Issue 53: Zilker Park Kite Festival

Every now and then, something goes right for a change. Oh, it’s nothing we’ve done to deserve it. It just sorta happens that way… And so that happened for me with the 79th Zilker Kite Festival in Austin, Texas back on March 4th. So let me get rollin’ and I’ll explain!

I’d frankly had the mid-winter “Blahs” after the Christmas Holidays, so I’d grabbed an opportunity to get out of Dodge – all right – Vancouver, Washington – and take a long kite-related road trip.

See the Event Report for Kite Party #5 in this issue of Kitelife for further trip details.

And, on the “To Visit” list was something called the “79th Zilker Kite Festival” in Austin, Texas. Well, heck – I planned to go see my friend and fellow kite aficionado, Richard “Rum” Rumbin in Blanco, TX, a hop-skit-and-a-jump away. We’ll just take a day-trip and see why this fest deserves a “79th” running!

So I’d rolled into beautiful downtown Blanco (it IS pretty, by the way) on Thursday, March 1st, and Rum and I’d had a decent time of it so far – up with the sun, drinking ROBUST coffee every morning, flying our kites every day, eating like piggies at the local haunts, finishing the days with a bowl of Ice Cream, and just being a couple of mid-60s “retirees” enjoying our lives. But Sunday morning found us up and at ‘em early, getting the few necessary chores out of the way, and rolling off to Zilker Park in Austin well before 8:30 AM. Let’s do it – there’s a big sun shining and a decent northwest WIND out there!

Zilker Park is well within the city limits of Austin. It is also a fairly large park, surrounded by trees. The layout of the significant part (as in the “Zilker Kite Festival” part) of the park has two levels – an upper part and a lower one. The upper level contains two main fields – one for BIG KITE displays, and the other is used for Demos and Competitions – all surrounded by vendor booths, various “official” tents, mobile media vans, and various other impediments to flying – including a very long row of port-a-potties. The lower level, however, is unadorned by any impediments to kiting other than the row of trees that forms the Northern border for the park, plus a line of trees between the two levels.

We tool in, looking for a parking place, and Rum decides to display his Handicapped Parking hang-tag in the hopes of finding decent parking. Well… the parking attendants see that, along with Rum’s “Purple Heart” license plate, and immediately directs us to a separate area close to the field set aside specifically for handicapped parking. Both Rum and I are grateful for that, and make no bones about it. I say we’re “close,” but we’re still a long city block away from the kite-field so I grab my camera knapsack and Rum pulls out his cane (Rheumatoid Arthritis) and we’re off! We can see kites in the air already – BIG kites!

We walk up a slight incline, and the field begins to come into view. This place is HUGE! Each of the upper-level flying fields is at least 200 yards square, and there’s still plenty of room for all the “non-flying” paraphernalia and plenty of walk-ways for the mob of folks already at the Festival. We hike around the BIG KITES area, and I spot an old friend out on the field – David Gomberg, who’s herding a couple of giant inflatable Dogs which are already in the air – so I immediately break all normal rules by walking out onto the field to say “Hi,” and Dave wants to know what in heck I’m doing there, of course. Well sir, there’s a Kite Fest going on, and we were just in the neighborhood and thought we’d drop by. It seemed as good a reason as any – and it still does. (The Gombergs live about 2-3 hours away from the Kitelife offices, on the coast of Oregon).

We finally leave Dave and wend our way back through the (growing) crowd to the other upper-level field (for Demos and Comps), which is at least as huge as the BIG TOYS plot. And there we find our “hostess,” Gayle Woodul – the AKA Regional Director for the great state of Texas, and my personal friend and a lovely lady to boot! “Dr. Gayle” as she is apparently known here, is in her element. The demos are already on-going as we arrive, so Gayle’s communicating with the guy on the PA system about 200 years away via walkie-talkie and scheduling the next three demos simultaneously. Still – seeing us, she drops everything and rushes over – and brushes right past me to give Rum a HUGE hug! “Well… I Never…!” It turns out that Gayle and Rum have been flirting with each other over the internet for years, but they’ve never met until right now. Not to worry – I get MY hug too, and we dump stuff, meet people, get settled in, and the festival continues on…

Well, Rum settles in, anyway… I, on the other hand, look around a bit, and figure “now” might be an opportune time to grab a few photos, so I unlimber a camera and start meandering around, shooting whatever happens to catch my eye. First off are the big inflatable kites of course, since they’re always an attention-grabber. Then I try for some shots on the Demo Field, only to discover that the problem that plagues a kite photographer in the Pacific Northwest is also a problem in Texas – there IS no way to get a “good” shot of folks flying eight-foot kites on 120’ lines! You can maybe get the kite – or the pilot – but generally not both – in the same shot! At least not without a whole lot of blank space between the two, which looks just AWFUL in Kitelife! Darn it! Well, maybe some “crowd” shots, then… which turns out to be the best of the possible choices left. I finally respectfully ask permission from a lady to climb on a nearby table to get the crowd perspective in a couple of shots from above, and she kindly consents, so I’m beginning to gather some of the “ambiance” of this affair. I’m not fully “into it” yet, but I’m “getting there,” and this Zilker stuff is starting to come together for me.

