Midnight Sun Paragliding supports our local Alaskan paragliding community. Visiting paraglider pilots are encouraged to contact Arctic Air Walkers for local flying site information and orientation. Check out the Arctic Air Walkers' photo albums for amazing images of paragliding in Alaska. This article appeared in the April 2004 issue of Paraglider Magazine. Click on the magazine cover at the end of the article to access their website.

Tandem Paragliding with Midnight Sun Paragliding

Pilots losing sleep over Alaska’s long summer days
By Phil G. Smith

It occurred to me on my latest flying excursion “Outside” how little exposure we receive about our outstanding summer flying here in the 49th state. The great white north is supposed to be frozen, right? How much of a thermal can you expect from a glacier anyway? Truth is, Alaska has some spectacular flying with a uniqueness that can be found only in the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Midnight Sun, is it?

Yes, but only some places and sometimes. The Arctic Circle defines the latitude where, one day per year, the sun doesn’t set and likewise doesn’t rise six months later (June 21 and Dec. 21, respectively, give or take around leap year). Anchorage lies about 370 miles south of the Arctic Circle making its longest day about 19.5 hours. Barrow, Alaska’s most northerly point, lies about the same distance north of the Arctic Circle. The sun rises there on May 10 and doesn’t set again until August 3.

Before you pack your wing and head for Barrow, know there are no nearby mountains and scant chance of finding a payout winch in this village of 5,000 people. Take heart, though, as there is plenty of good flying south of there. The longer days of approaching summer quickly melt the winter’s snowfall. By June all but the highest peaks and glaciers have given way to the verdant tundra and vegetation that serve as our thermal generators. By this time, the nearly perpetual daylight takes some getting used to, and most sourdoughs resign themselves to rationing sleep until the winter months. When you can thermal until 10 p.m. and waterski until 2 a.m., who wants to sleep?

About the land
The Last Frontier boasts 39 mountain ranges and 17 peaks over 14,000 feet mean sea level. Of the 20 highest mountains in the U.S., 17 are in Alaska. Considering the abundant mountains, long days and regular high temperatures of more than 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the interior of the state, one might think Alaska would be a pretty reasonable place to set cross-country records. So what else do you need for an extended cross-country flight? Roads to follow.
According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, 12,823 miles of public roads run through Alaska in comparison to nearly four million miles in the contiguous United States. So it works out that Alaska contains less than one-half of 1 percent of the “Lower 48” roads, yet is 20 percent of its size in area. For another perspective, Vermont is 62 times smaller than Alaska yet boasts more public roads than Alaska. So unless you’re one heck of a hiker or can afford a helicopter as a chase-car, the Great Land will probably always take second to Texas for cross-country free flight.

In southcentral Alaska, Anchorage is the largest city and home to just fewer than 300,000 people. An additional 300,000 or so hardy Alaskans live throughout the state, making for an average population density of about one person per square mile. About 30 percent of the population has no access by road or ferry. The lack of roads combined with the spectacular scenery compels many Alaskans to learn to fly: the state boasts about six times as many pilots per capita than the rest of the U.S. Free flight is still catching on though, as only about one in 10,000 opt for paragliding.

The Local Pilots
The largest paragliding club in the state, the Arctic Air Walkers, is naturally based in the state’s largest city. The Arctic Air Walkers officially became the third established paragliding club in the nation in 1988 under the American Paragliding Association, thanks to the efforts of its founding member, Clark Saunders. Since then the club has grown to nearly 70 local members and has established a dozen or so sites in the Anchorage area. Longtime AAW member Jeff Bennett set our state’s current cross-country record of 31.5 miles in 1996.

The second-largest contingent of paraglider pilots live in Juneau, the state’s capital and home of the Juneau Eagles Paragliding Club. Much to the delight of our local politicians, there are no roads to Juneau so it remains accessible only by air or sea. And who needs roads when the tramway there will take you and your wing 2,000 feet up to the top of Mount Roberts in six minutes? Fewer than a dozen paragliding pilots reside in Juneau, but during summer thermalling sessions they’re treated to some of the state’s most beautiful views of the Alaska coastline and neighboring ice fields.

About the sites
Few roads in the state have also led to few hang glider pilots. While we’re accustomed to schlepping our para-packs 2,000 to 3,000 feet up foot trails, few would be willing to do the same with a delta wing. Very few established sites are accessible by road and only two are near Anchorage: Summit Lake at Hatcher Pass and Baldy at Eagle River. The former is cleared for access from July through September while the latter is typically reserved for winter months when a nearby lake freezes to provide an adequate hang glider landing zone. Both Hatcher Pass and Baldy regularly treat our local pilots to ridge soaring, thermalling and cross-country flights over snow-capped mountains, pristine hidden lakes and hanging glaciers.

Arguably our most popular site is Alyeska Resort at Girdwood. Saunders was instrumental in opening the site for flying some years ago and the ski resort’s management now welcomes pilots by offering inexpensive summer tram passes. The 2,000-foot tram at Alyeska begins just a few minutes’ walk from the spacious LZ, and ends a stone’s throw from launch. Ride the house thermal to 6,000 feet for seemingly endless views of glacier-topped mountains and Turnagain Arm, then top-land neighboring mountains to take it all in. At the end of the day, choose your landing at the local watering hole for appetizers or at the small airport and hitch a ride to Eagle Glacier for a 6,000-foot unforgettable midnight flight back to Girdwood.

Start Planning Your Trip!
Midnight Sun Paragliding LLC is hosting its second annual “Ten Days of Solstice” fly-in June 18-27. Following last year’s success, the fly-in will kick off with soaring, contests, and prizes at Alyeska Resort and finish up with a three-day over-the-water safety (maneuvers) clinic at Horseshoe Lake. Chris Santacroce of Super Fly will offer flying tips and workshops throughout the week before hosting the aerobatics and safety clinic near the foothills of Mt. Denali. For more information and detailed site descriptions, visit www.midnightsunparagliding.com.

 

 

 

 

Phone or email: Jake Schlapfer (907) 240-5420

jschlapfer@yahoo.com
Midnight Sun Paragliding, LLC
Jake Schlapfer, Instructor