mount Juneau and stood up the trail from the cross near the top of the Mount Roberts tramway. He shifted glances between the alders 50 feet below him on the bowl-side of the ridge, and the wind sock on the Gastineau Channel-side of the ridge, 50 feet to his left.

It was about 6 p.m. last Wednesday, and he was waiting for a head wind that would lift his nylon wing, and him with it, off the ground and into the blue sky.

"Paragliding is the closest you can get to growing a pair of wings on your back," Kreinheder said earlier that day.

Kreinheder noticed the shaking of the alders. That signified a wind heading his way, and he started running. Less than 10 steps later, he was in the air.

The father of a 13-year-old daughter who spends most of the year in Montana, Kreinheder spends his weekdays as a senior analyst for the Alaska Office of Management and Budget.

On sunny summer evenings, though, he's most likely to be found soaring around the ridge that leads to Mount Roberts.

Kreinheder has been flying airplanes recreationally since he moved to Juneau in 1978. He has been paragliding since 1988. He has paraglided in Hawaii, Mexico and up and down the West Coast. He was one of the first paragliders in Juneau, he said. He was drawn to the sport because it combined two of his loves: hiking and flying.

Some paragliders in Anchorage, who also were climbing guides, sold Kreinheder his first paraglider. He had to head down south for lessons in Denver and Salt Lake City.

"He's an old-timer," said Jerry Buckley, another paraglider in town. "Those guys learned before there were schools and formal instruction. He's actually very good at handling his glider."

Paragliding has its roots in France in the early 1980s. Mountaineers in the Alps near Chamonix began experimenting with hang-gliding technology to descend quickly from peaks.

Instead of using the cumbersome aluminum frame that stabilizes a hang glider, the climbers created a crescent-shaped wing with no frame. The wing was attached to the climbing harnesses they wore to ascend the peak. It allowed the climbers to turn a two-day descent into a 20-minute one.

For Kreinheder, one of the major draws of paragliding is the soaring. A 20-minute flight, which he calls a sled ride, is not the goal of the sport. Paragliders search for thermals - pockets of air warmed by solar-heated earth - and rise up through the colder air at higher altitudes.

If they find the right thermals, paraglider pilots in Juneau can soar up to 6,000 feet above sea level - about 4,000 feet higher than their take-off point at the Mount Roberts wind sock. An average flight will last two to three hours.

"A good flight is being able to soar for an hour or more," Kreinheder said. "If you get up to 5,000 feet, you can see into the icefield, down the channel, it's pretty incredible."

Paragliders in Juneau look for eagles, who also use thermals to gain elevation, to decide where to fly, Kreinheder said. Puffs of fluff from cottonwood trees moving upward are signs of thermals, as are smaller birds that hang out near the updrafts to catch mosquitos being blown up from the ground.

Since the tram was built in 1996, most paraglider pilots in town use it to fly Mount Roberts. Before, they would either take helicopter flights or hike to the Thunder Mountain ridge and take off from there.

Kreinheder hosted some talks in Juneau in 1990 to spark a paragliding interest in Juneau residents. Gene Randall attended one of these talks, and eventually took lessons with a paraglider instructor from Fairbanks.

"The bug bit, and the bug can bite pretty hard," Randall said. "Once you've experienced this kind of flight, it absorbs you, and you want to do it all the time."

Randall and Kreinheder are among the six or seven people who regularly paraglide in Juneau. The Juneau Eagles Paragliding Club has about 12 pilot members right now, down from about 30 a few years ago.

"Our population for the most part has aged a little bit," Randall said. "In aging, people get married and have kids and find other priorities."

Without other priorities, paragliders could fly late into their lives, Kreinheder said. The sport requires much more mental energy, trying to find thermals and stay in control, than it does physical energy.

The flying season in Juneau is usually from May to September - the only months when the ground heats up enough to create good thermals. But the short season is made up by the experience of soaring with the eagles, Kreinheder said.

"They don't really mind us," he said. "A lot of the time they'll fly right next to us just to check us out."

• For more information about paragliding in Juneau, contact Kreinheder at jack77@alaska.com.

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.



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