Apparently, there WAS a bit of a heartbreak at this years’ Zilker Festival for the first time ever, though I didn’t witness it personally… Someone had brought in some ground-glass impregnated “cutting line” with their Fighter kite. They let their Fighter, complete with their “cutting line,” go drifting across the Demo field during an Austin End Of the Line performance and that line severed ALL of the team kite lines shortly after Austin EOL started a ballet demo! This is an element that’s never been present at Zilker before, and it’s rather alarming! As shocked as all attendees were, they also were relieved that it was ONLY kite lines that were cut, as opposed to a nose or an ear! Regardless, since safety is ALWAYS a primary concern in kiteflying – especially with thousands of people in attendance – The Zilker organizers and their safety coordinators will have to be eagle-eyed in the future to avoid any injuries!

So the message here is the same one for every festival you ever attend. Please DO come to the Zilker Festival, but LEAVE YOUR “CUTTING LINE” AT HOME! It’s simply too dangerous! Zilker IS a great festival, but one tragedy will ruin it!

So anyway I quit my wandering and go to rid myself of some of the morning’s coffee at the port-a-potties, and when I come out… Whoa! There’s this huge red tent right in front of me, crammed with people of every description – and they’re ALL laughing and joking with each other – and making sled-kites! Yep, there’s apparently no “age barrier” in this kite-making tent, and kids and dads and grandmas are all making and decorating plastic sleds together. Couples are laughing gleefully at each others’ kites, and Uncles and Nieces are working together to build perfect masterpieces. WOW! Seems like the whole of Austin was in there, elbow to elbow, making sleds. And if you looked closely out onto the free-flying field on the lower level behind the potties, there were HUNDREDS of these plastic sleds in the air – each with a gleeful “kid” tied to the end as ballast, and it didn’t matter if they were 75 years old – THEY WERE ALL KIDS again! And for every plastic sled in the skies, there were at least 6-7 “other” kites out there, too. It’s true, many of them were kites purchased just today at Wal*Mart or Toys-R-Us or the local kite-store’s booths here at Zilker, but their new owners were having just as much fun as those hand-made sled pilots… An amazing number of PEOPLE were having FUN with KITES!!! And, if I thought the upper level fields were huge, the lower free-fly field dwarfed the upper ones by comparison. So I stood there – awestruck – and tried to figure out roughly how many kites were out on that immense field and came up with from 1,200 to 1,500 kites in the air – as far as my eye could see. How delightfully INCREDIBLE!!!

And, right along with the big make-a-kite tent, I happened on Richard Dermer, one of the Past Presidents of the American Kitefliers Association. I say “one of” because another one, Dave Gomberg, was also in attendance. Now, the Gombergs make their living selling kites, but Richard Dermer continues to show up at kite festivals around the country with no other aim than to support kiting in general and the AKA in particular. Here’s a man who’s just delighted to help “sell” the joy of kiting in any way he can, and is a welcome addition to any kite festival anywhere. Good to see you at Zilker, Richard! And “Thanks” for all you do for our favorite sport!

Anyway, I quickly wandered out into the middle of the lower-level free-flight phenomenon, grabbing a photo at every open opportunity at first. It soon became apparent though, that there was just too much going on out there to get it into a camera. So I started being more selective in my photo-work. Kids with kites. Thirty-somethings with kites. Mother-daughter combos with kites. Grandpas with kites. Whole families with several kites. And even a few solitary middle-aged men with kites. Kites that flew well, some that flew poorly, and a few that wouldn’t fly at all. Most were store-bought, but there were plenty Make-A-Kite sleds too. And there were some extremely well made homemade kites up in the air as well. And, yes… WAY too much was going on to capture much of it with a camera.

How about a shot of that mom and her kid laughing gleefully as their kite flies into the sky? Grab a shot of that Grandpa adjusting his granddaughter’s kite! Pop off another one of that lovely Butterfly kite floating up there. How about one of that guy fooling with the rotating barrel kite that barely flies? Reach out with the telephoto and pull off a shot of that rock-steady diamond up there. How about getting a couple of that kid over there, sitting all alone in the middle of this mess and putting his box kite together. Now shoot a photo of that tangled mass of lines hanging in the trees over there. Oops – someone has a long Chinese Centipede up and flying – better get that one! …and so it went for half an hour or more, with a shoot / no shoot decision made every 20-30 seconds or so.

