Stephen Kurth and Stephen Johnson stand on the dike in Dawson City on a sunny morning peering intently through binoculars at the top of the Midnight Dome, watching the breeze catch the thin ribbons on a homemade wind indicator that was installed by Johnson.
They’re waiting for the wind to shift to a favourable direction so they can launch their paragliders and join the birds soaring high in the thermals.
For now the wind isn’t what they want—it needs to shift further to the east to allow a safe launch from the Dome—so they have time to talk, and they have plenty to say about the sport they love.
“It’s the closest to pure flying that you can get,” Kurth says, looking to the sky.
He has travelled up for the weekend from Whitehorse with other members of the Association of Yukon Paragliders and Hang Gliders.
“You’ve got the wind in your hair and the sun on your face and a bird flying with you and it’s quiet,” Kurth continues. “It’s such a beautiful, beautiful experience.”
The modern paraglider evolved from parachuting technology. The efficiency of the un-powered collapsible wing allows a pilot to stay aloft for hours at a time and reach altitudes of up to 3,660 metres.
Kurth was early on the Yukon paragliding scene. Arriving in Dawson in 1990, he saw two firefighters attempt a launch off the Dome. Despite one of the flyers crash-landing in the trees, Kurth decided it was the sport for him, bought equipment and took lessons.
For years the skies over Dawson were ruled by Kurth, who began taking passengers on tandem flights, before moving south a few years ago.
Bartending at night and flying by day, Kurth describes it then as “a very, very good life for a 20 to 30-something-year-old guy.” Smiling at the memory, he admits most of his passengers were female.
Johnson arrived in Dawson in 1999 for a job as a mining engineer. With a background in fixed-wing gliders he became an eager student of Kurth’s, learning to fly over a summer.
He’s since clocked over 600 flights, most of them in Dawson, and is currently the only paraglider in town.
He describes a flight as “smooth and magical”, although there are moments when it can be “extremely terrifying”.
Retired from his full-time job for a position on city council, he has plenty of time to ride the winds and his paragliding wing can regularly be seen gracefully floating above Dawson.
Johnson considers Dawson to be a “premiere site in Canada” for flying.
“If you live and eat and breathe paragliding, then a place like Dawson is where you want to be,” Kurth states, referring to the convenience of being able to launch so close to town.
As we talk, Kurth and Johnson continue to watch the skies, waiting for the wind to change, eager to be up there. The look in their eyes suggests something that may be a little beyond my grasp, as a ground-hugger, to comprehend.
“At some certain level it’s a primal thing; everyone’s always dreamed about flying,” Kurth muses, “and for those for whom that dream is strong enough then paragliding represents the best way to accomplish that.”
Of course, living this dream comes with an inherent risk and at times a paraglider is reminded that humans were born without wings.
Johnson describes being “whacked by a microburst,” an invisible and strong gust of wind, while flying above the Dome.
“It spun me one way, and then spun me the other way and you’ve just got to be ready on the controls to take care of that thing,” he says.
And Kurth was forced to land in the trees on the Dome after hitting unexpected turbulence, a potentially very dangerous situation for a paraglider. Luck was with him, though, and he emerged unharmed.
“I never try to downplay the danger thing,” Kurth says, “it’s there, but it’s manageable.”
The rewards are certainly there too.
“I’ve thermalled with golden eagles and bald eagles,” says Kurth, describing an encounter while flying in Tombstone Territorial Park.
“That kind of experience you cannot achieve any other way,” he points out.
He was also dive-bombed by a peregrine falcon over the Dome.
“I saw this peregrine off in the distance,” Kurth describes, “and the next thing I know his wings come in and he’s diving straight for me.”
The falcon made contact with Kurth’s glider, but did no damage.
With the cost of new equipment starting at around $4,000, paragliding is one of the most affordable types of independent flying. The entire package can be folded in to a backpack for easy transportation.
Kurth admits some confusion about why the rest of us don’t paraglide.
“I understand it on an intellectual level, but on a deep intuitive level I think you’re all crazy,” he laughs.
The wind never did shift that day and Kurth and Johnson had to content themselves with gazing skyward and dreaming about their next flight.
But that seems to be a part of the paragliding experience beyond the actual flying; it’s also an observation of the air that is invisible to most of us, and developing an almost intuitive understanding of how this powerful force operates in the skies.