|When we were kids, as a rite of spring, my brother and I would head out into the gusty and sunny afternoon to fly kites in our local park. In the early years of this ritual, we would occasionally attach our G.I. Joe action figures to the string and send them up on elite missions high above the newly green grass. Sometimes, in all the excitement, one of us would drop that little yellow plastic thing that the string is wound about, and one of our G.I. Joes would get his ass dragged all over the deck as the kite tried to escape.
This is exactly what goes through my head as I watch Jeff Doepker and Bob Donald, two lynchpins in Calgarys budding kiteboarding community, set up to get Jeff ripping the waves at Eagle Lake, five minutes east of Strathmore. Getting a 20-foot kite into the air safely and efficiently typically requires two people, especially if its windy out. And is it ever windy out. So windy that Bob, all 220 pounds of him, had confided in me that he was "a little nervous" when he was launching on his turn, half an hour earlier. And I now understand why, as a sudden, violent gust slams Doepkers kite into the grey water and then continues to fill it with air, dragging him, like the brave G.I. Joes of my childhood, across the water.
However, these guys know what theyre doing, so it isnt long before the kite is re-launched and Jeff is bouncing and darting about on his board, effortlessly popping up into the air and taking passes by the shore so we can get a good photo. "When its not so windy we can each self-launch and self-recover, but when it gets like this, its a good idea to take turns riding so we can help the other guy out," Doepker says.
Watching kiteboarding, one is reminded of both windsurfing and wakeboarding or waterskiing. The kite is manipulated through a large control bar that is anchored to the four corners of the kite, and to the riders padded harness. The harness keeps the rider connected to the kite, and takes the strain off governing its flight with arm strength alone. This connection creates the ability to go absolutely huge into the air, with pros on the PKRA (Professional Kiteboard Riders Association) circuit regularly reaching 30 to 40 feet high.
Kiteboarding as it is today with a wide variety of inflatable, rip-stop nylon, four-string delta shaped kites, quick-release harness systems for safety, and mass-produced, sport-specific boards is a relatively new sport, according to Doepker. However, the activity is the serendipitous result of an evolution of technology and invention going back as far as the early 1900s, when American aviator and inventor Samuel Cody jury-rigged a contraption and kite-sailed a Berthon collapsible boat across the English Channel, bringing only some chocolate and ale for the trip and arriving in Dover exhausted after nearly 20 hours of trial and error. As far back as the 13th century, Polynesian watermen hitched canoes to airborne sails and pulled themselves around the South Pacific Rim, navigating their way across vast distances by star and moon, likely looking for places to build huge rock heads as pranks to baffle subsequent generations of anthropologists.
Rapa Nui aside, it was the contemporary invention of the inflatable, curved-wing kite, by two French windsurfing brothers, Dominique and Bruno Legaigno, in the 1980s that launched the sport into global
Doepker himself has been active in kiteboarding for just over two years, and has found the sport so addictive that he has put aside all of his other outdoor-based pastimes. "It is really addictive. Its adrenaline based, but not extreme, so it attracts mountain bikers, snowboarders and the water sports crowd. Its appeal should be universal its a rush and even safer than crossing the street, you just need to use your head when doing it."
A professional by day, he has launched a part-time business around the sport, offering lessons and selling gear from his website, www.kitesource.ca. Doepker is keen to further the kiteboarding community in Calgary, and organizes periodic "Kite Nights," where experienced boarders and newbies can hang out, watch videos of the pros and talk about their sport. "There is a healthy community in Calgary, about 250 or so riders. On a typical day there might be 10 or so kites up in the air at one of the local spots," he says.
However, on this day there are just the two guys out, one kite up, a whole lotta wind and a few very curious gulls, flapping over to get a closer look at the large, orange sail that lets Donald and Doepker play among them in the water and air.
HOW TO GET STARTED
· Take a lesson. Its about the only way you would get access to the gear needed without buying it yourself, and it is a good idea to tap into an experts guidance.
Doepker offers instruction through www.kitesource.ca, or try the University of Calgarys Outdoor Program Centre: www.calgaryoutdoorcentre.ca. Canmore based Rocky Mountain Kiting also offers lessons and sells gear: www.rockymountainkiting.com.
· Tap into the kiteboarding community. Check out kitesource.ca, or www.calgarykiteboarding.com for forums on the sport and info on upcoming events. Bob Donald co-ordinates a wind report, Bobs Best Bet, on his website www.windsurfingalberta.com, that taps into meteorological information to predict when and where the ideal conditions will be locally.
Try it someplace warm. Kiteboarding is an ocean-based sport at its heart. California and Florida are the logical American hotspots, and Doepker guides a couple of trips a year to more exotic locales like Hawaii, where he and Donald had their first exposure to the sport, or to Venezuela, his last trip where he and his girlfriend happened upon a PKRA event and got to hang out and ride with the pros.