Let me start by saying that I am not good with heights. I get vertigo looking down a stairwell. Slacklining is scary. The idea of bunjee jumping, sky diving, or doing anything that Dean Potter, R.I.P., might have done, gives me hives. I call that a healthy survival instinct. My husband calls it, ‘being a wuss.’ I am, I like to point out, a walking, breathing wuss.
That said, there are few things I find as alluring as flight. Ever since the ancient Greeks sat around the campfire telling Icarus stories, humans have dreamed of being airborne. To that end, we’ve built planes, rocket ships, and blimps. We’ve also found ways to fly without motors: hanglgliders, ultralights, parachutes, and now wingsuits, zip lines and flyboards.
In an effort to appease my thirst for adrenaline and conquer my phobia of being too far off the ground, I’ve sampled many of these. I won’t lie, flying is fun.
Flyboarding, Vermont’s Newest Sport
There have been surfboards, wakeboards, windsurfers and kiteboards. Now there are flyboards. Flyboarding is exactly what you might think would happen when a French jet ski champion with the name Franky Zapata decides to invent a new extreme sport. That was in 2011 and just last year, it made its East Coast debut in Enosburg Falls’ Lake Carmi, thanks to Phil Snyder. Snyder, a Tae Kwan Do instructor from St. Albans, just opened a second outfit, Flyboard Vermont on Bootlegger Pond at Smuggler’s Notch Resort. The sport involves you, a pair of boots and bindings a small board, a jet pack and a 60-foot hose. Hit the throttle and the words “beam me up” come to mind as you get propelled out of the water like a superhero. Beginners will just be getting used to what amounts to balancing on a jet of water. Advanced flyboarders can do flips, zoom around like Superman and loop. A beginner lesson is $129 FlyboardVt.com.
Not Your Daddy’s Zip Line
If you stand at the top of the gondola at Stowe and look way, way down and across the mountain at Lower Nosedive trail, you may have a sense of how intimidating Stowe’s new three-span Adventure ZipTour is. The third longest span in the continental U.S., the double line could be a wild, nearly mile-long ride of open-mouthed terror, except for one thing: you control the speed, letting you go anywhere from 10 miles per hour to 70 miles per hour. And that’s just the first span. Add in two more and that comes to 10,193 feet of cable and a nearly two-mile ride. By way of comparison, Bromley’s zip line, which is also made by ZipRider, spans 2,400 feet with a 26 percent grade, which means you can reach speeds of 50 miles per hour. Okemo’s longest span is 900 feet and lets you reach speeds of 30 miles per hour. Sugarbush, Smuggler’s Notch, and Magic also have zip lines of varying lengths and scream factors. At press time, Stowe’s Adventure ZipTour was scheduled to open July 3. A ride costs $109 and includes all-day access to the gondola. Or pair it with a pass for the new TreeTops Adventure Course for $139. www.stowe.com.
