Twice in a four-day span, Anchorage paraglider Wil Brown flirted with the Alaska distance record he set back in 2014, flying oh-so-close to his record of 97.9 miles, hovering ever-so-near the 100-mile mark he has been chasing this year.
He can thank a bug fart that his second attempt didn’t leave him stuck in a swamp, miles from a road or a river somewhere in the Copper River basin.
Brown, 32, spent nearly eight hours hanging in the air Wednesday in his most recent attempt to fly 100 miles, a distance that would break the state-record flight he took in 2014 from Eklutna Lake to Eureka.
“I’m always just trying to go farther and fly longer,” Brown said. “I didn’t quite get there this season, but just the pursuit of 100 miles led to a lot of cool flights I had never taken before.”
Brown spoke Thursday while packrafting the Gulkana River. He spent Wednesday night on an island in the river, a landing spot that ended the longest flight of his life in terms of duration -- 7 hours, 55 minutes.
“Almost eight hours of just flying over swamps and different little mountains and rivers,” he said.
Brown packs snacks in a front pocket and has a tubing system that lets him pee during long flights, and he’s taken a lot of long flights lately. On Sunday, he glided 94 miles around the Matanuska valley before landing on the Alaska Highway.
A pilot for Alaska Airlines, he’s in the midst of an 18-month hiatus and at the end of a three-month paragliding binge. Brown and his wife, Jasmine, have two children -- 3-year-old Etta and 1-year-old Betsy -- and they made a deal that each would take care of the kids for a three-month stretch so the other could pursue a project. Jasmine had her time this winter; Wil started his at the start of April.
Brown began each of this week’s flights from Sheep Mountain Lodge. On Sunday, he reached an altitude of 9,500 feet. On Wednesday, he hit 8,000 feet.
“This time of year it’s really not that (cold),” he said. “It was well above freezing. I have heated gloves but I took the batteries out yesterday to save weight.
“We’ll fly in March or April and get to 6,000, 7,000 feet, and it’s soooo cold.”
Brown, a 2007 South High graduate, has been paragliding since he was 11. His dad, Jack -- also an Alaska Airlines pilot -- learned in 2000, and the next year Brown and his mother learned. For a few years, Brown was involved in competitive paragliding.
Now he flies to explore Alaska and to push the limits of long-distance paragliding. A man in Texas recently set a world record by traveling more than 600 kilometers; the trip took 11 hours, according to reports.
Paragliding relies on thermals -- columns of warm air that lift a paraglide into the sky and are most easily found in the middle of the day when the ground is warm.
Each of Brown’s recent record-attempts ended in the evening as the distance between thermals grew greater, and on Wednesday, the thermals became elusive at the most inopportune time -- while Brown was flying over miles of swampland.
“I’ve been flying with my packraft, so if I land near a river I have a pretty good way out, or if I’m near the mountains I can relaunch,” he said. “But a swamp (can) mean days of walking, of just bushwhacking, sleeping in the woods, worrying about bears. All that stuff starts to weigh on your mind.”
All that kept Brown out of the muck Wednesday was a wisp of air that paragliders call bug farts.
“I kept getting lower and lower, and I was a good six or seven miles from the road. So I really needed a thermal,” he said. “I was getting bug farts -- the tiniest little nothingest of a thermal, something you would usually fly through and wouldn’t want to waste time on.”
But on this day a bug fart was well worth his time. He turned circles in it and slowly gained enough altitude to fly past the swamp to a more suitable landing spot.
“I’d gain 20 feet in one turn, maybe 10 feet the next turn,” he said. “I went from 2,800 feet to 6,800 feet in over 20 minutes of climbing, which is a really long time.” For comparison’s sake, he said that on Sunday, he found thermals that took him from 4,000 feet to 8,000 feet in five to 10 minutes.
On Sunday he landed on the highway and hitchhiked to his car at Sheep Mountain Lodge. (Pro tip: “Leave your glider and everything out so people can see you just landed there and you aren’t just some guy with a big backpack,” Brown said.)
On Wednesday he landed on an island in the Gulkana River and rafted a couple of hours to the highway, where someone gave him a ride to Gakona, where Brown was scheduled to take another flight -- this one with his dad, who planned to meet him there in a Cessna.