“A paraglider is an airplane in a backpack.” —Alex Peterson, SkyBrothers Paragliding
Take to the sky, and you’ll never know who or what you’ll meet. “I’ve had eagles off my wing, just checking me out,” Alex Peterson says. “Actually, they’re really good guides. On one flight, I met three turkey vultures at 500 feet. I sailed and soared with them until we reached 15,000 feet.”
Peterson of Wayzata is a pilot and instructor at SkyBrothers Paragliding. He is easy to identify; his pickup truck is rigged up with a 6,000-foot spool of line that is mounted on what looks like an aluminum winch—all used to hoist paragliders up, up and away.
Wait a minute; you can paraglide in Minnesota? When the sport comes to mind, one often thinks of paragliders launching themselves from picturesque mountains and hilltops or other high-elevation vistas. “I would guess that 99.9 percent of Minnesotans would say you can’t [paraglide in these parts], but you can and we’ve been doing it for years,” Peterson says.
In fact, Peterson has some 11,000 paragliding flights under his safety belt.
In a Great Plains state like Minnesota, paragliders are mostly towed into the air. “If there’s no wind, the pull might be two miles,” Peterson says. “If there is a wind, it’s about a mile.” It goes without saying that the pull (via a truck) has to be unobstructed. “No wires or power lines,” he says.
Once the paraglider reaches an altitude of roughly 2,000 feet, the line grounding the pilot to the truck is detached. “You’re on your own,” he says.
Like hawks and eagles, paragliders seek out thermal air currents to soar. Peterson’s longest flight began in Watertown, Minnesota, and ended on Mille Lacs Lake, about 90 miles north. That’s nothing. One of his friends started a flight in Mankato, Minnesota, and flew to Madison, Wisconsin. “That’s the fifth-longest flight in North America,” he says.
St. Paul’s David Dellanave was born in Italy but cut his paragliding chops with Peterson at SkyBrothers. While he learned the adventure sport in Minnesota, Dellanave also flies in Italy. “In terms of the flying, it’s pretty much the same,” he says. “The only real difference is how you get up in the air. In Minnesota, you’re towed. In Italy, you fly off a mountain.” While the landscapes are vastly different, Dellanave counts the experiences as being similar. “They’re serene, they’re calm and they’re chill,” he says.
Vadnais Heights’ Craig Aasen was an accomplished skydiver, kiteboarder and kite skier when he learned to paraglide. “The sensation of flight is the thing I do it for,” he says. One might even say that Aasen has always been inclined toward flight. When he was a kid, he would steal his mom’s bed sheets to use as a makeshift parachute. Instead of jumping out of planes, he jumped off a front yard maple tree. “[Paragliding] is the grown up version of that,” Aasen says. Does he ever get nervous? “I’m always nervous, but I learn things the right way,” he says. “I take lessons, and I talk to the right people.”
Speaking of nerves, Peterson says managing fear is 75 percent of his job. “Ninety-five percent of my tandem flights are with people with zero paragliding experience. A lot of them start by saying there’s no way they can do this and finish saying it’s the coolest thing ever,” he says.
Burnsville’s Amy Aanenson decided to meet fear head on. “COVID-19 upped my anxiety levels, and, instead of living another fearful year, I was going to tax that fear,” she says. “I remember driving out to meet [Peterson]. After I got here, I remember thinking that I could still drive away.”
Aanenson resisted that urge. She stayed and educated herself before taking to the air. “I talked to [Peterson], and I talked to the driver,” she says.
“I also talked to a couple first-timers, who were paragliding as part of their sobriety. Paragliding gave them that adrenaline rush they were looking for but in a healthier way.”
While Peterson enjoys the vicarious experience of helping and watching others take flight, he continues to cull his own experiences, flying as much as the weather allows. Thankfully, winter doesn’t have to put the complete brakes on his endeavors, but there are limits.
“I tend to stay home when it gets below
10 degrees. At high altitudes, temperatures can get pretty extreme,” he says.
Regardless of the weather, Peterson holds a treasure-trove of memories—from flying over sand dunes in California (“You can cross a ridge and dip your toes in the sand,” he says.) to hiking up a mountain in Washington for a flight. “A paraglider is an airplane in a backpack,” he says. No reservations needed.
Writer Daniel Huss took his article research to new heights when he paraglided with SkyBrothers over Lake Minnetonka. He shares his experience here:
My first-ever tandem paragliding experience started with a preflight checklist. Were the straps buckled to the harness correctly and securely? Check. Was I wearing a helmet and was the chinstrap buckled? Check. Was the parachute onboard? I’ll admit that one gave me pause.
With the checklist items in order, we were set. With a backpack (loaded with said parachute) that doubled as a seat draped off my back, I stood in front of pilot Alex Peterson. The sail was behind him, and the tow operator sat in a pickup truck in front of us. A 2,000-foot line spooled in the back of the truck was attached to us and would be let out like line on a fishing reel.
Peterson instructed me to stand in place until the pull of the truck forced me off my mark. “Keep running until you leave the ground, and don’t sit back until I tell you to,” he said. Lift off occurred maybe 10 yards after my first stride. This was awesome.
When we hit a certain altitude, Peterson had me protect my face with my left hand and sharply pull the lever on the harness with my right hand. The pulling action released the connection to the tow truck. I could see the end of the line float to ground as we sailed on, free as birds. This was awesome.
I didn’t hoot and holler like a few of his previous passengers but rather sailed in silence. With my head on a swivel, the wind hit my face colder and harder than expected. I had looked at a windsock at ground level before we took off and wondered if there was enough wind to fly. In the air, I had opposite thoughts. Was the wind too strong?
We banked toward a beautiful sunset, and I took my phone out of my jacket pocket and took a few selfies. We were flying above Lake Minnetonka, yet I could see the Minneapolis skyline in the distance. People on the ice near Spirit Island, our take-off spot, looked like ants. Their trucks resembled toys.
We circled up to 1,200–1,300 feet and called it a trip. Upon landing, I was told to keep my feet up in the air. My seat hit the ground, and we skidded maybe a couple feet. My first paragliding experience was over; my second awaits. Awesome.
Available services at SkyBrothers include tandem paragliding flights, flight videos, introduction to paragliding lessons, solo flight lessons, paragliding tows for rated pilots and paramotor instruction. Prices vary.