The Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge is an avian paradise. Look around and you’ll see hawks, geese, vultures, and many migratory species flourishing in the young forests and wetlands that characterize the distinct landscape. Recently, a new species has been spotted soaring above the Valley. This creature can be seen when conditions are just right, riding thermals on a single wing.
This new species is the paraglider—a specialized member of the flightless mammal Homo sapiens. From ancient cave paintings of winged stick figures and mythical figures to absurd steam powered machines, humans have long dreamed of taking to the skies in envy of our feathered friends.
Although we’ve been piloting aviation machines for well over one hundred years, humans have only been masters of nonmotorized flight via paragliding since the 1970s.
Paragliding is the adventure sport of flying a large fabric wing secured to a seated harness with various cords used to control the craft. Unlike a typical parachute, a paragliding wing is designed to gain altitude by catching updrafts and to coast long distances without quickly losing altitude.
Jesse Shimrock claims that paragliding is the definition of pure flight. “We fly with the birds using the same thermals and same air patterns that birds use,” Shimrock says. “It’s raw, free flight; the closest you can get to actually flying as a human.” Shimrock would know. The 35-year-old paragliding guide has flown clients around the world in trips covering the skies of South America, Mexico, and Europe.
Shimrock has quite the adventurous resume to back up his current exploits. Residing in Preston County, he’s an avid kayaker, rock climber, and mountaineer. He’s also a musician and woodworker.
In 2016, Shimrock set the state paragliding distance record with a 65–70 kilometer flight from Spruce Knob to Mount Storm via North Fork Mountain.
Shimrock is best known for his 2011 Alaskan epic in which he and a team of adventurers climbed Denali, North America’s tallest peak, and upon reaching the first navigable river from glaciers on the descent, kayaked the source waters through the Cook Inlet to the Pacific Ocean. “The real challenge was avoiding getting eaten by a grizzly,” Shimrock says.
The 31-day expedition was the first recorded summit-to-sea on Denali, and also marked Shimrock’s first dreams of flight. “That expedition is what spring boarded my desire to paraglide,” Shimrock says. “Spending the last few years climbing mountains, my knees were taking a beating coming down. I thought ‘there’s gotta be a better way to get off these things.’”
Not long after Denali, a binge of paragliding videos on Youtube gave Shimrock the lofty idea to paraglide off Mount Everest. When someone beat him to it the following year, his desire to fly off the world’s biggest mountains inspired him to act quickly. Shimrock immediately packed up and spent a month learning to fly in southern California under the tutelage of a friend who was an instructor in Colorado. Shimrock’s first flight had a hangtime of about 20 minutes, and he was hooked. “I thought ‘what’s next,’ and we went down to Mexico for my first cross-country flight,” he says.
Paragliders use different wings—types A, B, C, and D—that handle differently to achieve specific types of flights. An A wing is a larger, safer wing used for “sled runs” from the top of a mountain to the bottom, while a D wing is an active, dynamic wing that can be flown for more aggressive aerial maneuvers.
Pilots typically learn to fly on a gentle slope where they can enjoy a coasting descent and get the hang of the craft. With plenty of large hills and west-facing cliffs that drop right into the ocean, California is a typical learning destination. Cross-country flights involve launching off a mountain with specific air flows that allow the pilot to take advantage of thermals—rising columns of heated air—and coast from air current to air current while flying the contours of the terrain.
“You start linking thermals, just surfing back and forth across air currents, and next thing you know, you’re 20 kilometers away from where you started,” Shimrock says. “It’s a real journey.”
But Shimrock is quick to point out that it’s not all smooth sailing—inattentive pilots can quickly get in trouble. “It doesn’t take an athlete to learn to fly a paraglider, but it takes an athlete to learn to survive paragliding,” he says. Dynamic air patterns and sudden changes in weather conditions mean it’s easy to quickly end up off the beaten path. “You can easily end up miles off route into unknown areas. Where’s your food? Your water? What’s your landing and escape route?”
For Shimrock, an adventure athlete in top physical shape, the real challenge lies in the mental game. “You’ve gotta be an amateur meteorologist and be aware of what’s going on,” he says. “When I land, I’m not physically tired, but I’m mentally exhausted after a six-hour cross-country flight.”
But don’t be fooled—cross-country paragliding still requires a certain amount of strength and endurance. For Shimrock, it’s similar to the physical challenges posed in whitewater kayaking. “The sky is like a river you can’t see—holes, eddies, drafts, it can collapse your wing,” Shimrock says. “If it starts to get too good, tons of thermals mean something is shaping up—a storm is brewing—you’re just a little leaf up there compared to all the power the sky has. People die doing this; it’s about being athletic, about having strength and spatial orientation to be able to get yourself out of a tense situation.”
Pioneering paragliding couple Ben and LE Herrick laid an egg nearly 12 years ago—one that would hatch to become the new launch site at Canaan Valley Resort. Although Shimrock had a hand in developing the site, the Herricks did the heavy lifting to make the dream a reality. “I just did the little stuff when asked, they were the locals that ran the whole course of that project,” Shimrock says.
Perched atop Cabin Mountain above Canaan Valley Resort’s chairlift, the site is operated by the Mountaineer Hang Gliding Association. Ben Herrick became the wind beneath the wings when he sent a letter inquiring about establishing a launch site. That letter spawned a long—and at times contentious—journey that ended with smooth sailing.
But why Canaan Valley? Shimrock claims southwest aspect of Cabin Mountain was the missing piece needed to complete the region’s flying puzzle. “Most flyable days are out of the southwest aspect,” says Shimrock. Prior to the Canaan site, the only option was Bald Knob—a north-facing peak on Cabin Mountain most people know from skiing at White Grass. “It’s rare to get good north-facing flight conditions; it never ended up being a very viable launch site.”
Hungry to satisfy the need for flight, paragliders were able to get permission to launch from Spruce Knob. The flock migrated away from the dream in Canaan Valley. Not quick to be grounded, the Herricks and Shimrock started working directly with Canaan Valley State Park, keeping the Canaan dream alive. From selective cutting of trees and construction of a salamander bridge to working out an agreement for a bailout landing zone with a landowner in Laneville, the journey to paragliding in Canaan, like the journey of birds in the Refuge, was long and arduous. “It ended up being an incredible process,” Shimrock says. “But in the end, we did everything, and that was that.”
Shimrock couldn’t be more excited. With a few early season flights under his belt, he’s got his eye to the sky. “It’s Appalachia, it’s dynamic air, and it can be strong with so many thermal triggers. It’s gonna be incredible in the summer for cross-country flights.”
Although paragliding does not require a license, flyers launching from Canaan need to be registered under the United States Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association (USHPA) and sign a waiver with the Mountaineer Hang Gliding Association. Currently, flights launching from Canaan are private, but Shimrock hopes to offer tandem and commercially guided trips in the future. More info is available at http://www.mountaineerflyers.org.