“I’ll walk, you fly,” said George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.
“I can’t fly,” replied his guardian angel, Clarence. “I haven’t got my wings.”
If you, like Clarence, feel a big grounded, get ready to take your Tahoe adventure sky high. Earning your wings here isn’t quite as simple as “every time a bell rings,” but whether by running off a mountain, getting in a glider or stepping in a basket, it promises a lot more excitement.
A BASKET ON A BREEZE
Drifting lazily in the sky, a hot air balloon ride is sightseeing at its finest.
“It is the most peaceful aerial adventure,” says Tammy Hoy, who, with husband Harley, owns Lake Tahoe Balloons. “There is no swing, no movement; you are completely one with the environment.”
The couple’s company, based in South Lake Tahoe, provides a totally unique ballooning experience. The ride begins shortly after sunrise, when the winds are cool and calm. Passengers board the Tahoe Flyers, the world’s only U.S. Coast Guard-certified balloon launch and recovery vessel, and cruise onto The Lake. The balloon is inflated mid-lake, first by gas-powered fans, then by twin 28-million BTU burners, which shoot 15- to 20-foot flames into the heat-resistant fabric, causing it to slowly rise.
Passengers board the wicker basket, or gondola, and slowly ascend, until the boat becomes only a small speck on the vast sheet of blue, then until the blue becomes a puddle ringed with the muted greens and browns of mountains and trees.
Balloons usually rise three to four thousand feet above lake level, high enough, says Hoy, to see the peaks of Yosemite on a clear day. The pilot climbs by firing the balloon’s burner and descends by allowing the air to cool, on calm days skimming The Lake’s surface. After the flight, the balloon returns to the Tahoe Flyer, and passengers and crew celebrate with a traditional Champagne toast.
A RIDE AND A GLIDE
Soundlessly soaring, circling effortlessly as an eagle, motorless flight in a sailplane is especially spectacular in Tahoe.
Doug Lent, manager of Soar Truckee, a full-service glider operation based out of the Truckee Tahoe Airport, attributes these superior flights to the are’a warm days and cool nights, which, combined with the prevailing westerly flow from the Sacramento Valley, create the many thermals that allow the slender sailplanes to soar.
Passengers climb into the front seat and pop on a pair of headphones to keep in touch with the pilot, who sits in back. A Plexiglas canopy is closed snug over both. A towplane tugs the craft down the runway and into the air in a game of follow-the-leader. At the right altitude for the conditions, the glider drops the towline.
“We ask, ‘Do you want it mild or wild?'” Lent says. “If someone wants a calm ride, we go in the morning. You release from the towplane and glide your way back to the airport. It’s scenic, but it’s all downhill so to say.”
Those who choose “wild,” need only to wait. “By noon the thermals are going good,” Lent says. “When the thermals are popping, the air is less stable and it’s a bit bumpier.”
OFF A MOUNTAIN, INTO THE AIR
On the edge of a mountain, you take a tentative step, then another faster, and then another, until the ground disappears and you soar through the air, flying.
Both hang gliding and paragliding allow humans the freedom of birds. The sports are essentially the same, according to Ray Leonard, co-owner of Carson City-based Adventure Sports; the real difference is the equipment. “In paragliding, you’re in a seated position, whereas hang gliding you’re in a prone position.”
Adventure Sports starts at a designated launch spot, often on Slide Mountain near Mount Rose, where passenger and pilot hook into the equipment in a tandem rig. A common misconception is the idea of jumping off a cliff. “You’re running and gliding off the mountain,” corrects Leonard. “It’s like a paper airplane.”
Once off the ground, the pilot does all the steering and climbs with the thermas, allowing the passenger to simply enjoy the experience and views.
“We’re flying with the birds,” says Leonard. “You feel the air, smell the sagebrush; you’re really in tune with nature.”
Depending on conditions, rides may last from 15 minutes to an hour before landing in Washoe Valley.
FROM WATER TO SKY
The perfect blend of water and air, parasailing is an activity that allows the feeling of flight while being safely attached to a boat.
“There’s no skill involved,” assures North Tahoe Water Sports co-owner Kurt Wilhelmy. His company takes passengers out on a 31-foot boat, which holds up to 12 people at a time. Flyers, solo, tandem or triple, are strapped into a harness that acts as a swing, and are tethered to the boat via a big hydraulic reel. The boat speeds up, and “like a giant fishing reel,” the line is let out and the passengers rise into the air.
“It’s a real slow, gradual transition. It’s never a roller coaster ride,” Wilhelmy says, “unless you want it to be.”
North Tahoe Water Sports offers flights up to almost 900 feet above The Lake. And when not airborne, passengers get to enjoy a scenic cruise along Tahoe’s shoreline.