When Marc Chirico was 5 years old, he started dreaming he could fly.
“It was a calling,” said Chirico, who today owns and operates Seattle Paragliding out of Issaquah.
Flight dreams such as the one Chirico had as a kid seem to be a consistent phenomena among those who choose to jump off a hill with a paraglider on their back.
“I ask my students if they’ve had dreams of flying, and most of them say yes,” he said. “It gives me chills just telling you that.”
Chirico today has some 37 years of paragliding experience, and offers tandem flights, lessons, and training from his facility nestled at the base of Tiger Mountain. He found the site in the early 1990s, and has since built two launches on Washington State Department of Natural Resources land on Tiger Mountain. The launches are at the 1,700-foot elevation Poo Poo Point. Chirico also cut in a trail, called Chirico Trail, which is now well-trekked by hikers.
From the launches, flyers run off a slope to soar to heights of 3,300 feet or more, enjoying views of Mount Rainier, the rest of the Cascades, and of Lake Sammamish. This site was selected after Chirico conducted a nationwide search for the perfect location to start his business.
“This is the queen jewel in Western Washington,” Chirico said. “You can put huge Xs on a map where you shouldn’t start a paragliding business: The East Coast mountains are older. The Midwest is flat. That leaves California, Colorado, and Washington. And I’m not a California kinda guy.”
The Tiger Mountain site has become a destination for paragliders and hang gliders, he said. If the wind and weather conditions are right, Chirico can be found hosting flyers almost every day.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, he hosted two tandem customers and two paragliders who were practicing solo flights.
Bryan McCaskey and Jason Daniels, both from Seattle, were among those who had made spur-of-the-moment plans to jump that day.
“We were going to go on a hike, but he is still recovering from a ski injury,” McCaskey said, referring to Daniels. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we go paragliding instead?’”
Daniels, who has a fear of heights, initially questioned that choice. He relented though, and found himself enjoying the spectacular view of Mount Rainier and the valley below from the Poo Poo Point launch site.
Recently cleared trees gave the paragliders new access and widened the already-spectacular view.
McCaskey went on a tandem flight with Chirico, and Daniels was strapped to paragliding tandem pilot Gene Beaver, who was bitten by the paragliding bug 10 years ago and also began the sport on a whim.
“I fell in love with it immediately and signed up for lessons that first day,” he said.
Now a tandem pilot, Beaver said he feels “so blessed” to give his flyers the same experience. “I love to make them smile,” he said.
Meredyth Malocsay, the 2008 national female paragliding champion, launched from Poo Poo Point that day as well. She did her first paragliding tandem flight on a dare.
“A guy I met on Match.com dared me to do it,” she said. “I loved the paragliding. Him, not so much.”
Paragliding is a great sport for women, she said, one in which there is a level playing field for both men and women. The sport, however, doesn’t have a lot of female participants. “I am one of the top females at competitions only because I’m one of the only females at the competitions,” she joked.
After about 45 minutes airborne, all flyers made it down the landing pad safely.
Both first-timers wore ear-to-ear grins.
“It was amazing,” McCaskey said. Even Daniels, with his fear of heights, enjoyed it.
As for Chirico, there’s nothing else he wants to do: “When I’m done flying, God please take me.”