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the splurge

Optic Signs and Marketing Inc.s’ C.J. Wilkins, left, and Julie Michaud have developed a passion for paragliding. Here they stand at Baldy Launch near Vernon B.C.

This continues our series called The Splurge, where we take a look at how entrepreneurs have spent their money on indulgences – purchases that may be interesting, fun, satisfying or enjoyable, but not necessary!

Sign manufacturer C.J. Wilkins is afraid of heights. Julie Michaud, his partner in life and in business, grew up with dreams that she could fly.

A $17,000 splurge has put them both sky-high and turned Mr. Wilkins' fears and Ms. Michaud's dreams into a passion for the adventure sport of paragliding.

"I have trouble climbing four rungs of a ladder to hang a sign but, for some reason, when I'm gliding, I don't feel scared. I feel like I'm in control," says Mr. Wilkins, president and chief executive officer of West Kelowna, B.C.-based Optic Signs and Marketing Inc.

As for his partner, "it is probably the closest experience I have ever had to the dreams I had when I was a kid," adds Ms. Michaud, who is Optic Signs vice-president. "In one word, it is amazing."

Paragliding is a recreational and competitive sport in which a pilot sits in a harness attached to a hollow fabric "wing" that fills with air. Working with currents of warm air, pilots can manouvre a paraglider as high as several thousand feet and travel dozens of kilometres.

Ms. Michaud and Mr. Wilkins discovered the sport early in 2010, after they moved from Calgary to Kelowna.

Mr. Wilkins, a communications director, and Ms. Michaud, a business administrator, were "looking for a change," and settled on Kelowna after they bought the assets of a troubled print shop.

They have since invested about $120,000 in Optic Signs and turned it into a rapidly growing business, with four employees that specializes in designing and printing environmentally friendly signs for local companies. Revenues for the first six months of this year reached just over $100,000, equal to revenues for all of 2011.

The couple, whose involvement in sports had been limited to hiking and mountain biking, were introduced to paragliding by friends who live in the area and were certified pilots.

"I always wanted to be a bird so, once I realized paragliding could be accessible to me, it was a no-brainer. I had to try it," says Ms. Michaud, adding that, although her first flight made her feel like she was being tossed around in a clothes dryer, she took to the sport immediately.

Mr. Wilkins says he flew at least 10 times before he decided paragliding was for him.

"My first flight was terrifying. My heart was beating like crazy and I was asking myself why this was something I would do on purpose," he says. "On the tenth flight, I managed to go nice and high and, for me, the light and the passion just turned on."

The pair immediately purchased two used paraglider kits for about $3,000 each and paid $2,500 each to become certified as competent novice pilots.

Since then, they have spent more than $3,000 each to replace their paraglider wings, harnesses and parachutes at least once. They fly most weekends and have travelled to the state of Washington, around British Columbia and to Brazil to practice the sport.

Paraglider pilots use rising currents of warm air to push them upward, and then fly out of those currents to glide across distances.

Mr. Wilkins says successful pilots must understand weather patterns and cloud formations and recognize landmarks that produce rising bubbles of warm air. The challenge is in spotting clues, such as a dark patch of earth that will give off heat, to where the best air currents are.

Pilots also search out ascending birds to signal rising currents of air. When they find a strong current, the birds often join them in their ascent, Mr. Wilkins says.

"It is like playing a chess match with Mother Nature in the sky, and you can't see what she is throwing at you," he says . "It's you, nature and some fabric, and it gives you a mental clarity you just cannot achieve doing anything else."

Mr. Wilkins said he has flown as high as 11,500 feet, near Revelstoke, B.C. His longest flight so far was 65 kilometres, in Brazil last February, and took three and a half hours. Ms. Michaud, who said she has become more timid about heights since she started paragliding, has flown as high as 9,000 feet. Her longest flight was 17 km.

Both say their next goal is to fly even further cross-country. Mr. Wilkins plans to earn an instructor's certification later this summer.

"It is just an amazing sport," Mr. Wilkins says.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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