The scent of jet fuel mixed with primordial fear permeates the 22-seater skyvan.
Five thousand feet. The convoy is filled with a palpable excitement as the shuttle continues to climb. 10,000 feet. Everyone stands and readies themselves, taking one last look at their packs. 13,000 feet. The light turns green and the hatch opens in a military-esque fashion, revealing the howling winds high above the clouds.
A jumper leans over the edge. Milliseconds later, he and his dive partner are gone, pulled at terminal velocity to the vast Okanagan floor.
The next divers lineup and walk over the edge, and the next, and the next. Finally, there is no one left ahead of you.
Waddling to the edge with a tandem jump instructor buckled firmly to your harness, you cross your arms, throw your head back, and step off the edge.
Wind screams in your ears and rushes your airways as the tandem instructor stabilizes after the back flip exit. He taps you on the shoulder as a small chute is released to slow the two jumpers down to the speed of one, and you open your arms.
From this vantage point, Vernon looks as though it’s a realized version of a child’s top-down city play mat, or a beautifully painted rendition of a Google Maps satellite image.
Five thousand feet. Thud — the parachute is released and an opening shock courses through your body. It doesn’t hurt, but you definitely feel it as the chute dramatically slows your descent.
Kalamalka and Okanagan lakes glisten in the evening sun and the vineyard-riddled mountains have returned to their natural, three-dimensional, forms. The howling wind slows with the pulse of your pounding heart, and you gently glide towards the distant runway.
“We’re able to showcase Vernon like nobody else,” Okanagan Skydive owner-operator and your tandem jump master Bret Chalmers said to city council in a past meeting.
And he’s right.
A wing-suit jumper soars below you, high above the sheet of vibrant, deep-blue glass that is Okanagan Lake. He too pulls his parachute ripcord and begins his leisurely descent.
Floating above the road, houses appear as caricatures of the magnificent Okanagan Landing homes they are. Full-size sedans are reminiscent of Hot Wheels and people look like ants from the canopy.
The tents of jumpers from across the globe who have come to Okanagan Skydive for the fourth annual Great Canadian Freefall Festival over Canada Day weekend come in to view as you approach the landing. Sitting on the deck eating their late-evening meals are the skydivers, watching as the jumpers drift onto the landing strip adjacent the charcoal-grey runway.
Ten feet. The tandem jump master pulls down on the parachute cords to drastically slow your speed as the ground is within reach. Your heels hit the grass, and you slide to a halt.
As you’re unbuckled from the guide and pull yourself to your feet, you look up. Seven minutes ago you were 13,000 feet above sea level, and an ear-to-ear grin covers your face.
“We keep doing this because we love it,” Chalmers said. “We love the people, and we love to fly.”