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WV – Canaan Valley targets paragliders with mountaintop launch site

Ellie Herrick, of Tucker County, glides through the air after launching from the top of Weiss Knob at Canaan Valley Resort State Park’s new paraglide launch site.

CANAAN VALLEY — Leaf-peepers riding the chairlift at Canaan Valley Resort State Park on Wednesday got a sightseeing bonus when they arrived at the 4,400-foot summit of Weiss Knob: five paraglider pilots taking flight from the park’s new mountaintop launch site and riding the southwest wind over the Red Creek Valley below.

A dozen or so onlookers chatted with the paragliding enthusiasts as they prepared their flight gear, then photographed them with cellphone cameras as the fabric wings stretched on the ground behind them noisily filled with air and then silently lifted them skyward.

For park superintendent Stan Beafore, who was among those watching and photographing the maiden flights from the launch site, the scene was the culmination of six years of groundwork.

Paraglider pilots sporadically have used high points in Canaan Valley as launch sites for some time and, in recent years, when weather conditions permit, have made flights off nearby Bald Knob in conjunction with Canaan Valley Resort State Park’s annual Windfest celebration.

After hearing favorable comments about the area’s flight conditions and relatively open landing zones, Beafore sensed that the potential existed for marketing the park as a destination for paragliding — especially given its easy mountaintop access via chairlift, which can accommodate pilots and their paragliding outfits stowed in backpack-rigged bags.

After determining that state park regulations allow paragliding, Beafore sought the assistance of paraglider pilot Ben Herrick, of nearby Laneville, in picking the best site on park property near the top of the ski area’s Weiss Quad Lift to establish a launch site.

“This site is really wonderful, and very rare,” said Herrick, who, along with his wife, Ellie, was among the paraglider pilots testing the winds on Wednesday. “It’s the only place I know of in this region that faces directly into the prevailing wind.”

After picking the site for the launch point, Beafore began working with regulators from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and former Marshall University biology professor Tom Pauley to come up with a site development plan that would avoid, to the highest degree possible, impact to the Cheat Mountain salamander, listed as a threatened species and known to live atop Weiss Knob.

“Protecting the salamander was the main issue,” Beafore said, “and it took the most time.”

By building a raised boardwalk to cross over the mossy, spruce-shaded salamander habitat to reach the launch site, the threatened amphibians are provided with a way to travel under the structure to avoid having their existing range bisected, and humans can keep their feet dry.

While the main landing zone for the new launch site is the lawn fronting the state park headquarters office a few miles away, agreements have been reached with farmers along Laneville Road to use their fields, located directly below the site, as alternate landing areas, if wind conditions prevent the longer flight.

Beafore said the West Virginia State Parks Foundation, the Foundation for Free Flight and the Mountaineer Hang Gliding Association helped pay for the launch site.

“It didn’t cost State Parks anything, except wood for the boardwalk,” he said.

As Jesse Shimrock watched Herrick begin her descent, he told a visitor how he came to take up the sport. After spending several years as a mountain climbing and kayaking guide in California, his knees started giving him trouble when he was making descents.

“I met a kayaking friend who had become a paragliding instructor, and I decided to give it a try,” said Shimrock, a Tucker County native who now lives in the Bruceton Mills area of Preston County. “I loved it. I initially planned to use it as a way to get off the mountain, to save my knees as much as anything, but I ended up getting a little obsessed with it. Now I’m a cross-country paragliding guide.”

As a guide for Escape Paragliding, he has led trips in the French Alps, among other destinations. When not guiding trips, he gets in a fair amount of solo flight time. He set a state record distance flight in August after launching from Spruce Knob and riding the thermals for 42 miles to a point near Scherr, in Grant County.

Shimrock’s father, Thomas, took up the sport after seeing how much his son was enjoying it, and was among pilots initiating the new launch site on Wednesday.

“I always get nervous, watching my Dad fly,” he said shortly after his father took to the skies. “It’s probably the way he felt about watching me do all the stuff I’ve tried.”

Jesse Shimrock was the last pilot to launch, gliding around the western edge of Weiss and far over Canaan Valley Resort State Park’s now-grassy ski slopes before crossing W.Va. 39 and banking to a landing in the park headquarters parking lot.

“The conditions were good enough that I could have stayed up there for hours, but the idea was to fly to the official landing zone and see how that works — although Ben [Herrick] managed to land at his house,” Jesse Shimrock said after disconnecting from his canopy.

“I think this is going to be a great addition to the park,” he said. “In Europe, you have chairlift access and groomed launch sites, but this is a first for this country.”

“This adds another component to us becoming a true four-season resort,” said Steve Drumheller, general manager of Canaan Valley Resort.

As for Beafore, he’s already looking at a new ways to use the launch site.

“Just look at that view,” he said. “Can you think of a better place to hold a wedding?”

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammeron Twitter.

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