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Paragliding with a purpose: Group filming entire Rio Grande to raise awareness of its plight

September 24, 2018

TAOS — About twice a week, visitors to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge may spot a couple of paragliders swooping down along the deep rift and curving back up to the sky.

The two paragliders, who use small motors strapped to their backs to lift off, are Taos residents 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 about a dozen other powered paragliders last week in starting a 1,500-mile journey following the Rio Grande from its headwaters in Creede, Colo., to where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Flying along a stretch of the river each day, they made a stop in Santa Fe on Saturday and were expected to travel Sunday to Albuquerque.

The trip, organized by Santa Fe paragliders Jean Francois Chabaud and Stuart Penny, has a threefold 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.

“I think it might be the biggest paramotor adventure organized for a group on U.S. soil,” Chabaud said several days before the trip began.

He’s already made one solo 700-mile journey from New Mexico to the California coast. The Rio 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 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.

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 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 oomph 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 hand-held 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.

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 or up to a few thousand feet.

For the Rio Grande adventure, they fly anywhere from 10 feet to several hundred feet above the river. They fly slowly, about 30 mph, leaving plenty of time to enjoy the landscape. People can track their progress on their Facebook page, Rio Grande Paramotoring Adventure, where photos are posted daily.

The flight along the river will detail the Rio Grande’s plight. The river’s flow is well below its 30-year average, according to stream-flow records kept by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“If we don’t get good snowpack this winter, the river could completely dry up,” Hubbard said. “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.

“Once you’re flying over the seemingly untouched natural landscapes,” Hubbard said, “I’m awestruck by the beauty, every time.”

This story first appeared in the Taos News, a sister publication of the Santa Fe New Mexican.

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