Monday, January 12, 2009

Excursion Article Series 01.03.09: Snow kiting let's the kite fly you for a change

Caption: The wind was pretty squirrely, making for an interesting day kite skiing.

Excursion: Snow kiting
Where: Slide Lake
When: When the lake is well frozen
Difficulty: Varies with wind speed

Go fly a kite isn’t much of an insult anymore. Maybe that’s because nowadays you can let the kite fly you.

As one of the newest entries into the extreme sports arena, snow kiting, also known as kite skiing or kiteboarding, can be looked at as a cross between sailing and paragliding. Like sailing, you have full and surprisingly responsive control. Yet the kite steers with the simplicity of a paraglider: pull left to go left and right to go right. No two-man crew is necessary or even plausible for the one-man kites.

My family got a kite before most people even knew the sport existed. However, finding time to use it has been hard since we got it a couple years ago. When I took it out most recently, it was only the second time I was ever able to go. I remember the first time I used the kite thinking how easy it was. Conditions were perfect for learning. The wind was blowing at a steady pace, the lake had only a fine skein of snow drifting over the frozen surface and I had just been tutored about how to use the kite.

I left Slide Lake with no such feeling after my most recent outing. The wind was squirrely and gusty, 18 inches of heavy powder blanketed the lake and I have apparently forgotten how to find the magic “power zone” that generates the force necessary to haul a body back and forth across a frozen lake.

What I did find pretty consistently was the “pull-me-down-and-drag-me-through-the-powder-on-my-belly zone.” If you don’t believe in the power of unseen wind, all you have to do is strap yourself into the safety leash of one of these kites on a windy day and see for yourself how hard it can be to stay upright.

My oldest brother Jeff, an experienced paraglider pilot, knows wind well, so we let him give the kite the first run when we saw how iffy conditions were. Even with his experience with wind, mishaps can happen. During our first outing ever, he and our brother-in-law Shawn set up the kite. While Jeff was still unwinding the lines from the handlebar, Shawn released the kite to the mercy of the wind, unaware of how easily it would fly. Knowing it had temporary freedom, the kite took off at full speed. Before Jeff even realized the kite had been loosed, the handlebar had nailed him in the chin several times while unwinding the remainder of the line.

Caption: Letting the kite do the flying, it's relatively easy to zip across a frozen lake.

Reminding me of that painful experience, Jeff chided me to hold on tight until it was time. When his setup was mostly complete, he shouted down to me a final warning, something like, “Wait until I’m ready to let the kite go.” The wind drowned out the negative in the sentence and 50 yards away I heard something like, “I’m ready; let the kite go.” When I did, Jeff instantly began playing snowplow with his face and the wires of the out-of-control kite clipped my legs out from under me after performing a couple jerky swoops through the sky.

Realizing my mistake, all I could do was watch from my back as Jeff slid past me through the deep snow. Despite his frantic attempts to right my wrong, he found time to yell at me as the wind yanked him past me: “What were you thinking!?”

I didn’t find time to answer his question until after I secured the kite hundreds of feet away after Jeff finally had the control handle, safety leash and all jerked from his hands. After we sorted out the misunderstanding, Jeff was able to get a nice workout zig-zagging across the lake on his skis and flying the kite upwind to make it back to our starting area.

When riders get really good, they can get enough power behind their kites to actually get airborne, allowing the kite to actually fly them. When I took the controls, the only flying I did was from my feet straight to my stomach – not ideal. Luckily the powder cushioned my falls – I mean flights.

If it’s a sport you’re interested in, you can typically purchase a beginner kite and harness (the harness is basically just a way to enable power steering, thereby keeping things safer) for well under a $1,000. Just remember not to release the kite until you’re ready.

Caption: Don't let the pictures fool you, snow kiting is a taxing sport. Think water skiing where you control the (sail)boat at the same time as getting dragged behind it.

No comments:

Post a Comment