Tuesday, July 26, 2011

summer catch up - nearer my death to thee

summer tends to be a busy time in freelancing, as normal people take advantage of the sun and warmth to take a break. freelancers step into the void. i've been doing a lot of that literally - filling in for vacationing others - and figuratively, with my lovely herald column. here is a bonus blog with two - count 'em two! - adventures: ultralight flying and zip lining. enjoy!

Flying with Icarus

Christopher Ball revs the engine on his winged motorbike as we crisscross Church Lake just outside of Bridgewater. The pontoons keep us afloat and Ball assures me the wings will keep us airborne – if we build up enough speed.

In my head, I hear Doc Brown telling Marty McFly, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” as he floors the souped-up Delorean.

When Ball is satisfied the engine is running hot enough, he points our rattling contraption at the long end of the lake and guns it. As we’re ripping across the water and the wings start to lift, my eyes catch a small sign bolted in front of me: it warns this craft is amateur built. I ask Ball what exactly that means, but the engine and open air tear the words out of my mouth.

Seconds later, we’re flying. Our ultralight aircraft soars above the trees, above the birds and just below the sun. It can climb 3,000 metres into the sky, but we’re buzzing around 450 metres to maximize the view of lakes Big Mushamush, Caribou, and Langille.

The freedom is dizzying – and so is the scenery. I’m strapped in and wearing a survival suit and helmet, but there’s nothing between me and the forest, rivers and Tonka-truck vehicles below but open air. 

Ultralight aircraft are just that – the lightest way you can fly. Anything extraneous to the core business of aviation – frivolities such as doors, walls or roofs – are ditched.

Ball teaches ultralight flying at the Lunenburg County Flight School and uses the plane for some of his film work, but he admits it’s mostly for fun. “It’s the exhilaration,” he tells me once I’ve worked out how to use the intercom, “the complete freedom to explore.”

He tips the wings and we drop down over an island conspicuous for a giant, fenced off hole at one end. “Oak Island,” he explains. It’s the legendary money pit.

We’re hammering through the air at 60 kilometres an hour and the wind in my face and roar of the engine behind me reduce conversation to the minimum. After 25 minutes of flight, we zip out over the ocean. Ball banks again and we fly inland over a familiar sight: Mahone Bay, with its three churches reaching up to our God’s-eye view.

Ball shouts back that he can carry enough fuel for four hours of flight, which means he can hop in the plane – which he keeps parked in his backyard – and instantly take to the air in search of a remote camping or hiking site anywhere in mainland Nova Scotia. If he stops to refuel, he can reach Cape Breton Island.

As we skim up the coastline, Ball reveals a disconcerting habit of telling me all of the things that can go wrong with ultralight flight. If you turn too sharply, or not evenly enough, the wings lose their grip on the air and the plane crashes. If you use too much or too little rudder, the plane will spiral to the ground. Too much incline and it stalls, flinging you back to the earth. He illustrates each potential calamity by adjusting the plane so it’s closer to disaster.

I am consoled by the knowledge that while I may not have a parachute, the plane does. If it stalls and there’s nowhere to land, Ball has shown me the cord to pull to deploy the massive chute that will (hopefully) float us to safety.

We don’t need it. After an hour, Ball lands the plane so softly I can’t tell when we’ve touched glassy Church Lake.

Driving home, I feel trapped. I can only go where the road builder wanted me to go. Glancing up at the Icarus sky, I wonder if I can gather enough wax for one more flight. 

- Ziplining in NS -
I struggle up the rocky hill behind Tim Harrison on a brutish trail through the woods behind his house outside of New Glasgow. He’s chatting up a storm as he bats away flies and explains how he came to have thrill-seekers from around the world flying through his backyard.

He had spent decades labouring at the TrentonWorks railcar plant before getting laid off when it closed in 2007. Like about 330 other workers, he was unexpectedly forced to find a new job after the job-for-life vanished. He was logging a hill on his property to get firewood when he saw the line he used to zip the trees down in a new light.

“I seen on TV they had one out in B.C., a zipline going out across the valley. I had a valley out back and figured I’d try that,” he explains. “It was just research – trying to find a job.”

I puff out questions as he storms up the steep incline. He spent a year researching ziplining and found the skills he had honed maneuvering heavy machinery from one part of the plant to another transferred quite nicely to transferring adrenaline junkies from the top of his hill to the bottom. At high speed.

He and his horse cleared a path and set up a sturdy zipline. “It took some trial and error,” he admits. “I had my buddies do it.”

He blames a temporary bad back for getting his unemployed friends to soar over the valley to make sure the trees were low enough and the line strong enough. When they all landed safely, his back improved and he gave it a go. “It was scary,” he says. “You’re just hanging off a wire.”

We get to the top of the hill and I collapse, panting, into a grassy clearing next to a little hut with an ominous high wire coming out of it. Harrison tells me he opened Anchors Above in 2008.

“It’s a lot better than going welding. A lot less smoke,” he says and he begins to attach me to the line. “Just got to put up with nature. Flies. And flies. And flies.”

At present, I’m more worried about flying than flies.

Harrison hooks his harness in ahead of me and spins to face me. “I’ll go first to catch you. Just wait for me to tap the line,” he says, and off he goes, zooming high above the trees under the vast blue sky. Half-way down, he turns himself upside down and starts spinning above the trees.

Suddenly, I have lots of questions. What happens if I get turned backwards? What if a bird comes cruising at me like that goose that hit Fabio in the face as he tested a new roller coaster?
Harrison taps the line.

I take a deep breath and leap off the edge.

Instantly, I’m racing past and then over trees, spinning around, staring wide-eyed at the distant coastline, vast forest and the paths far below. The zipline screams above me, or maybe that’s just me screaming, as my hands clench the harness in a death grip. One of my spins shows the rapidly approaching landing hut and I try to face it feet first, but my back turns to it, going fast enough to blast right through the shed.

At the last second, the zipline stops and I’m dangling inches above the platform. Harrison calmly unstraps me. I stumble back to earth – the flight didn’t last long in normal time, but had that car-accident quality of stretching seconds into minutes as your wigged-out brain takes in every detail.

Then I notice we’re only halfway down the hill. “Um, how do I get back to my car?” I ask.

Harrison answers by strapping us onto a second, much steeper, zipline. As he turns to leap off, he tries to reassure me.

“Don’t worry,” he shouts. “This one is much faster.”
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