For many of us, the experience of kite-flying begins and ends in childhood. It is often a dismal memory of an outdoor family activity that began with high-flying hopes and ended with tangled string. Cheer up Charlie Brown; with today's space-age technology, the days of torn paper and knotted string are long gone. And with The Berkeley Kite Festival coming up this weekend, now is the perfect time to test-drive a new model.
Every year since 1986, the Berkeley Kite Festival has been enchanting guests of all ages. Held at Cesar Chavez Park, the festival location is ideal since the bay provides the perfect winds for fliers of all levels, beginners and experts alike.
Hosted by Highline Kites, a quaint kite shop in the back of a truck (boasting to be the "tiniest solar-powered kite shop in the world"), the Berkeley Kite Festival sees roughly 15,000 to 25,000 guests over the course of two days. Tom McAlister, event chair and owner of Highline, is especially excited for this year's festival because of its partnership with the North Berkeley Bart station for free parking and free shuttles to the festival site.
Being a kite newbie myself, I felt lost in the tiny store, faced with a rainbow assortment of kites in all shapes, colors, and sizes. Which is the kite that matches me? Luckily, I had the help of Tom McAlister, John Khan, Mike North, and Mark Quirmbach, all professional fliers and kite enthusiasts.
Khan and North are members of the Berkeley Kite Wranglers, a team of individuals with a passion for the giant creature kite genre. These are kites that don't really look like traditional kites at all, but resemble Macy's Day Parade balloons. They come in a variety of shapes, from puppies to cars. A favorite of the Wranglers is the octopus. Today, I'm starting with a lesser sea creature, a basic fish. With plenty of pulling and pushing of long rope, I feel like I'm setting a sail on a massive ship. By the time the fish is flying, I've worked up a small sweat. Staked safely to the ground, the fish takes a life all its own in the sky, swimming with two other fish and a yellow octopus. It seems the fun in having giant creature kites is to admire them and have others admire your work. Both Khan and North have packed lawn chairs, and sit to relax and chatter while other park guests play in the shadows of the sea critters.
On a more interactive level, Quirmbach shows me the athletic abilities of a quad line kite, that is, a kite with four lines. Gripping the handles of the Revolution EXP, I am instantly feeling the pressure of a novice pilot. Any slight movement in the wrong directions could potentially bring this kite crashing down. Flying a quad line is for the adventurous yet meticulous thrill-seeker. My heart turns 180 just as my kite does a little flip of its own, unintentionally of course. Though I haven't mastered the technique, I am feeling out the combinations of push and pull, left and right, and exploring the 3-D space of directions that I can use to control the kite. I am at the controls of a stunt plane without ever leaving the ground. Take that, steering wheel!
As exhilarating as the quad is, I need a break from the fast lane. I settle down with a simple one line delta (the common triangle-shaped kite). With a large wingspan to float on the wind, this kite is easy to control. I choose a sunny grassy spot on a hillside and can practically fly this kite with my eyes closed. To glam this flight up a bit, I attach a colorful tail and work the kite on a cloud catwalk. Not only is my kite the fiercest looking kite in the sky, but I do believe that the other deltas are beginning to get jealous. I jerk the string around for a few moments, trying to get some fancy tail twirls in, when I realize the problem. I NEED MORE TAIL FLAIR. Before I can bring my kite down and rush to buy some more, I remember McAlister's warning: "Tails are addicting".
For the more creative flier, simply adding on tails isn't enough. McAlister shows me his assortment of kite creations, crafted by engineering and experience. It is all about endless customization. Rather than adding funky streamers and baseball cards to your bike, you're assembling all the hand-picked parts and constructing your own work of art. As beautiful as these creations are, patenting new design techniques seems out of my league.
With events ranging from kite making workshops and competitive kite battles to a mass kite ascension, the festival is aimed to please all sorts of kite fancies, even ones you didn't know you had. Have a soft spot for figure-skating? Check out the elegantly choreographed kite routines performed by professional stunt fliers. Wish you could swim with a fleet of octopi? Look upwards for the world record-breaking flight of 25 giant octopus kites.
After a full afternoon of sampling, I've made my decision. I've picked a lovely mini-creature kite that reflects my preferences. It's low maintenance, easy to fly, and most importantly, is completely adorable. You can find me at the Kite Fest with my new "Squeaky the Octopus."
The Berkeley Kite Festival is July 31 to August 1 at Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley. For more information visit highlinekites.com.