Trip Report by Native Eyewear Ambassadors Jeff Shapiro and Cody Tuttle.
This past June, I was privileged to go on a dream expedition. The idea was to go north of the Arctic Circle, to the raw and largely untouched wilderness which makes up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in the Brooks range within the State of Alaska to see if we could fly. Exploring the deepest parts of the ANWR by hiking and flying paragliders across its rugged mountains, rivers and valleys was only made better by the chance to share it with my good friend and fellow Native Eyewear ambassador, Cody Tuttle. It takes a unique human to want to head off into the unknown, and I couldn’t have imagined a better partner than Cody for this adventure. We had the time of our lives, and indeed, became better friends than we were when we left.
While being flown out of the Brooks by a friend in his bush plane, Cody and I spoke about how excited we were to return and continue exploring a place that truly captured our hearts. The look in Cody’s eyes was one of hope, curiosity, and joy. Sadly, about a month after we returned from this trip, Cody’s life ended on a fateful flight in the Owens Valley—his favorite flying in his High Sierra backyard. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Cody’s huge smile and his thirst for adventure. But one thing is for sure—I’ll be heading back to the Brooks Range. And when I do, in every way, Cody will be with me—on the ground and in the air….
We interviewed Jeff to recap their ANWR trip. Below is the transcript:
Explain the concept of Vol-Biv paragliding.
Vol-Biv paragliding translates directly to “fly-camp”. Basically, we hike up a mountain which, based on the weather, allows us to launch our paraglider from it’s slopes. If while flying we find a thermal (heated, rising air), we turn circles in it like birds to gain altitude and then, glide deeper into the mountains. While on glide, if we find another thermal, we get to keep going. If not, we have to land since we don’t have motors to sustain our flight. But, the beauty of paragliding is that once we land, we can put our entire aircraft and all of our gear in a pack and hike with it to another launch site. Carrying tents and camping gear allows us to do this day after day and cross large sections of wilderness using only our feet and our paraglider.
What is free-flight?
Free flight is a form of aviation that excludes the use of an engine or motor. When we fly a paraglider, we are flying an aircraft that’s designed to glide efficiently and allow us to use nature’s energy to sustain flight. The sun heats up the ground which, in turn heats up the air and creates currents of rising bits of atmosphere that we can use to gain altitude. Additionally, we can surf the wind as it’s forced upward when the velocity hits an obstruction like a mountain face. By reading what the weather provides, we can cover large distances with just the power of nature.
How long have you been flying for?
I began my free-flying related life in 1993. Hang gliding, Wing Suit BASE jumping, and paragliding have been dominate features and deep seated passions for almost 28 years now and I still have a curiosity and love for it like I began yesterday.
What drives you to explore?
I think by-in-large, my fascination with flight comes from a need to explore. By stepping into unknowns and giving myself opportunities to learn, I get to grow as a human being. I’ve also been drawn to the wild places in the world since I was a kid. Stories of Himalayan expeditions and of sailors making ocean crossings have been a source of my dreams and imagination since I can remember. The byproduct of exploring has also allowed me to meet amazing new people, experience new culture and gain perspective on how other people live.
What were some of the major challenges of this trip to Alaska’s Brooks Range?
Logistically, this expedition posed some serious challenges. First, no one had ever tried to fly in this Vol-Biv style above the arctic circle. Since neither Cody nor I had ever spent any significant time in the Brooks Range so, it was hard to be fully prepared for the type of hiking and flying we’d be doing. To carry 9-10 days worth of food and fuel across miles of tussock, tundra, up and over mountains, and to fly through an environment with zero infrastructure…no roads, no trails…all with 24 hours of sunlight and weather swings from a hot 75 degrees and sunshine to 30 degrees and driving rain, were all ingredients for a serious adventure!
Who was your partner and how did he influence your experience?
My partner for this trip was Cody Tuttle. Cody, for me, was an obvious choice. Yes, he has passion and experience in mountain ranges all over the world and yes, he is a strong paraglider pilot but, most importantly he’s my good friend and had the temperament and fortitude to help make this adventure a memory of a lifetime. To go on an expedition like this, and enjoy it, you need a unique skill set and state of mind. Cody and I left for this trip with mutual respect and a strong friendship and came back with higher levels of both. I’m probably more thankful for that than anything else.
What was your most memorable experience during the 18 days you spent in the Arctic?
Seeing and howling back and forth with a wolf, following grizzly tracks in a storm, and even the flight out in the Super Cub after being picked up were all memorable but, we went up to the Brooks range to fly and to see the vastness of an untouched wilderness. On day 5 of our adventure, we had a flight together that covered more ground in an hour than we’d made in the previous 5 days. Not only were we able to fly, wing tip to wing tip, at cloud base over the Brooks Range but we got to see and ultimately connect to just how special and unique that place is. It’s the largest in-tact wilderness area on the North American continent and although I’d felt the strong desire to protect it, it was during this flight that I actually “felt” why it must be protected. On a selfish note, when we landed at the end of that flight, although not my longest flight by any means, I knew I’d just had one of the most memorable experiences in a paraglider I’d ever had in my life.
What prepares you for a trip like this?
I think the only way to prepare for a trip like this is to do as much homework as I can, to learn as much as possible about the environment I’m entering and about how to be mentally and physically prepared for it, and then to let everything go and enter the adventure ready for anything. Being educated but leaving expectations behind is the key to a trip like this for me.
Would you go back?
I can’t WAIT!!!!!! We’re definitely not done in the Brooks Range. There’s a lifetime of adventure up there and we’ve only scratched the surface.