Organizers celebrate 20 years of flying high

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer July 20, 2012 09:43 pm

Steve Blasdell was dragged kicking and screaming to his first Southern Oregon Kite Festival in 2004.

“I had this vision of all these little kids running around; I did not want to go,” the Brookings man said. “We got there, sat down and started to watch, and it’s not all these little kids flying kites. It was truly amazing. I was hooked. Hooked right then and there.”

Hooked to the point that he went to a kite festival in Berkeley that following week, took flying lessons, bought a couple of two-line kites and participates in the local event he so begrudgingly attended seven years ago.

 

Not to say that second year was easy for Blasdell.

The wind was light, and a flier must have the right kite for the wind. Blasdell didn’t.

“It was way too heavy,” he said. “The line was too heavy, the spars were too heavy, the handles were wrong – everything about it was totally wrong.”

He told the announcer to cut the music to which he was performing – “I’m done; I can’t do this.

But John Barresi, an experienced flier from Portland, ran out on the field, picked up Blasdell’s kite and forced the discouraged man to finish. Had he not done that, Blasdell said, he might not have continued in the sport.

The festival, held near the beach in Harbor, is at its 20-year milestone, and while some things have changed a lot, others remain the same. The popular event will be held today and tomorrow near Sporthaven Beach.

Technology has changed, making kites bigger, smaller, lighter, agile – yet colorful as ever. The kite field in Harbor is no longer a pot-holed, campfire-pocked venue.

But the love of the sport hasn’t changed a bit, said festival founder Steve O’Brien, whose kite-flying career also started on a skeptical note and ascended to heights he’d never imagined.

The best-of-the-best fliers are out plying their trade at the Brookings -Harbor event. And, to Blasdell’s delight, there are kids running all over, learning the basics of flying a “dime-store” kite or the finer points of dodging, spinning and careening a kite through the heavens.

O’Brien remembers his first kite-flying experience.

He was in second grade. Colorful, plastic, lightweight kites – adorned with the superheroes of the day! – had just debuted.

“Superman! The Avenger! Batman!” O’Brien exclaimed. “But my stepfather wouldn’t let me have one.”

He was forced to build his own: sticks, newspaper, a sheet cut up to make a rag tail.

“Here were all these kids with all these super-duper plastic kites,” O’Brien said. “And here I was, with this funky … thing.

He lofted his kite into the air, up and up … and all the other kids’ kites crashed and burned. He took home the awards for the best hand-crafted and highest flying kite.

Ever since, he has built his own – including ones the size of a postage stamp and made from strips of bamboo, rice or tissue paper, a piece of string for a tail and flown on silk thread.

“Flying has always been a thing for me,” he said. “When I’m holding a string, and a kite’s up in the air, I feel closer to my creator.”

He began attending exhibitions, shows and competitions. He learned how to fly two-line kites, spinning kites. And the idea to begin a kite festival in Brookings bloomed in his mind.

He gathered a few friends who flew kites, obtained financing from KCRE radio, picked a weekend that didn’t conflict with all the other events in town and spread the word. There was a banquet to plan, an auction to host, T-shirts to make. And O’Brien prayed for wind.

A joke among fliers is that Brookings has two kinds of wind: too much and not enough.

The event hasn’t grown so much in numbers – the kite field can only accommodate so many people, their huge kites and multi-kite demonstrations – as it has in uniting the community.

O’Brien has kind of stepped away from flying in the exhibition, instead allowing others to strut their stuff. But he’ll be out there today, flying one of his 60 or so kites.

“I don’t think that’s overkill,” he said, adding that at one point, he had about 200 kites. “The average person only needs a few kites: a low-wind kite, a high-wind kite, a single-string, a dual, a quad, a small kite, a big one, a flow-form, a couple fighter kites.”

That’s all. After all, the joke goes, “How many kites does one man need? Just one more.”

Kite fliers from all over the nation will attend the event. Big names include Al Washington, Ron Gibian, John Barresi, Connor Doran – and local fliers Susan Shampo, Al Stroh, and Gary MacEachern.

“The kite festival is a magical thing,” O’Brien said. “I feel very blessed that this idea I came up with 20 years ago is still in existence.”

The community has backed it up, too, embracing the kite fliers and their art.

“Before the kite festival, this was a dead weekend,” O’Brien said. “Now, it continues to bring lots of people in from all over. The motels are full, the restaurants are full. I wonder what, dollar-wise, they bring to our community.”

Often, visitors become residents.

Mike Macdonald moved to Brookings in October 2010, in part, because of the kite festival; he is now chairman of the event.

He got his start in Southern California but fell in love with the sport after meeting Steve Lamb of Catch the Wind kite store.

“He stuck the handles in my hand and I was hooked,” he said. “My wife says if I could, I’d buy a kite every day.”

Alas, he only has 225. His truck is his kite bag.

“You need them for every wind range,” he said, almost defensively. “That’s why everyone has so many. Wind conditions can change drastically.”

Different kites fill different roles beyond the aesthetic and dynamic. A 10,000-square-foot kite – yes, they exist – needs very high winds to get aloft. A dime-store kite can fly in winds of 5 to 12 miles an hour. A miniature kite needs little more than a poof of air. And indoor kites need no wind at all.

Shampo’s notoriety stems from being the first – and so far, only – woman to seize the national novice ballet in her first year of competition, and the master’s division the next year.

“I kicked all the boys’ butts,” she said, with a laugh. “And loved it. I ate it up.”

She, too, has owned dozens of kites throughout the years, but now sticks to three or four.

“I had seven, but that wasn’t enough,” she said. “Then I bought a quad, and then a whole stable of team kites.”

But it’s more than kites, they all agree. It’s camaraderie, competition, showing off, sharing, trading, gifting.

“I had the good fortune to have a knack for flying kites,” Shampo said. “It’s mind-boggling, the doors that wouldn’t have opened up otherwise. In other countries, it’s a cultural thing, in Iraq, India. People kite down mountains, they kitesurf. It’s only limited by imagination. And it’s just kites.”

Like Macdonald, she and Stroh moved to Brookings partly because of their love of kites.

“I would never have heard of Brookings if not for the kite festival,” said the former San Diego resident. “This festival has always been my favorite.”

They’ll all be on display and in the air, dancing in choreographed ballets –  their fliers directing tricks with names such as 540 flat spins, up the fountains, slot machines, fruit rollups, axels, and “flicky flacky goofy things,” Shampo said – in the sky this weekend. Fliers are known for their eagerness to share the love of the sport and willingness to help pass the addiction along.

A children’s kite-making workshop, hosted by the Rogue Valley Windchasers and sponsored by the Wild Rivers Community Foundation, will help the up-and-coming set learn about aerodynamics, flying techniques and kite construction.

“It’s an interesting festival; nothing like any other festival,” Blasdell said. “Fliers are invited for a good reason: they put on a good show.”

“Relaxation,” Macdonald said. “Even with a single-line (kite), watching it fly. All the stress you have leaves your hands, goes up into the kite and into the atmosphere. And it’s basically free. They haven’t found a way to charge us for the wind.”