Well, I finally just gave up altogether! I was tired, and I knew by this time that there was no hope of capturing it. Optimism and enthusiasm notwithstanding, futility has its own way of grabbing my attention. Besides, it was probably past time for me to check in with Rum and Gayle, especially since I’d not let them know where I was going or what I would be doing… And, I was getting a mite hungry and was already a bit thirsty. Time for a break for some “geezer preservation” here! So I slowly made my way up the hill to the Demo field, where Rum was patiently holding down someone’s chair with his own behind so it wouldn’t float into the sky with the rest of the fabric up there already! Rum’s an old Marine and can be counted on to perform those kinda chores without complaint!!! Gayle, however, was still full of steam. She’s still out running Demos, but now the buggiers are out on the field, zipping around behind their huge foil kites. And out in the middle of them all is some feller with a land-board and a quad-line foil, showing the buggiers how it’s done! Awesome stuff – even if you can’t photograph it! So I finally grabbed myself a chair and parked it for a while.

Once my break was over, Rum and I chatted for a bit, and then I lit out to see what was around these two upper level fields – and I was especially interested in any food vendors that might provide sustenance for geezers. I ended up directly across the field with a “club” of some sort that offered Barbequed Pork Sandwiches at “Three Tickets Apiece or Two for Five Tickets!” I opted for two sandwiches, bought five tickets at a dollar each, and had myself some pretty decent Texas Barbeque that kept me going for the rest of the day – and I silently blessed the Zilker Kite Festival organizers for providing this “good stuff” to feed wayward Northwesterners like myself. It turns out that the “Organizers” are the Exchange Club of Austin, who hosts the Zilker Kite Festival as a fund raiser and uses the proceeds for children’s wellness programs! Great! I’m liking this festival better and better!

So, lacking any specific need to observe any other segment of this fabulous festival that was winding along, I decided to return to the Demo / Comp field and watch the rest of the afternoon’s proceedings from there. The “Competition” portions of the Zilker Kite Festival were about to begin, and I thought it’d be fun to catch the “action.” And as I stood on the sidelines and watched people, I noticed Chris Shultz, the General Manager of New Tech Kites… so I walked up and introduced myself, and we chatted a bit while Chris set up the prototype he’d used to develop the New Tech Alien. We shared about 5-10 minutes of conversation on the “State Of Kiting,” before Chris took the field to Demo the “dude” before the comps began. Chris is one of the “good ones,” with an excellent grasp of the Kite Biz in the USA, and it’s nice to see him get out on the field with a kite in his hands.

Now, maybe a word or two about Zilker “Competitions” is in order here… The Zilker Kite Festival advertises that Austin and surrounds should “Come On Down and Fly Kites” – pure and simple. And since there’s no subterfuge at all here, their Comps are slanted toward that end as well. None of the multi-class Ballet/Precision/Innovative kind of events will be flown. Indeed, OUR Comps are all about FLYING A KITE, not about that acrobatic and sleight-of-hand stuff measuring the skills of the pilots! So, we saw some fun “competitions” for a whole different kind of flying, to include the quickest “kite runner,” the highest angle of attack, the steadiest kites, strongest-pulling kites, the smallest and largest kites, and the most unusual kites. In addition, Zilker gives a trophy for the Oldest and Youngest competitors!

So the Competitions eventually got underway. (Yep – they have “Kite Time” in Texas, too!) The “Dashers” completed their sprints with their kites, and one after another, the rest of the fly-offs occurred in ordered sequence. And the WINNERS WERE:

50 Yard Dash
1 Brooke Becker Sled
2 Bonnie Brode Sled
3 Ashley Perkins Sled

Highest Angle Kite – Youth
1 Lalonie Vaughn Eddy Bow
2 Chelsea Atkinson 3 Stick
3 Ivan Contreras Square Kite

Highest Angle Kite – Adult
1 Umesh Bageshwar Fighter Kite
2 Sandeep Patel Fighter Kite
3 Jay Sanghui Square Kite

Steadiest – Youth
1 Ashley Perkins Sled
2 Lalonie Vaugn Diamond
3 Brooke Siler (unknown)

Steadiest – Adult
1 Umesh Bageshwar Fighter Kite
2 Sandeep Bageshwar Fighter Kite
3 Austin Siler Eddy Bow

