ELMIRA - Soaring in a sailplane over the Chemung Valley is one surprise after another. The first one comes after the crop-duster tow plane smoothly pulls the glider off the runway and into the sky at a speed of 50 knots (55 mph).
As soon as the pilot releases the cable, the plane can be dramatically lifted 2,000 feet as it catches a "thermal," an updraft of heated air.
From that height, the landing strip at the Harris Hill Soaring Center becomes a black strip of ribbon. The undulating Allegheny foothills and fields are a 40-shades-of-green patchwork. The ridge next to the gliderport is a dappled blur of bright fall colors.
The ride is a gentle pattern of concentric circles. Slow spirals are interrupted by the rise and fall of surging air currents, which the pilot skillfully catches as he weaves the craft through blue skies.
It's a dance with the wind - but without any music.
The silence is spiritual.
There is no engine droning or the flutter of a propeller - only the whoosh of air flowing over the Plexiglas cockpit and streamlined glider profile.
"We become attuned to the sounds and changes in the wind," said FAA-certified pilot Andrew Salisbury, 21. A Clarkson University student, he is a graduate of Harris Hill's youth program, which begins training pilots at age 14.
Salisbury said the wind has kept him aloft for as long as 5½ hours. Weather permitting, most rides at Harris Hill last about 20 minutes.
"Sunny, hot days are better for flying than windy ones," Salisbury explained. "The radiant heat creates more thermals for longer rides."
Flights cost $95 in a high-performance ASK-21 glider or $90 in a classic Schweizer 2-33 trainer. Both aircraft carry a single passenger and a pilot. There is a 225-pound weight limit for passengers on the trainer and 245-pound restriction on the ASK-21.
The center at 57 Soaring Hill Drive is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily in the summer. In the fall, it is open weekends through the end of October. There are about 16 daily rides, all on a first-come, first-served basis. To check weather conditions, visit the webcam at www.harrishillsoaring.org or call (607) 734-0641.
Next door to the glider hangar is the National Soaring Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the history of motorless flight.
"Harris Hill is the birthplace of American soaring," said Pete Smith, 74, a Soaring Center director who enjoys flying gliders at age 74 and giving tours of the museum.
"My dad, Stan Smith, was a project engineer on the Bell X-1 supersonic aircraft and also won national soaring titles in 1933 and 1957," explained Smith, who also used to work for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
"That's the glider he flew for the '57 title," said Smith as he pointed to a Schweizer SGS 1-21 hanging by cables from the ceiling. The sailplane is one of dozens of beautifully restored gliders on display, including two replicas of craft used by the Wright brothers to perfect their flying skills in 1902.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through December. A ticket for a family of four costs $20. For admission prices and winter hours, see www.soaringmuseum.org.
More outdoor fun
If terra firma is your preferred leaf-peeping path, try the Mark Twain Trail at Tanglewood Nature Center & Museum, 443 Coleman Ave. (www.tanglewoodnaturecenter.com). The trail is punctuated with well-chosen quotes from the author, like "Architects cannot teach nature anything."
The 3-mile trail is one of seven well-marked paths on the 282-acre "forever wild" habitat maintained by the Nature Conservancy. All are open daily from sunrise to sunset.
The museum features 43 species of live animals, including an owl, parrot, gecko, turtle and timber rattlesnake. There is also a nature library, ecology workshop and a teaching pond.
Admission is free to both the museum and the trails, which were recently identified by AAA as "one of six New York Phenomenal Fall Foliage sites." A bench at the top of the Twain Trail affords a spectacular view of the Chemung River.
To complete your air, land and sea forays into fall colors, enjoy a kayak ride on the river. Southern Tier Kayak Tours (www.stktours.com) offers a serene 6-mile paddle past the glacier-cut palisades of the Chemung Valley.
Aaron Myers and his wife, Sarah, started STK Tours this spring and are passionate about nature. The youthful guides take time to examine tiny creatures on the underside of river rocks and point out 10-foot eagle nests and unusual shoreline flowers. Boats, paddling instructions, life jackets and a shuttle ride back to your car are provided.
"The 3½-hour tour costs $55 and burns around 1,000 calories," Myers said. "I'll knock off $15, if you bring your own kayak."
Arnot Art Museum, 235 Lake St. (www.arnotartmuseum.org), is located in the 1833 neoclassical red brick mansion of banker John Arnot. His youngest son, Matthias, was a zealous art collector and added a Picture Gallery in the 1880s.
"When Matthias died in 1910, he bequeathed his home and artworks to start a museum," said Rick Pirozzolo, executive director of the Arnot Museum.
Fifty-one paintings from the Founder's Collection are hung by steel cables against rose-colored walls. A 1986 study of the daughter of Buffalo artist Joseph Piccillo hangs in the foyer. "Autumn in the Catskills," an 1827 painting by Thomas Cole, is displayed in the East Gallery. The American Collection of Hudson River School landscapes runs through Nov. 16.
Another member of Matthias' family did not fare so well in a historic building. His older brother, John Arnot Jr., was hurt by a blast in the family bank.
"A clerk forgot to turn off a gaslight in the vault," explained Bruce Whitmarsh, director of the Chemung Valley History Museum, which is now housed in the former bank. "So when John went to open the safe the next morning, the built-up gas exploded, throwing him across the room."
"He was not killed," Whitmarsh continued, "but died two years later from his injuries."
The museum, 415 E. Water St. (www.chemungvalleymuseum.org), has more than 20,000 artifacts and 16,000 photographs, including displays on life during the Civil War. The stark images of the Confederate soldier prison camp in Elmira are horrific. The Rebels nicknamed it "Hellmira."
The Algonquin Indians had another name for the area, calling it "Chemung" or "Place of the Big Horn." The museum has many Native American objects, including the giant tusk or "horn" of a mastodon.
Four actors from Elmira Little Theater use scripted talks from the museum to perform a "Ghost Walk." The historic figures come to life Oct. 19-20 during a guided tour of Woodlawn Cemetery.
Twain and his wife, Olivia, are buried there, along with Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy; Hal Roach, producer of the "Our Gang" comedies; and 3,000 Union and Confederate soldiers.
Shows and shops
The Clemens Center, 207 Clemens Center Parkway (www.clemenscenter.com), looks like glass-enclosed Lincoln Center on the outside and Shea's Performing Arts Center on the inside.
Built in 1925, the 1,618-seat Powers Theater has been restored to its vaudevillian grandeur. The center's Best of Broadway series opens Oct. 29 with "West Side Story," followed by "Shrek the Musical," "Blue Man Group," "The Addams Family" and "Dreamgirls."
The Christmas House, 361 Maple St. (www.christmas-house.com), is one of the city's "painted ladies," multicolored Victorian mansions. Built in 1894 by a lumber baron, the Queen Anne-style house has stained-glass windows, hand-carved woodwork and 15 decorated Christmas trees.
Another shopping stop is Antique Revival, 26 Palmer Road North in Big Flats (www.AntiqueRevival.com). Billed as "New York's largest antique store," the place is like a museum filled with furniture treasures.
Planning a visit
The Chemung County Chamber of Commerce, 400 E. Church St. (www.MarkTwainCountry.com), provides itineraries, getaway packages, an events calendar and a visitor's guide on its website.
Elmira is 146 miles southeast of Buffalo. To get there, drive 2½ hours east on Route 20-A to I-390 south, which becomes the Southern Tier Expressway (Route 17/I-86). Take Exit 56 to East Church Street (Route 352).