Paragliding and hang gliding
In the 1970s and ’80s, Rick Sharp was a hang glider pilot often flying from advanced launch sites near West Rutland and Burke Mountain. “We’d shoot for downwinders. Some hang glider pilots made it 98 miles, all the way from Rutland to Georgia, para gliders have done 40 miles cross-country,” Sharp recalls. In 1992, Sharp and his wife bought a Cobble Hill, a small piece of property in Milton. The following year, paragliding burst onto the scene and that hill proved a perfect place to learn. Paragliding is to hang gliding what snowboarding is to skiing: an easier, less equipment-intensive way to fly. At Cobble Hill, Sharp starts people off running down the hill from 75 feet. “You get the feeling the parasail opening, then lifting 10 or 15 feet off the ground—that’s flying” he says. From there, he teaches turns and moves students up the hill. “When you can master a 180-degree turn, you can go off the top at 300 feet,” he says. This is all, he warns, weather dependent. Since he only teaches beginners if there is less than 12 knots of wind he recommends calling ahead or putting your name on the email alert list. The only paragliding school in Vermont, Sharp offers a one-day beginner package for $150 and a Para 2 certification course, for $990. “Once you are Para 2 certified, you can fly from the top of Burke or West Rutland, both about 1300 feet in altitude, with an instructor present,” Sharpe says. People also launch from the top of Jay Peak and Bolton ski resorts and experts can try their hand at Ascutney, where hang glider pilots come from all over New England to fly. www.paraflypg.com
If you are hell bent on learning to hang glide, Morningside Flight Park, just across the Connecticut River, teaches hang gliding and paragliding. A four-hour introductory course goes for $175 or a two-lesson weekend course ($329) moves you up the training hill for longer practice flights. flymorningside.kittyhawk.com
To Soar is Human
When the art thief Pierce Bronson plays in the classic movie, “The Thomas Crown Affair” wants to impress an investigator, (portrayed by Renee Russo), he takes her on a series of over-the-top dates, the first of which is soaring. It’s easy to see why it worked. After being towed up behind a motorized plane, your glider is let go. Then, it’s just you, the pilot and the ultralight glider silently swooping over mountains, gaining altitude on the thermal and ridge lifts and diving to build speed. In Stowe, a ride will take you past Mount Mansfield, close enough that you can see hikers beneath you. The sport has become so popular that in the Mad River Valley, the Sugarbush Soaring Club holds races every July 4 weekend and even has Youth Camps to teach kids as young as 13 to become pilots. At Sugarbush, scenic rides start at $109 and a lesson (yes, you can learn to fly the glider) at $166. www.sugarbushsoaring.com. Stowe Soaring scenic rides start at $99 and lessons at $35 an hour. www.stowesoaring.com
The Fun of Freefalling
If you really want to fly and get a sense of how vast the farmland is in Addison County, try jumping out of a SuperCessna two miles above the ground. When the door opens at 12,000 feet, the wind is rushing at you at about 100 miles per hour, and the farms and buildings are laid out way, way below like a Monopoly board, it’s time to jump. At 12,000 feet, the freefall last for just about a minute before the parachute pops open and you float gently another 3,000 feet to the ground. That’s the time when you can relax, look west to Lake Champlain and east to the Green Mountains. Vermont Sky Diving Adventures, located just past the Ass-Pirin miniature donkey farm in Addison, lets first-timers do a tandem jump ($250 a person). Once you complete a one-day First Jump course, you can start the Accelerated Freefall Program, which starts with a jump from 12,000 feet, with two instructors holding onto you and a third on the ground guiding you to the landing. There’s also the option of a static-line jump from 3,500 feet where your chute is automatically deployed. www.vtskydiving.com
Hot Air Ballooning
If you think hot air ballooning is something reserved for tourists and marriage proposals, think again. With two major festivals and a landscape that seems custom made for it, Vermont has become a hotbed for the sport. And yes, it is a sport. Think of it as three-dimensional sailing where you control where the 70-foot tall balloon goes by figuring out what altitude you fly at based on varying currents of wind. Pilots can control altitude to a measure of feet and most flights hover above tree line or go up to about 3,000 feet. Where you go on what is typically a 30-minute flight at about 8 miles per hour still depends on where the wind blows so be prepared to land in a field. The 29th annual Stoweflake Balloon Festival, coming up July 10-12, will bring close to 25 balloons to Stowe with sunrise and sunset launches and rides available for $275 per person. The Quechee Balloon Festival is held in June each year. A number of outfitters will also do balloon rides throughout the season for similar prices, with most flights going out when the winds are calmest, at sunrise and sunset. In Swanton, you can get views north to Canada and west and south across Lake Champlain with Balloon Rides of Vermont (balloonridesoververmont.com) and U-Ken-Do-Ballooning (hotairballoon.org); in Essex, Above Reality (balloonvermont.com) offers rides over the Green Mountains and the shores of Lake Champlain. In Quechee, Balloons of Vermont (balloonsofvermont.com) and Balloons Over New England (balloonsovernewengland.com) will let you hover over the Quechee Gorge or explore the mountains down to Killington.