If I hadn’t just done it, I wouldn’t have believed it was possible. Flying alongside trained raptors seems like the stuff of dreams or the fantastical storybooks of my childhood. But today, as I followed an Egyptian Vulture named Kevin from thermal to thermal, watched him dive in front of my paraglider, swoop under my feet, and then land on my hand, I’ve never felt more awake in my life.
My first “parahawking” experience was a tandem flight with pilot Scott Mason. A long time falconer, Scott invented the sport here in Pokhara, Nepal after learning how to fly a paraglider from local pilot Adam Hill. He combined the two sports and now pursues parahawking with a single-point focus.
While other pilots enjoy post-flight beers in this flying mecca, Scott runs around in a leather-glove, weighing his eight birds four times a day, and refining his training techniques. Since all of his birds were rescued from dire situations–from destroyed nests or cages– there is sort of a philanthropic streak to his efforts. Still, tossing chunks of meat at birds while flying a paraglider is an undeniably eccentric pursuit and Scott’s obsession would easily qualify him for a Werner Herzog film.
With all of his investment, it’s understandable that Scott wanted to ensure I was prepared before I parahawked solo. So, during our tandem flight, he taught me the techniques: how to follow the bird, how to call him in, how to feed him in mid-air.
It’s more complicated than it looks. While steering the glider with one hand to veer away from terrain and other pilots, you must fumble to get food out of a pouch with the other. After blowing a whistle, you firmly extend your left arm, and the bird swoops and lands on it from behind. This can only be done while turning right. Left-banking turns risk tangling the bird in the glider lines.
If this weren’t enough to think about, the pilot must remain ever-vigilant of the wild birds. Midway through our flight, an eagle began to dive attack Kevin. The remainder of our airtime became an urgent rescue mission. Scott abandoned thermaling and focused on scaring the eagle off. As he shouted over his shoulder, we began to head uncomfortably close to a ridge. I wondered just how much he was willing to sacrifice for his precious birds.
My next flight was solo. As my feet left launch, Scott released Kevin and the raptor flew immediately in front of my glider, flashing his incredible wingspan. Fewa Lake glimmered below us and the elegant white pinnacles of Himalayan peaks –Machapuchare and Annapurna–sat on the horizon. Kevin soared above me, guiding me to the rising air and then, as a reward, I extended my arm and called him in. He landed on my glove, snatched the treat, and hitched a ride for a few seconds. After he flew away I lost track of him until a minute later when I felt a racket of talons and feathers shuffling across my helmet. He had landed on my head.
I always thought that the mere fact of flying was miracle enough, but flying with trained birds is a new level of ecstacy, a double-pleasure, possibly akin to eating a chocolate bar while getting a massage, only a million times better than that.
As I continue to fly with him, my only complaint is that Kevin isn’t more cuddly. An animal-lover, I had somehow imagined that we would become close friends, buddies in the sky. But birds-of-prey resist anthropomorphisizing. Looking into his cold eyes, at his bald wrinkled head, I keep wanting to ask Kevin: “What are you thinking?”
But it would be futile; this scavenger is on a different page altogether. To pursue it further would be like trying to forge a relationship with a guy that doesn’t express his feelings.
Birds-of-prey may not be for cuddling, but they can show us the sublime.
(For a warmer experience, I’ll turn to other animals–like the baby yak I met in the Khumbu region. With his matted and mud-splattered coat, he was a rather pathetic character. And, tied to a post, he could probably not guide me anywhere, much less to a thermal. But he knew how to communicate with a needy human being and within moments of our meeting, wiggled his way fast into my heart.)
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