Soaring with the Eagles

A paragliding trip reveals the true treasures of Neahkahnie Mountain.

Story by John Kraske


NEAHKAHNIE MOUNTAIN stands more than 1500 feet above the ocean, its wind-tormented trees a testament to raging storms that slam against its flanks. A giant sentinel with an epic view, the mountain is home to elk, black bear, eagles, falcons, and lots of summertime tourists.

 A student prepares to launch from Cape Kiwanda.

A student prepares to launch from Cape Kiwanda.

An Indian legend tells of 30 men who came ashore from a large “winged canoe” to the base of the mountain, carrying a big chest that they then buried in a secret spot somewhere on its slopes. The treasure is speculated to have come from a storm-wrecked pirate ship or Spanish galleon in the late 1600s. To this day, it has never been discovered, despite long and arduous energy expended by numerous treasure hunters.

But the mountain’s real treasure lies not in gold and doubloons. It was shown to me by my paragliding friend, Chris Newman, on a June day several years ago, during a flight of more than an hour above the blue Pacific Ocean.

WE LAUNCHED FROM THE SOUTHWEST side of a rock wall separating the tourist viewpoint from a steep, slippery, grass-covered slope. The slope ends at a sheer rock cliff, which drops to the boulder-lined shore at the base of the mountain. Laying my wing out against the face of the wall and stretching the multitude of lines down to the cliff’s edge left only a few feet for error recovery. When there is moisture present, as there usually is on the coast, the launch is just a bit more than precarious. Blundered launches are not a good idea here.

As I clipped in to launch, tourists began to gather along the stone wall, awaiting my fate. I couldn’t help but reflect on how our society has descended from Roman civilization. My knees were shaking so severely I had to kneel to still the quaking. There I was, down on my knees, facing my wing for a reverse launch. The multitudes lining the rock wall watched in anticipation as if I were being thrown to the lions. I wondered how many of these pink, brown, black, yellow, and white faces were expecting to witness glorious carnage.

I pulled the leading edge of my wing up carefully, building my paraglider into a solid, energized wall. Once my wing was fully energized, I tentatively pulled it overhead and let it lift me from my position of humble submission, stepkited to the base of the stone coliseum-like wall, faced my Roman tormentors, turned to face the lions’ charge, and stepped into the teeth of an 8-mph wind as the Romans cheered. A glorious feeling of relief stilled my quaking spirit as I banked to the south and lifted above the highway.

THE SKY WAS CRYSTAL BLUE, WITH LARGE gray cumulus clouds marching in from the southwest. I glided south in buttermilk-smooth air at less than 100 feet above the highway. Cars were stopping and snapping pictures of me from the middle of the highway. “Jeez, I’m going to cause an accident!” I thought, and began my ascent up the face of Neahkahnie Mountain in earnest.

Student landing a paraglider.

I was soon climbing above tall wind-whipped evergreens and mountain meadows. Wisps of moisture lifted from the nooks and valleys in the warming spring air as I climbed higher and higher. In a meadow above the highway and a bit northeast of where I had launched, a herd of elk grazed on lush green grasses, not the least bit concerned about my large shadow passing over them.

Miles of white sand beach extend from the boulder-strewn shoreline at the base of Neahkahnie, south past Manzanita to the mouth of the Nehalem River, within easy reach for a safe landing whenever I decided to go that direction. Once I realized just how smooth the air was, I shed my anxiety, relaxed, and began exploring, seeking out maximum altitude. My highest point was about 100 feet above the summit.


Student landing a paraglider.

Below, the ocean reflected the deep blue of the sky, broken here and there by a scatter of clouds. To the east of Neahkahnie are the rich dairy lands of the Nehalem River Valley. To the north the rocky coast is interrupted by coves with sandy beaches and a sprinkling of sleepy beach communities.

From above the mountain top I would fly out over the ocean, put my wing into a spiral dive, descend rapidly to highway altitude, regain level flight, bench back up to the top of the mountain and do it again. The view was spectacular, including Nehalem valley to the east, Short Sands beach to the north, and the coast all the way to Cape Meares, more than 20 miles south.

At one point I was treated to some magnificent flying by the masters: Two falcons were bombarding a bald eagle. The eagle inverted and met its attackers with extended talons, all the while flying in an inverted defensive position.

A rain squall finally forced me to run for the beach at Manzanita.

THE FIRST FLIGHT AT NEAHKAHNIE WAS an experience far more valuable than any gem or gold doubloon, providing me with an aerial panorama of my childhood playground the likes of which I had never before imagined. Whether your passion is surfing, hiking, clam-digging, kayaking, beachcombing, hang gliding or paragliding, Neahkahnie Mountain is a treasure that will far surpass your fantasies.

What exactly is paragliding?

Paragliding is not to be confused with parasailing, where you are suspended under a parachute and towed behind a boat. Like hang gliding, paragliding is a form of foot-launch free flight.

When I first was drawn into flight, I choose paragliding over hang gliding because of the portability of a paraglider. Hang gliders break down and fold up into a long tubular configuration that fits on a car rack. They are not easily packed up a mountain trail or carried onto an airliner. They are constructed of high-tech fabrics stretched over a flexible framework of lightweight tubes. The pilot is suspended face down below the hang glider and controls the wing by shifting his/her weight and pushing and pulling on a triangular bar called a control bar. Hang gliders are faster than paragliders and can fly in stronger winds.

Paragliders are limited to launching in winds not much greater than 20 mph.They fold up into a back pack that weighs between 20 and 50 pounds and can be checked as luggage. A paraglider is a soft wing, similar to, but larger and more complex than a skydiver’s modern day parachute. The paraglider is energized by wind entering the open front or “leading edge” of the two-layered (para foil) wing and by weighting the lines that cascade down to a harness where the pilot sits. The pilot controls the wing by pulling down on lines that cascade to the back edge of the paraglider, the back edge of the wing being like an elevator on an airplane wing.

Where can I go paragliding on the North Coast?

Neahkahnie Mountain is not an official flying site and is not for beginners or the weak of heart! But here are some other sites that are recommended:
• Discover Paragliding, in Warrenton, tows solo and tandem paragliders from the beach just north of Seaside.
• Ecola State Park, just north of Cannon Beach
• Maxwell Mountain, located above the town of Oceanside. In mid-April, this is the site of the Annual Oceanside Fly-In, sponsored by the Oregon Hang Gliding Association.
• Anderson launch, alongside the road between Cape Lookout State Park and Cape Lookout.

• Continuing south, the next site is at the south end of Tierra Del Mar.
• Just a mile or so south is Cape Kiwanda. This sand dune is an excellent training hill.

Go online to www.cascadeparaglidingclub.org for more Oregon sites.

Who can I go with?

Professional paragliding instruction is highly recommended for anyone wanting to take up this interesting, life-changing activity. Most instructors hold USHPA tandem ratings and you may want to experience a tandem flight before you enroll
in a training program.

Here are some certified instructors who give lessons on the Oregon Coast:

Seattle
Ravens Dance Paragliding (425-890-1312)

Seaside
Discover Paragliding (503-861-2772)

Cape Kiwanda
Over The Hill Paragliding (503-667-4557)

Gresham
Max R.O.C. Paragliding (503-464-6140)

Hood River
Robert “CB” Schmaltz (541-387-3106)

View from paraglider

Oregon Coast July/August 2007

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