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Gliding on into Pemberton

Canadian Paragliding Nationals coming later this month

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For the first time in five years, the Canadian Paragliding Nationals will land in Pemberton.

The event will bring over 100 competitors from 15 different countries up the Sea to Sky for the week-long competition, which begins July 22 and wraps July 29.

Vancouver's Nicole McLearn was the top female pilot in 2012, placing 11th overall, and will be back for another crack at the title. After several years of nationals taking place in Quebec, she's thrilled to see it return to the West Coast.

"Pemberton is considered one of the prime paragliding spots in Canada due to its spectacular scenery, so we get lots of international visitors, many of whom wish to attend a competition," McLearn wrote in an email.

McLearn has had an exciting year, including taking fourth in the Colombian Championships this winter and was part of an expedition in Alberta when her partner Alex Raymont broke the Canadian distance record with a new mark of 335 kilometres.

She'll look to continue the campaign in one of her favourite places to fly.

"On a personal level, it would be nice to be female Canadian champion. There are nine female pilots competing this year (out of a total of about 100 pilots), and I'm looking forward to having some more women to fly alongside," she wrote.

Vancouver's Simon Beaumont was a beginner when the championships were last through town, and he's excited to fly in the 'B' wing competition as a wiser, more worldly flier.

"I've flown all sorts of places around the world now, in South America and the United States and places in Canada. (Pemberton is) still the most epic and spectacular place to fly," Beaumont said.

Organizer Guy Herrington is expecting between 100 and 120 people from as far away as New Zealand, Nepal, Argentina and Mexico to come take part. As of July 11, 97 fliers were registered on the event's website.

While Pemberton is certainly a gorgeous place to host the nationals, Herrington explained it can be a challenging one in which to fly.

"It's a unique location," said Herrington. "It has some Alp-like qualities in that it has some very high mountains and very deep valleys, which hold a lot of heat and generate a lot of the thermal (heat) that we look for.

"Pemberton is a meeting point of four valleys — we've got Whistler, Pemberton Meadows, Lillooet Valley and the Birkenhead Valley system all meeting in the same spot, so it makes for very dynamic flying conditions, sometimes for the good, sometimes for the worse.

"Those valleys are constantly fighting over which one will be dominant."

Herrington, who founded Sea to Sky Paragliding in 2015, has attended the Rat Race competition in Oregon, which doubles as the U.S. nationals, a half-dozen times in recent years to study how it operates with roughly 300 competitors attending every year. The key, he found, was building excitement in the community.

"We've got a lot of behind-the-curtains perspective on it so we know how it works," Herrington said. "The community there is just hugely behind it. I landed out in a farmer's field and within 30 seconds, I had a neighbouring farmer come over and say 'I wish you landed in my field. Here's a beer for you.'

"Then somebody else landed in another field and so he ran over there with another beer for that guy. He picked us both up and he drove us back to headquarters about an hour away. This was a really common occurrence."

Since landing the nationals for Pemberton, Herrington said he's reached out to local Indigenous communities, found local artists to design the trophies, and connected with the Black Squirrel Restaurant to serve as the event headquarters.

As well, at the end of the competition, Herrington will hold a charity draw with proceeds going to an organization determined by the event's host landlord, Miller's Farm.

Herrington recommends anyone interested in checking out the action to head into Pemberton Meadows for a clear view.

In addition to the area's beauty, fellow competitor Peter Spear of Vancouver said he enjoys the relative safety of Pemberton Meadows.

"Having the big fields so you can land anywhere makes it more relaxing than if you're flying in areas where the landing zones are all tight little fields. It's very nice to have big, open fields where if things don't work out, you don't have unnecessarily risky landings," he said.

The 2012 event was marred by tragedy, however, as 55-year-old American competitor John Clifford fell into the Lillooet River and drowned during competition.Organizers had stopped the race as high winds and stormy conditions rolled in, with all pilots being requested to land.

Competitors must follow a set course with a start and finish point, and they are judged based on GPS points. According to organizers, about two-thirds of the field will bow out before the finish, with only the top pilots finding their way to the end.

Though there are plans for seven different task days throughout the week, rough conditions could lead to some events being cancelled.

For more information, visit canadiannationalspg.weebly.com.

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