The idea is to launch from Hill 60 (right side of map) and fly towards Lake Cowichan (left side of map). (Google maps)

The idea is to launch from Hill 60 (right side of map) and fly towards Lake Cowichan (left side of map). (Google maps)

VIDEO: Paragliders’ dream of a launch site at Hill 60 could boost Lake Cowichan tourism

The plan is to establish a new place to fly, expand the sport, and boost business at the same time.

What if: hangliders and paragliders could launch at Hill 60 and fly west towards Cowichan Lake?

They fly frequently from Mt. Prevost but there’s even more potential to build the sport if you look farther west, according to Eric Gesinger of the Island Soaring Society.

He spoke to Lake Cowichan town council at its regular meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 19.

The group is hoping to be able to make use of some Crown land on Hill 60 for a launch site, he said.

“Hang gliding has been a sport since the 1970s and it got a bit of a reputation as being really dangerous then because it was. It was guys jumping off mountains with things they had built themselves. But it quickly evolved into an ecological and safe sport,” he said.

Hang gliders and paragliders are quiet. By definition, they have no engine. They rely on lift generated by rising air created when the sun hits the ground and then goes up in columns known as thermals.

“Our purpose is to find those thermals and then just stay in that large column of air and circle to the top of it, however far it goes. There are limits to how high we can go. In almost all of Canada, it’s 12,500 feet. It’s rare that you get there. Maybe in Golden or Revelstoke you might be able to get up there. You wouldn’t here,” he said.

He talked about the differences between hang gliders — fabric stretched on a structure with the pilot hanging underneath it — and paragliders — softer, made of fabric, and much lighter and easier to pack.

The sport evolved from mountaineers thinking, “if we had a parachute and we cut it a little differently, we could fly it. They really just didn’t want to walk back down the mountains,” he quipped. “Then they started to realize they could go up with them if they went to the right place.”

The degree of safety in a paraglider is “amazing”, he said. “They really take care of themselves. They are engineered so that if something goes wrong, which is does because you can’t predict the air, the thing sorts itself out. You really have to make it not fly for it not to fly.”

Hang gliders require a bit more room to land, and fly a little bit faster than paragliders but the launch site is a sloped area.

“There’s no place where we jump off anything,” he said. “We don’t jump off cliffs. We run down a slope.”

In Canada, there’s a hang gliders and paragliders association and every pilot is a member. The association represents pilots to Transport Canada and Transport Canada to pilots to clarify air space issues. There are also smaller associations, at provincial and even local clubs like the Island Soaring Society.

“For instance, we hold the agreement with North Cowichan for the launch site at Mt. Prevost and with the landowners at the place we use for landing.”

Paragliding is not cheap. The gear is similar to buying a high end mountain bike or a high end road bike.

But being weather dependent, to really maximize it requires some flexibility. It’s generally an older demographic than most sports. I was at the Lumby Air Race a couple of years ago when I was 38 and when I looked around I wondered, am I the youngest person here?

In Canada there are only 1,000 people flying hang gliders and paragliders but in other parts of the world, the sports are very popular, he said, adding “It’s a sport that a lot of people travel for. So, if we get a site here, people will come here and fly and stay in Lake Cowichan.”

Gesinger said that hang gliding is usually safer than flying small planes or going scuba diving.

“I’ve done a lot of back country skiing, dirt biking, mountain biking, but I am really impressed by the culture of safety in paragliding and hang gliding.

Also weather forecasting is so much more accurate and timely now, he said.

“That keeps us safe and maximizes our flying days.”

Hill 60 is a pretty rare launch site as it’s south facing mountain terrain and publicly owned and the area of the site has already been included by Transport Canada in a Cowichan Valley corridor where hang gliders and para gliders are likely to be found.

They’ve given the Hill 60 site the once-over but it’s not ready yet for all levels of pilots.

“Our goal is that anybody who has a hang glider or paraglider or who wants to learn can come and fly there safely. We want to expand the sport.”

First they have to get permission from the province to use the land. Then there would be some amenities to build, like a grassy launching slope.

”I do think it’s a benefit for the area to have this, as more that the area offers to people who are visiting. It could bring hundreds of visitors. The Canadian National Paragliding Championship that was in Pemberton this year drew about 100 pilots and they generally have a friend or family with them, plus volunteers,” Gesinger said.

Coun. Lorna Vomacka asked where they would land and why they’d be coming towards Lake Cowichan.

“We would land two or three kilometres east of the Town of Lake Cowichan. Once you get up a bit you could always fly and land somewhere else, but we always need to have a safe landing zone.”

This benefits newbies or pilots who don’t have the confidence to take a chance and fly farther, “or like we have two pilots who are in their 70s, they don’t want to fly somewhere else and land and then have to walk out,” he said.

Flying towards Lake Cowichan would be fun, Gesinger said.

“It’s also nice to fly in an area where there’s people. It’s fun to be able to land near a town and be able to stroll over to the pub and have a snack. People really flock to areas where you can land near the community. The Town of Lumby is an active participant in the Air Race there, which coincides with Lumby Days.”

Coun. Bob Day asked about the possibility of offering tandem rides and Gesinger said that, while anyone taking a rider in tandem would have to be at instructor level, it was possible that someone could do that commercially.

Mayor Ross Forrest said he was pleased to see the group come forward, as any new ideas for expanding the economy of Lake Cowichan were always welcome.

Lake Cowichan town council has offered a letter of support for the project.

The Vancouver Island Soaring Society has yet to file its application for tenure but that’s the next step in what could be a new amenity for the Valley.


Eric Gesinger of the Island Soaring Society makes a presentation about his group’s ideas for a spot on Hill 60. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)

Eric Gesinger of the Island Soaring Society makes a presentation about his group’s ideas for a spot on Hill 60. (Lexi Bainas/Citizen)