About twice a week, visitors to the Río Grande Gorge Bridge may spot a couple of colorful paragliders swooping down along the deep rift and …
About twice a week, visitors to the Río Grande Gorge Bridge may spot a couple of colorful paragliders swooping down along the deep rift and curving back up to the sky.
The two paragliders, who use small motors strapped to their back to lift off, are Taos locals Colin Hubbard and Brian Levine. They practice their skills regularly in a sport that's gaining popularity.
"When I'm in the air, all my day-to-day stress, work stuff, usual drama and issues go away," said Levine, a captain with the Taos Fire Department. "It's a beautiful and peaceful view soaring around the skies. Flying lets me detach from everything and find peace in the sky."
Levine and Hubbard, a former karate teacher, joined a dozen other powered paragliders Tuesday (Sept. 18) to begin a 1,500-mile journey following the Río Grande from its headwaters in Creede, Colorado to where the thin strip of water empties into the Gulf of Mexico. They'll fly along a stretch of the river each day.
The trip, organized by Santa Fe paragliders Jean Francois Chabaud and Stuart Penny, has a three-fold purpose: raise awareness of the river's plight, document the aerial journey for a feature-length film and, well, because it's one heck of an adventure.
They expect to pass the Gorge Bridge and land at the Taos Municipal Airport Friday (Sept. 21) and stay a night before continuing.
"I think it might be the biggest paramotor adventure organized for a group on U.S. soil," said Chabaud several days before the trip began.
He's already made one solo, unsupported 700-mile journey from New Mexico to the California coast. The Río Grande trip will have its own risks even with ground support.
"You can have a bad landing and break a knee. You can have motor problems. There are risks of flying over the Gorge, landing in the river," said Chabaud, lightheartedly listing off a few of the potential challenges.
But skilled paramotorists know how to reduce the risks.
Levine started free flight paragliding in 2003 and paramotor flying in January.
Hubbard became a paramotor pilot in 2017 after a hit and run accident on his motorcycle three years prior left him unable to manage the rudder pedals on a regular plane. "I have a plane in my garage that I can't use," he said. "So I was looking for an aircraft that doesn't have rudder pedals."
In powered paragliding, also known as paramotoring, a pilot straps a two-stroke engine on their back. Unlike typical free-flight paragliding, which requires being pulled into the air or getting a running start off of a tall structure, the motor allows a person to take off from almost any place clear enough to allow lift, according to Hubbard. "Without a motor, it is necessary to launch off a steep hill (or) mountain slope or be pulled by a cable winch on a moving truck called towing," he said.
A paramotorist gets a little umph from the motor, a lightweight engine powered by gas and oil that pushes them forward over the ground. The forward motion helps the paraglider's wing take flight like a kite, lifting the pilot with it. A handheld throttle helps the pilot control the thrust. They steer the wing, or canopy, by shifting their weight and using a brake. Once in the air, the pilot sits in a harnessed seat.
Paramotors can launch from anywhere with 50 yards of running room into the wind.
"I can take off from my yard and land in my yard because it is considered ultralight," Hubbard said.
Hubbard and Levine started a ParaTaos club and Facebook page in hopes of encouraging more locals to join the sport.
People aren't required to have a license for paramotoring but it's not cheap to get started, costing a few thousand dollars for a wing and motor. Still, Levine and Hubbard think the high of powered paragliding is worth the investment.
Hubbard hopes to start a paramotoring school next year. For now, the place to take lessons is in Albuquerque at Paramotor City.
Paramotorists can fly low to the ground for a few thousand feet in elevation.
For the Río Grande adventure, they'll fly anywhere from 10 feet to several hundred feet above the river. They fly slow, only about 30 miles per hour, leaving plenty of time to study the landscape below. People can track their progress on the website and on their Facebook page, Rio Grande Paramotoring Adventure, where photos will be posted daily.
The flight along the river will detail the Río Grande's plight. The river's flow is well below its 30-year average, according to streamflow records kept by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. "If we don't get good snowpack this winter, the river could completely dry up," said Hubbard. "We can't do anything about the weather. But we can do something about the use."'
For Hubbard and Levine, any excuse to strap on their paramotors and get in the air is a good one. "When you see everything below, scurrying around, I feel like I've escaped the manmade world, the illusion you can't see through from the ground," Hubbard said. "Once you're flying over the seemingly untouched natural landscapes, I'm awestruck by the beauty, every time."
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