Remember that kite you got as a kid, the one that cost a dollar and was made of paper or plastic and was fun for a few minutes, until it got stuck in a tree?
This is not a story about that kind of kite. It's about kites with sheer wings of Mylar and ripstop polyester and frames of carbon fiber; kites you control with not one but two lines as thin as dental floss. These are kites that can float like a butterfly and, the next moment, dive like a fighter jet at 60, 70, 80 mph, that fly upside down or backward or sideways or roll up like a yo-yo or do somersaults and backflips and spins, that can land gently on wingtips and take off again without the touch of a hand.
"It's not something you just hand to your kid and say, 'Have fun with it,'" says Mark Reed, kite designer and founder of Prism Designs, headquartered in a warehouse just across the ship canal from Ballard. "It's more of an adult sport."
An adult sport popularized, in large part, by Reed himself. He first stumbled across a prototype of a sport kite while he was studying architecture and music at Yale University in the early '90s. He and a buddy proceeded to spend most of their junior year just trying to figure out how to get that kite into the air. After college and a 10-month sailing voyage, Reed moved to Seattle and bought a sewing machine and applied what he'd learned from years of sailing and windsurfing to designing his own sport kite. Thirteen years and thousands of kites later, Reed is still considered the sport's guru.
"We're perceived as the BMW-Porsche-Mercedes of the kite market," Reed says of Prism. "We're in 80 percent of the kite shops on the planet."
The advent of sport kiting
It was winter 1992 when Reed and his former partner, Scobie Puchtler, first approached the owner of a Pioneer Square kite shop ― since closed ― and asked whether he thought anyone might want to buy the kind of kite Reed was experimenting with.
"He was my first introduction to Seattle as a place of warm and welcoming people," Reed recalls. "He spent probably four or five hours that day in his shop just talking to us." Turned out the fledgling kite industry's second-ever trade show was set to start the following week, in Dallas; Puchtler flew down and took a good look around.
"It seemed like this thing that was growing, and there were a lot of kites, but they all looked the same; they were basic," he says. "The stuff we were messing with was totally different."
The difference, say, between a toy and a tool. That first kite, and the increasingly sophisticated designs that followed, propelled Prism into years of "crazy growth," Reed says. Then a couple of years ago, just as sales had started to plateau, Prism kites began selling not only in kite shops but also in outdoor-gear stores such as REI. It's a natural match: His kites aren't so much toys as gear for an outdoor sport. Now a whole new set of customers is discovering sport kiting. INFO: Prism sport kites range from $45 to $400 ( www.prismkites.com or 206/547-1100).
Go fly a kite (here's where)
"The big deal is finding a place where the wind's consistent," Mark Reed says. "That's what makes the beaches at the coast perfect: The prevailing winds are off the Pacific and haven't hit anything for quite a while." But there's good kite flying right in Seattle too. Here are Reed's top picks. Get more details on parks from Seattle Parks and Recreation ( www.seattle.gov/parks or 206/684-4075).
Discovery Park. The old parade grounds are wide and grassy―and ideal in a north wind. 3801 W. Government Way, on Magnolia Bluff.
Golden Gardens Park. The beaches here, including Shilshole, are second only to the ocean beaches. For safety's sake, avoid flying when the park is crowded. And exercise caution, as this is a major bird habitat. 8498 Seaview Place N.W., Ballard.
Warren G. Magnuson Park. The park's officially designated Kite Hill is a huge magnet for enthusiasts who have seen it on the DVD that comes with some of Prism's kites. 7400 Sand Point Way N.E., beside Lake Washington.