From Smithers, Hudson Bay Mountain is large, picturesque and casts a shadow over the town. But another way to catch a breathtaking glimpse of the mountain is to see it from the sky.
On light-wind, slightly cloudy days, a handful of Smithers residents can be seen paragliding through the skies above the Bulkley Valley.
“There’s a small group of us who fly here, probably about eight of us,” said Will MacKenzie, who has been paragliding for about five years. “The learning part of how to launch and land a glider is a fairly easy task. But to me, the most fascinating thing is . . . to get good at flying and use the air properly and go cross country. It’s amazing what people can do. It’s hard to get bored.”
Unlike biking, skiing or kayaking, where there are many chances to learn the sport locally, there are no paragliding instructors in Smithers. The paragliding enthusiasts in Smithers have learned to fly elsewhere.
But according to MacKenzie, it’s easy to learn the basics of taking off and landing.
“To me, it’s surprising that more people don’t pick up flying. It’s a pretty cool way to see the world,” he said, noting that there is a bunny hill in town where people can practice flying very short distances.
Paragliding is similar to cross-country paragliding, but requires more skill and an understanding of weather patterns, added MacKenzie.
“The core of flying is how to stay up for a length of time which is all about finding rising air or thermals,” he said. “You have to infer where they are and once you’ve found them, understand how to use them well.”
There are some launches in the Bulkley Valley including off the Hudson Bay and Babine mountains, lookouts in Hazelton and a historic launch site in Terrace.
One diehard paragliding local built his own launch site on the northwest side of Malkow Lookout.
“The wings themselves are 20 to 25 feet across, we need something that’s going to be 30 to 40 feet across at the very minimum and something to run down through. We need about 60 to 70 feet to run down and get off the ground,” said Dave Jones, a Smithers resident.
Jones added that the group is almost finished building a launch site on the ski hill as well.
With the paragliding season in full swing, MacKenzie and Jones try to get out as often as weather permits.
For Jones, paragliding isn’t just a sport but has become a way of life.
“We all get up in the morning and the first thing we do is check the weather. It’s a pretty passionate activity,” said Jones, adding that his eight-year-old daughter already wants to fly.
MacKenzie, who flew as far as 35 kilometres from the Babines to Hungry Hill near Houston in a paraglider recently, said it offers him a chance to fulfill a life-long dream.
“It really is the dream of flying,” said MacKenzie. “Back before planes, people really wanted to fly like a bird and that’s totally what paragliding is and at certain times of the year, you really are flying with the birds.”