Kites: Age-old hobby gives new generation of fans a lift

When Kay and Larry Day came across a kite shop while vacationing in Wisconsin nearly two decades ago, they decided to buy kites for their grandchildren. On a whim, Larry bought one for himself.

“He went out and flew it and decided he needed to go back and get a better one,” Kay recalled.

Since then, the couple — particularly Larry — have been hooked on kite flying. They own dozens of kites, plan vacations around flying them and organize an annual winter kite-flying festival in their hometown of Clear Lake, Iowa.

“I’m at peace when I’m flying,” said Larry, 72. “It’s something unique that I do.”

While the hobby might be unusual, it has a long history as a pastime for adults and children. The practice of flying fabric on the end of a string began more than 2,000 years ago in China. Since then, kites have been used to conduct scientific experiments, power surfboards, take aerial photos and much more.

“Kite flying is really a broad subject,” said Nic O’Neill, president of the American Kitefliers Association. “There is a kind of a kite for everybody out there. It’s a solo, partner and family sport.”

For many, the activity involves something more than recreation, she said. Kites appeal to artistic people who like to create works of art to fly in the sky; to engineer-types who try to improve on the kite’s design; and to performers who like to develop kite-flying routines choreographed to music.

“The best thing about it is you can come at it from different points in your life and have it be a completely different experience,” O’Neill said.

Grant Lovett began flying “dime-store” kites as a kid but moved on to more expensive and sophisticated kites as an adult, including a 42-foot inflatable kite.

Today, he enjoys making his own, crafting them from nylon, Mylar and cloth designed for boat sails. “I’ve always been interested in stuff that flies,” he said. “It’s really fascinating to see something I made up in the air.”

He enjoys taking his creations to festivals and events and sharing them with others. He attends kite-making workshops and looks for new patterns online. “I don’t make tons and tons of the same thing,” he says. “I like making new kites, finding new designs.”

He makes kites of different shapes and sizes because flying conditions can differ greatly. “Some kites need very little wind. Others may need winds of 5 to 10 miles per hour.”

Flying kites requires skill, but also a bit of art, Lovett said. Experience makes a difference, as does the weather.

“It’s a lot of trial and error,” O’Neill said. “Part of the reason I love kiting is that you have to risk trying and not succeeding. The best way to learn is to go out, undo the string and let your kite fly.”

Ideally, you want a nice steady wind and a place away from trees and buildings that can cause turbulence, O’Neill said.

Sometimes the best flying conditions occur in winter — on a frozen lake, said Kay Day, who with her husband organizes the Color the Wind Kite Festival each February on Clear Lake. “It’s 3,600 acres of flying field with no ‘Charlie Brown trees’ to catch your kite,” she said.

The festival adds colour to the winter sky and gives people a reason to go outside, she added. The Days invite renowned kite fliers to come share their passion with locals and visitors. This year, more than 100 children attended a kite-making workshop.

“Kiters are a really good group of people. It’s a family,” said Larry Day.

The kiting community makes everyone feel welcome, agreed PV Ngyuen of Portland, Oregon, whose two children started flying kites seriously about three years ago after attending a kite festival. “The kite fliers we know want to teach the kids everything they can,” she said. “They like that’s there’s a new generation coming up.”

Her sons, Dylan, 13, and Cardin, 11, regularly fly with kiters of all ages. “I do enjoy seeing different people,” Dylan said. “All types of people come together because of kiting.”

The teenager also enjoys the positive feelings that he experiences when his kite zips through the sky.

“It’s really calming,” he said. “It helps me forget about my stress.”

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