Getting high in the sky
Indian Springs Ranch lies a mile down a dirt road off County Route A-23, between Sierraville and Beckwourth. The pastoral Sierra Valley runs for miles in every direction; Mt. Shasta is visible to the north on a clear day, the ski slopes of Lake Tahoe within sight to the south.
Horses graze in the surrounding fields. A recently birthed foal lies still in the grass at its mother’s feet. Ken Jobsky, who lives on the ranch along with a number of his employees, stops to check on the foal. It perks up when he approaches and we continue up the road. I ask him about life on the ranch.
“At night we sit around and tell lies, drink beer, do what people do,” Jobsky says, as he gives me a tour of the bunkhouse. The bunkhouse is separate from the main house. It is little more than four walls and a roof. Bunk beds are pushed up against one wall.
Full color posters wallpaper one of the bunkhouse walls. They put an end to my bucolic idyll and are the first indication that this may not be your average ranch house with your average cowboys in its employ. So I ask Jobsky, and how do you spend your days on the ranch … (end banjo accompaniment; cue punk rock sound track)
Death for any reason
A few miles away, on Highway 70, just past the Beckwith Tavern (“Prime Rib every night”), which is just past the “Now Entering Beckwourth, pop. 233” sign, there is an airstrip with an easily missed hand-painted “Skydive Lake Tahoe” sign out front.
Nervino Airport is quiet at first glance; a few older planes are visible from the road. A weathered, crotchety looking woman glares at me as I almost fly past the turnoff, slam on my brakes and make the turn at the last second. Her scowl appears the extent of activity at the airport.
I look right, and I look left, trying to figure out where the heck I’m supposed to be going. Wondering aloud if this is a mistake, if I’ve come to the wrong place, I throw my head up, roll my eyes, and hallelujah my prayers are answered. Parachutes (“We don’t call ’em chutes, that’s how we tell the rookies,” says Jobsky, Skydive Lake Tahoe’s general manger. “You gotta learn the lingo; they’re canopies.”) are falling from the sky. I count one canopy, then two, three, four. They start landing one at a time, spiraling down and straightening out, skimming across the ground at 30-plus miles per hour, and coming to a stop in the small front yard of Skydive Lake Tahoe.
In the burgeoning genre of extreme sports, few seem to take as much pride in, or at least show as much awareness of, their sport’s inherent risks as skydivers do. The pre-jump training at Skydive Lake Tahoe consists primarily of a 10-minute video that begins with an admonishment from the maker of the gear used on tandem jumps.
“[Tandem skydiving] could result in death for any reason whatsoever,” the man says.
I ask Jobsky what he tells clients, other clients of course, of weaker constitution than myself, who are apprehensive about the risks involved.
“The last thing I want to do is say it’s safe,” he says. “You’re jumping out of an airplane; there are risks involved. I tell people if you’re concerned for your safety, don’t skydive. There are no guarantees.”
As comforting as Jobsky’s sobering reality check is, the numbers tell a slightly more soothing story. Of the 30,000 members of the United States Parachute Association, 30 people die jumping out of airplanes each year and in the past 24 months not a single person has died on a tandem jump anywhere in the world.
A tandem jump is what allows anybody to skydive. A trained skydiver straps himself to your back and is in full control, assuring that you don’t go somersaulting out of control, your canopy opens on time and you land painlessly.
In Skydive Lake Tahoe’s four years of operation they have had one person injured on a tandem jump. That person received a hairline fracture to their tibia after landing harder than expected.
First Dropzone in Tahoe
Skydive Lake Tahoe was founded by Alpine Meadows residents Michael Vail and Charles Bryan in 1998. Vail and Bryan were tired of having to go to Davis to jump and decided Tahoe was ready for a skydive operation all its own. Truckee was their first choice but the Truckee Airport Commission was less than supportive. They moved north 30 miles to Sierraville and again were turned away.
“People have misconceptions about skydiving,” says Jobsky. “They think it’s a very random thing, where you jump out of some plane somewhere, float around randomly in the wind and land wherever.”
Everyone is always concerned with liability issues as well, says Jobsky. In the event of a skydiving accident they want to know where the chips will fall.
And so Skydive Lake Tahoe moved another 20 miles north to the town of Beckwourth. They talked to Herb Bishop, the manager of Nervino Airport. As Jobsky recalls Bishop’s response to their request to run a skydiving operation out of the airport was, “I don’t see why not.” And Tahoe had its first drop zone.
But even with Bishop’s and the Plumas County Board of Supervisor’s blessing, there was and still is some discontent within the community.
“[The skydivers] draw a lot of attention,” says Bishop. “Everybody comes over and watches it. Some don’t like it. Others don’t see any problem. Most people who complain, complain because it’s not their thing. You know how the human being is. If it’s something you don’t like to do, nobody else should be doing it.”
The New School: Freeflying
Around 1995 Bryan and Vail were both pioneers of a movement within the sport of skydiving known as freeflying. Freeflying is done headfirst, whereas traditional skydiving is done stomach to the ground. Skydive Lake Tahoe has become one of the country’s premier training grounds for freeflying.
Along with Bryan and Vail, “Alaska” Jon Devore has helped to draw experienced jumpers to Beckwourth. Devore, a member of the Red Bull Airforce, graced the cover of Parachutist magazine in January, and stunt doubled for Dexter Holland, the lead singer of Offspring, in a music video last fall. He compares freeflying’s affect on the sport of skydiving to snowboarding’s affect on skiing.
“You’re really flying when you’re freeflying, skydiving on your belly is really just falling,” Devore says.
It’s become the cutting edge of skydiving. If you look at skydivers in the 18- to 30-year-old range, 90 percent of them will be freeflying, says Jobsky.
“It’s more challenging, it’s faster, it’s newer, it’s more three dimensional,” he adds.
The crew at Skydive Lake Tahoe shows once again you can do what you love in life and make a living. After graduating with a biology degree from New Mexico State, Jobsky, now 33, spent a few months at a pharmaceutical company before, as he tells it, he finally took the big plunge. He quit and moved to Arizona to skydive. Devore dropped out of college in Texas for the same reason – to skydive.
“I told my parents I’m going to take all my college money and learn to skydive really really good. And then I went to live in a tent in the desert,” says Devore.
His prediction came true; Devore is now considered one of the top freeflyers in the world and his parents who once may have worried for their son’s future can now sleep easy; that is if a professional skydiver’s parents can ever really sleep easy.
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