About twelve people showed up for the last-minute substitution field trip to Ed R. Levin County Park on Saturday, January 22. Most were camera club members with two or three associates aboard—a special welcome to the new club members who were taking their first field trip with us. I hope it was fruitful for them. This trip was substituted for the Sierra Snow Trip that had to be postponed.
The group split in two at the 7:30 a.m. Starbucks checkpoint, with the first crew heading up to the park at about 7:45 to shoot in the fog near Sandy Wool Lake. Our group was waiting for one of the hang glider pilots you see soaring around the peaks on sunny days to take us to the top of the ridge for an entirely different experience.
Wow! I’ll say it again, Wow! I’m not quite sure how well the day went for the under-the-clouds group, but the five who went to “the top” to see the hang gliders launch came away very pleased with the outcome. We spend the day learning about weather, the particulars of soaring and eventually got around to documenting some of the flights.
Special thanks go to Mike Foy, a hang-glider mechanic and member of the Wings of Rogallo soaring club of Milpitas, who served as our above-the-clouds guide. Mike gave us a ride up to the 2,000-plus-foot level with the proviso that one of us was to bring his four-wheel-drive vehicle back down the steep and rocky service road. I ended up drawing the short straw and drove the rig back down for him. (A similar experience can be had by anyone who is willing to drive one of the hang gliders’ rigs back down to the launch site. Naturally it is assumed that you are a good driver and able to operate a four-wheel-drive vehicle.)
At the outset of the trip we entered the gate intended only for park vehicles and the SUVs of the gliders. Mike had us all sign a release form stating that it would be generally the fault of our own bad judgment if we tumbled a thousand or so feet down the steep hillside to our deaths in his battered SUV. We signed the papers like they were for free candy and began the long climb to the top in the chilly fog. There were about five or six gates we had to open in order to get all the way up, three of which were protected by locks. (You wouldn’t be able to do this trek on your own.)
Mike gave us the first photo-op stop at a launch site 600 feet above the landing site, located just north of Sandy Wool Lake. The advanced novices, who are feeling more confident of their nylon wings, use this site. The windsock on the point looked like it was on the shoreline of a vast sea of cotton that filled the Santa Clara Valley to the 1,750-foot level. Wisps of mist from the top of the cloud inversion lapped at our feet as we burned pixels and film. Mike stopped the car at other promontory points on the long climb to the top, taking his cues from our gasps of amazement at various angles of the cottony sea of clouds. Eventually we made it to “Kodak Moment Point” a few hundred feet from the upper launch site aptly named, “The Top,” by the hang gliders and Para gliders. Once at the top, Mike showed us the sights. He estimated that there was at least an hour’s wait until he could make his flight. Only one other vehicle arrived while we ranged the mountaintop looking for picturesque scenes. Many ancient stone fencerows zig-zagged over the ridge, apparently constructed by a mysterious society that predated the Miwoks. Similar stone fences can be seen all over the rolling Chaparral hills of California—just another of the wonders in a day full of amazing sights.
The cloud cover persisted longer than Mike had estimated and he became more than a little antsy. We filled the time taking silly group pictures and fiddling with our macro lenses taking lichen pictures. Many of the lichens on the rocks were a brilliant orange.
As a hole developed in the clouds over San Francisco Bay, Mike’s personality changed. A sense of urgency surfaced in his voice as he told us to be ready to assemble directly below the launch site at “Kodak Moment Point.” He gave me a quick four-wheel-driving lesson and turned over the keys to his rig. He pulled the longer of two gliders off of the roof rack of his red Isuzu and began assembling a white glider with a wingspan in excess of 36 feet. Other newly arrived flyers circulated into our area and wanted to see what he was assembling. Part of Mike’s job is to test the gliders he repairs. He is a well-known habitué of these heights. “You’re not going to fly that up here?” one of his cohorts asked. Mike explained to us that this particular glider was intended for flights below the 600-foot level. It could handle winds up to 8 mile per hour—in short, it was a large trainer. The other guys were laughing. They knew that if anyone could, this modern day Icharus could glide this oversized rig down to the valley and not get killed in the process. Mike obviously had established a long-standing reputation among his fellow soarers. They held their launches until after his just to watch his spectacular flight slung underneath the big, white goose.
“Get in the car,” Mike told us, “you don’t have much time to set up.” We piled in and negotiated the steep, rocky, gully-washed road and set up on a wide point overlooking the hazy valley.
Soon a helmet came into view on the crest of the mount and a hand waved us into our ready stances. In a few moments the wide, white wing of Mike’s craft gently leapt into the lap of the gentle, warm wind, which carried it gracefully down into the misty valley. Shutters clicked and winders grinded as we took our best shots. Soon a magenta-trimmed, silver wing pierced the sky and then the red-trimmed transparent wing of the “Attack Falcon” took to the air. Two Para gliders with colorful chutes followed the gliders. These slower, more hazardous craft are called “nylon pylons” by the faster hang gliders. There are other names, according to Mike, but they probably shouldn’t be used in mixed company. He compared the rivalry to the similar good-natured rift between skiers and snow boarders. Both Para gliders and hang gliders co-exist in the Wings of Regallo club. (Regallo was the person who invented the hang glider.)
After our pilot leapt off the hill, our only mission was to get his car back to the parking lot. On the way down we saw the familiar faces of a few stragglers from the below-the-clouds group. Near the bottom our full contingent of photographers missed getting a good grab-shot of a bobcat next to the road—he was completing a nature call and he must have been laughing at us as he slowly slinked away. He took one last defiant look at us and sneered: “Next time you boys should have your cameras ready!” Ouch! The truth hurts. No one, however, felt the least bit slighted because we had just been treated to the perfect day!
© 2005 S.R. Hinrichs