Strongest Pulling
1 Brent Sutherland Gaul Parafoil – 100 + pounds
2 Melissa Sutherland Flow form – 47 pounds
3 Bruce Siler Box Kite with Wings – 37 pounds

Smallest Kite
1 Juliana Rodriguez (unknown type), 1cm x 1cm
2 Chelsea Atkinson Barn door, 1cm x 1cm
3 Dan Rodriguez Sled, 3 ½ cm x 3cm

Most Unusual Kite – Youth
1 Chelsea Atkinson 3 stick Christmas Beagle
2 Ethan Stankiewicz Square
3 Michael Brode paper

Most Unusual Kite – Adult
1 Jim Siler High aspect Delta Kite
2 Bob West Icosa (Hedron Box Kite)
3 Robert Atkinson Upside down sled box kite

Largest Kite
1 Rick Hawkins Parafoil – 250 sq ft
2 Kathy Nixie Sled – 120 sq ft
3 John Griffis Super Bat – 72 sq ft

Oldest Kite Contestant
Richard Robertson, 79 yrs old

Youngest Kite Contestant
Joshua Allair, 2 yrs old

Shortly after the comps began, I shared some time with Rob Cembalest, also of New Tech, whom I’d met at the AKA Convention in Des Moines last fall. Rob’s never at a loss for words, and we both yakked away about all things Kiting, including the wonders of this 79th Zilker Kite Festival. It was a fine, FINE festival, and we’d shared a lovely day and seen plenty of interesting activities to entice the local kite pilots and novice “wannabes” into more of the same, and more frequently, too. Rob rambled on particularly about going out on the free-fly field to advise novice pilots that an SLK Delta kite will fly better when the leading edges are pushed to the BACK of the wings, and then meeting steady resistance with “…but it came that way straight from the package” over and over again.

Back under what passed for the “dignitaries” pavilion, all of the day’s “demo” fliers were packing up and sharing glowing opinions of this year’s Zilker fest and promising to be back next year for an even bigger and better fest. The Austin End Of the Line team (Eddie Zihlman {captain}, Jim Cox, Ron Schultz, Michael Boswell, and Ben Gray) was much in evidence, and they were pleased to have had a chance to fly their routines. They’ve been a long-time “presence” on the Texas Kiting scene and are fine representatives for the sport. I wished them well, and said I hoped to see them flying and competing again in Ocean Shores, the site of this year’s Annual AKA Convention. And other fliers came and went, shaking hands and saying their “Howdys” and goodbyes.

I’d also made a couple of new friends at Zilker, so I grabbed my camera again and banged off a couple of shots of them for Kitelife. One of the fellows much in evidence throughout the day was Steven Ploof of Round Rock, Texas, with his lovely red and black Rokkaku featuring a Dragon and a Unicorn. That kite of Steven’s was an AKA Grand National award winning kite in years past. And, lest you think he was a one-kite wonder, I’ll happily point out that Steven was very much in evidence with a full bag of pretty kites, and he was an eager and avid participant in many of the earlier single-line kite demo flies.

And lest you think Steven and the Austin “E-O-L” boys stood out, I hasten to add that there were a couple dozen or so folks who where much in evidence on the Demo field that day. One, however, seemed to exemplify the superb “kiting attitudes” of the whole Austin area, and Kathy Nixie spent much of the day cheering other pilots on and making sure they all had fun in the process – when she wasn’t out there flying a kite herself, that is… It sort of seemed like “just deserts” when Kathy took second place in the “Largest Kite” competition. There’s a very big heart to go with a big kite, and a big smile to go with a medium-sized trophy for that lady. Well Deserved, Kathy – and a VERY BIG thanks for all the smiles and energy you brought to Zilker Park for the Festival, too.

But finally, the 79th Annual Zilker Kite Festival was winding down, and we two old codgers still had a few miles to go before we’d be home for the evening. So Rum and I made our “adieus” to all and sundry (and especially to that marvelous energy-dynamo, “Dr. Gayle”), grabbed our gear, headed off down to the parking lot, and pointed the pickup toward Blanco, about 50 miles away.

It certainly was a “fun” festival, and in many ways an eye-opening affair as well. It occurs to this ole geezer that THIS might be the perfect way to “grow” kiting! Throw together a fest, and invite everyone in the community to just “Come On Down and Fly Kites” with us! What could be simpler? Okay – so Zilker wasn’t a “simple” undertaking by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ll bet the “public” had fun just flying kites. And – gosh – who could really ask for more? It was as close to a “perfect day” as I can imagine for those folks. So, GOOD ON YA, AUSTIN! And many, MANY, happy returns in the future Zilker Kite Festival editions, too!

Fair Winds and Good Friends –

Dave “Geezer” Shattuck