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Paragliding offers freedom from ground

My older son, Walter, and I started our paragliding lessons at the same time last summer.

We learned to jump off mountains carried by a nylon wing that resembles a parachute. It has the added advantage of being able to be steered.

His lessons were much more successful than mine in that he can actually fly and land. I, on the other hand, can only fly and spend months limping around after crashing into the ground. This limits the number of flights I can tolerate each year.

Last week, Walter continued his flying in the Dominican Republic. The people who paraglide are a rather small and unique fraternity. They are willing to share their knowledge, homes, food and even their favorite mountain. Their love and respect of nature is equal to that of hunters, fishermen or anyone else that enjoys activities with the benefit of the outdoors.

He was met at the airport and whisked away for his first flight by Ricardo, whom he had never met. The only thing they had in common at first was experiencing the freedom of flight as only large birds and paragliders can.

The launch site was near the top of a mountain overlooking a lush tropical valley with the ocean in the background. Green fields of pineapples were ringed with dense patches of trees. Areas of dessert-like brown strangely broke up the sea of green.

The breeze came off the ocean, was heated by sunlight on the green valley and blew up the side of the mountain. This vertical wind, called ridge lift, is what paragliders search for the world over.

With his wing unfurled, he ran to the edge of the mountain and jumped off. Instead of jumping down, he jumped up, as the warm breeze caused the wing to lift him high above the launch sight. He flew along the face of the mountain, riding the ridge lift ever higher. When he turned away from the mountain, he glided over the dark green valley below. Pockets of warm air, called thermals, rising from small fields, would cause extra lift. When he could get into a thermal column, he could spiral upward at a rate of eight feet per second. When we see vultures spiraling high in the air on a warm summer day, this is what they are doing. They are enjoying the lift provided by a rising thermal.

Walter was able to climb 2,500 feet above his launch site and flew over the valley for an hour and a half. His flights on the Caribbean country of the Dominican Republic were spectacular. The people were great and the scenery was beautiful. He has come a long way from the days of watching the birds as they made large lazy circles in the sky and dreaming about flying to being able to soar with the best of them.

At this stage in my paragliding career, I can only live vicariously through my son's adventures, but it is still fun. To enjoy the wonders of nature from the ground or from the air is something learned at a very young age and can be appreciated throughout one's life. I was able to instill an appreciation of the outdoors that has grown to new heights as Walter learns more about our natural world in far off places.

Walter Scott is an outdoors enthusiast and freelance writer from Bloomfield, Iowa.