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Bellingham paraglider sets out to see the world by foot and by sky

Bellingham paraglider Jesse Williams flies near Bagá, Spain on July 12, 2016 while preparing for the X-Pyr, in which racers had to run, hike and paraglide to be the first to complete a 296-mile course across the Pyrenees mountain range between France and Spain.
Bellingham paraglider Jesse Williams flies near Bagá, Spain on July 12, 2016 while preparing for the X-Pyr, in which racers had to run, hike and paraglide to be the first to complete a 296-mile course across the Pyrenees mountain range between France and Spain. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Jesse Williams likes to see how far he can go – whether he is hiking, running or flying. It’s better yet if he has to take the road less traveled, carrying his paraglider in a backpack and then hiking up a mountain before sailing off under the sky.

That drive has taken the 36-year-old Bellingham paraglider over many miles of stunning landscapes in the last few months.

▪ In May, he flew his paraglider on a 60-mile loop of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan. Williams started in the Kendall area, flew around the mountains, and then landed on North Fork Road. He said he flew as high as 10,826 feet. It took less than six hours.

“People have been paragliding in Whatcom County since the 1980s,” Williams said, “but this is the first time anyone has made an entire flight around these mountains.”

▪ In June, he was one of 11 ultra runners to complete an arduous journey from Bellingham Bay to the 10,781-foot top of snow-capped Mount Baker and back – a distance of 108 miles. Williams had a bird’s-eye view at one point when he launched from a crater at about 9,000 feet and flew down to the Ridley Creek trailhead, where he waited for the rest of the runners on their way from the summit back to Bellingham.

▪ In July, he finished fifth in an adventure race across the Pyrenees mountain range between Spain and France. Called the X-Pyr, it covered 296 miles that stretched from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean. He was among 31 competitors who hiked, ran and flew their paragliders. It marked the first such race for Williams.

“It was definitely challenging,” he said of the X-Pyr. “There were days when there were very strong winds, which is scary when you’re paragliding.”

Williams has been flying paragliders since 2008. He writes about and posts photos of his adventures on his blog at byfootandbysky.com.

It’s (paragliding) really more like sailing in three dimensions. I imagine it’s kind of like scuba diving, where you exist in a different dimension.

Jesse Williams, Bellingham paraglider

And while his feats – and the images he captures with his GoPro while flying – are stunning, Williams also shares his adventures because he wants more people to learn about paragliding.

“Paragliding is poorly understood in this country,” he said, “and since there are such great flying opportunities in our community I’d also like to help people learn more about this sport that’s both fun to watch and participate in.”

Williams also wants more people to know about it because paragliders rely on support from land managers and private property owners to allow them to take off from mountains and land in fields at places such as Samish Overlook on Blanchard Mountain.

Paragliding explained

Paragliders are made from rip-stop nylon and lines. There are no rigid parts.

To people looking up, they resemble a long and narrow parachute hauling a rider sitting in a hammocky chair or sleeping bag through the sky.

Paraglider pilots launch themselves into the sky like people fly kites, running until the air catches what is called the wing. They travel at about 20 to 25 mph, which is slow.

“They have no engine but we can cover amazing distances by seeking out thermals, or rising streams of sun-warmed air, that flow up into the sky when weather conditions are right,” Williams said.

He added: “We use instruments and knowledge to find these thermals and then we turn circles like hawks and eagles to stay in the center where the lift is strongest. We can often climb up to the clouds and then, with the altitude we’ve gained, we glide off to the next place we hope to find to ride up in the sky.”

They steer by using control lines and shifting their weight.

What paragliding isn’t – or shouldn’t be – is a shot of adrenaline.

“If you’re getting an adrenaline rush when you’re paragliding it’s because you made a mistake,” he said. “It’s really more like sailing in three dimensions. I imagine it’s kind of like scuba diving, where you exist in a different dimension.”

Photos of Williams’ adventures show lush valleys, craggy peaks jutting from land into sky, stone abodes carved over time, and mountains covered in snow.

“The views. Being able to spend time up there with birds,” he said. “It’s a different world. We can fly near terrain that’s basically not accessible in any other way.”

He plans to continue those adventures in the coming months, with a flying trip to Chile and Colombia this winter and a paragliding race next summer in the Alps in Central Europe. Organizers call Red Bull X-Alps the world’s toughest adventure race.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

More online

▪ Bellingham paraglider Jesse Williams writes about his flights and other things related to the sport on his blog, “ By Foot and by Sky.” Find it at byfootandbysky.com.

▪ Additional information on Washington state’s paragliding groups, including North Cascades Soaring Club, is at ushpa.org.

▪ Northwest Paragliding Club, which has information about paragliding statewide, is at nwparagliding.com.

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