Stepping into a Golden sky
By Dan Hicks
Mount 7 rises high in the Rockies southeast of Golden, its peak distinguished by a mega numerical “7” created by remnant summer snow; it’s formal geographical name is Beaverhead Peak.
The Mount 7 moniker also refers to the main paraglider launch site on Beaverhead Peak’s long northwest ridge, which descends to Golden itself; and it is as the portal to a paragliding paradise that Mount 7 is best known, with an obligatory mention of the access road itself which delivers motorized sightseers to the same vertiginous heights and to a myriad of plunging bicycle descent pathways en route, and serves as a morning and evening family stroll – for the Ursus americanus species.
In late May, I first drove the 14-kilometre long Bowle-Evans Forest Service Road (FSR) accessing the main launch site, mere days after its uppermost spring snow had melted away. My quadranscentennial leaf-springed Jeep YJ Sahara ‘94 was made for such a spring road, maneuvering through its soft sections, clearing the tire-track berms, propelled ever upward in second gear by its manual-5 AMC inline-6 heart; its square headlights may make it the “ugly Jeep,” bereft of that cute CJ-Civilian Jeep cachet, but nevertheless – it is a more dependably rugged stock model off-highway machine than the pavement princesses of the present-day.
However, modern directional assistance is an asset when navigating the Bowle-Evans FSR for, although the correct route was a continuous ascent, and the branch roads’ visage of lesser use intimated their road-to-nowhere status, my Garmin Global Positioning System unit’s revelation of my precise location was orientationally reassuring.
At 1,940 metres elevation, the main launch site’s prospect was southwest, out over the Columbia River Valley and across to the snowy Purcells; far below was the Columbia River itself, its wetlands, the community of Nicholson and northward – the Town of Golden.
Paragliders launching themselves into the sky here have a luxuriant 1,150-metre descent to the Mueller Flight Park landing field at the Golden Eco Adventure Ranch in Nicholson.
No paragliders launched during my late May visit but, like a big airborne toy, a sailplane glider performed a silent “fly past” for an audience of three. Located 253 metres higher still, at the end of a rough two-kilometre jeep trail, an upper launch site offers an even grander 1,403-metre descent to the Columbia River.
Hiking this trail, I found the initial shaded section surface to be icy muck, but dry and firm thereafter along a sun-exposed but viewless treed ridge. Though coming to within 425 metres of the upper site, at 2,111 metres elevation, my hike ended at the spring snowline where beyond – winter’s reign in the mountains endured.
Upon my return to the main launch site with June’s advent, I witnessed the intrepid Mount 7 paragliding squadron step into a fair weather sky one by one, suspended under vibrant wings composed of every colour in the rainbow – borne aloft by friendly highland updrafts; circling repeatedly in the sky, and below, up and down the Stacey Creek mountainside valley which falls away from the launch site’s south side.
The youngest paraglider was little “Sky Clare” who flew tandem with her father and, while preparing, was comfortable with her harness, clips, and arrayed lines; assured by her reserve chute, safety helmet, dad’s skill, and the lucky charms she held fast in her hands – a spring wildflower cupped in one, and her toy leopard suspended from the other. Airborne from Mount 7 in natural avian flight, Clare was acquiring a firsthand familiarity with the sky at a considerably younger age than history’s iconic Lockheed aviatrix. The paragliders shared the sky with man’s primeval airy inspiration – the birds – who also rode the air currents above we terrestrial onlookers, passively resigned to our earthly bounds.
My Golden adventure was conjoined with a bird-loving but decidedly more grounded group – Cranbrook’s Rocky Mountain Naturalists – fascinated by and most knowledgeable about – birds, both big and small, but having, as yet, no desire to join them in the air.
Yurting at the Golden Eco Adventure Ranch, I reacquainted myself with the simple joys of the summer season – fellowship, and biting into flame-roasted smokies whose internal cheese spurts out in a hot yellow liquid goo; the deprivation engendered by draconian bonfire bans can ruin a summer.
The Blaeberry River’s most northerly headwaters are bounded by Banff National Park (Alberta) at Howse Pass – Northwester explorer David Thompson’s 1807 conduit to the Columbia, and the voluminous might of the Blaeberry’s meltwater is channeled into the constricted Thompson Falls canyon, along which we naturalists hiked, discovering otherworldly spring orchids both sequestered within forest shadows and exposed to full sunshine.
In contrast, what Canyon Creek lacked in water volume, it more than compensated with its truly abyssal canyon, along the rim of which the trail runs; and wary vertigo-free mountain goats eyed we human intruders from the security of their hideaway ledge-edge haunts. Blessed with these natural daytime wonders, the degradation of the natural night sky outside Golden itself is indeed lamentable.
Nicholson has only a couple of new age sky-burner beacon lights presently, but their headlight glare effect negates what to visitors would otherwise be a startlingly welcome starry divergence from the typical pallid lacklustre urban night skies familiar to them (e.g. Calgary – certainly, and Cranbrook – catching up as fast as it can).
High summer is upon us, so imagine yourself imminently making an airy getaway from your day-to-day routine. In a beautiful blue sky, bounded by the Rockies and Purcells, you paraglide in lazy circles slowly down from the heights of Mount 7 into the Columbia River valley and, as you descend low over the great river itself, you consummate your escape by casting your cellphone into its murky waters, freeing yourself forever from e-zombie enslavement.
Some other summer, faraway in a golden future – further south in our Rocky Mountain Trench – when the Kim-Cran Wildman Overland Endurance Race eclipses Okanagan’s Ironman, and its legions of eclectic marathoners are igniting our local trails and making waves on our waterways, an aerial armada of competitive paragliders will thrill us likewise as they brighten our skies in a gay profusion of polychromatic wings.
One of these mornings
You’re going to rise up singing
Then you’ll spread your wings
And you’ll take to the sky
“Summertime” from the opera “Porgy & Bess” (1935) – George & Ira Gershwin, & DuBose Heyward.
Lead image: With the Purcells behind him, a cocoon paraglider soars past the main Mount 7 launch site, Golden. Dan Hicks Photos