Inspired by the migration path of the monarch butterfly, paraglider and filmmaker Benjamin Jordan sets out from Mexico to Canada to bring awareness to this endangered species

Benjamin Jordan recalled the monarch butterfly of his youth. Growing up in eastern Canada, these butterflies known for their vibrant orange and black wings were a common sight: “If you told me to draw a butterfly, I would draw you a Monarch butterfly,” he said. “You see them all over the place.”

In 2000 at the age of 24, Jordan began paragliding, but it wasn’t until a paragliding trip to Mexico in 2015 when Jordan came across the butterfly once more. While attempting to return to the starting point of a 50 kilometer flight, less-than-ideal conditions caused Jordan to land in a pasture almost 10,000 feet above the sea. While packing up his glider, Jordan noticed something peculiar. The same butterflies from his youth were there, in Mexico, thousands of miles away from his home in British Columbia, Canada.

Before I knew it, there’s literally millions of butterflies flying everywhere,” Jordan said.”All I can hear is the sound of millions and millions of butterfly wings flapping all around me. I’m totally taken aback — I had never seen anything like this.

After the encounter, Jordan returned to the place he was staying and shared his magical experience, learning from a few people that the butterflies had migrated from Canada to Mexico. Fascinated by this journey, Jordan began to research the migration path of the monarch butterfly.

“They flew all the way to this specific mountain top, no bigger than the size of a schoolyard in Mexico,” explained Jordan. “But if that wasn’t crazy enough, they’ve never been there before.”

THE MONARCH’S JOURNEY

Monarch butterflies are the only known butterfly that makes a two-way migration similar to that of a bird migration. Two groups of monarch butterflies exist: western North American butterflies migrate to California, and eastern North American butterflies migrate to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico — with some flying up to 3,000 miles to arrive at their winter home.

Surprisingly, the monarch butterfly that set out from Mexico will never reach Canada. Rather, the third or fourth generation of the butterfly’s lineage is the one to fly all the way back south, completing the migration path started the previous year.

The monarch butterfly relies on environmental cues to determine when their migration will begin. Scientists speculate that monarch butterflies use a sun compass and a magnetic compass to guide their journey. A genetic code that the monarch butterfly may possess is another theory as to how this butterfly finds its way to a place it has never been before.

Today, the monarch butterfly population is plummeting due to illegal logging and other landscape threats, as well as pesticides and global climate change. Although they are currently not listed on the endangered species list, the Center for Biological Diversity and many other advocate groups are working hard to earn them protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

paragliding hiking skull arizona desert
In Arizona, Jordan had made the mistake of not loading up a full 13L of water, trusting his US Forest Service topo map to provide direction to a specific spring. However, the spring was non-existent, with only a sun-bleached skull serving as a reminder of better days. Benjamin Jordan
JORDAN’S JOURNEY

Jordan’s fascination with the monarch butterfly’s migration path ultimately led him to the idea to recreate their journey while also raising awareness around their livelihood.

“I wanted to know what wisdom this tiny little species held that we as humans couldn’t wrap our minds around,” Jordan said. “And I thought that, maybe, I could figure some part of it out by trying to recreate their journey and having an experience as close as possible to them as one could.”

Using a paraglider specially colored to resemble a monarch butterfly, Jordan left the Mexico border on April 8, 2020, setting out on a 3,000 kilometer journey north, three times longer than his previous outing.

The Arizona desert immediately proved challenging to Jordan, who was unfamiliar with the climate, weather and lack of water available. Jordan explained that the first 10% of the journey took about 25% of the total time available for the expedition.

“Cross-country paragliding is a very specific sport,” stated Jordan. “So what you’re doing sometimes involves sitting and waiting out an entire week of high wind or clouds or whatever, because you need the right conditions in order to fly far, safely.”

It’s important to note that Jordan’s journey was not all paragliding; it consisted of a lot of hiking as well. 

“I kind of realized after about a month of not making it very far, that I was going to have to allow myself to walk at times to be able to supplement,” he said.

This allowed Jordan to select better areas for takeoff that would set him up for longer flight time. And so Jordan walked 60 miles to the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix.

“Things started going a lot better because I was able to launch from mountains that were easier for me to fly away from and easier to navigate,” Jordan said. “And before we knew it, we were flying right alongside the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona and entering southern Utah.”

Jordan continued across Utah, making up for lost time by flying 28 days in a row. Idaho presented its own unique challenges when Jordan had to make an emergency landing on a mountainside due to lightning. He also flew into a restricted area that left him with an uneasy feeling.

Montana brought alpine landscapes, fresh water and shade, commodities that were not available to Jordan in the harsh Arizona desert at the beginning of his expedition. In these final moments of his journey, Jordan realized that he had everything he needed — shelter, water, wild blueberries — and that Mother Nature would, in fact, take care of him.

Jordan arrived at the Canadian border on September 4, 2020.

fly monarca butterfly paragliding
After a grueling 10 hours of bushwhacking through the rain, up the face of St Mary’s Peak (east of St Ignatius, Montana), Jordan sat down in exhaustion, and asked himself if he had made the right choice to ascend this behemoth mountain. Just then, the clouds began to part, the sun burst through and this little fritillary butterfly landed on Jordan. In the end, the answer never came, but possibly only because the question itself had vanished.Benjamin Jordan
“FLY MONARCA”

In the process of replicating the monarch butterfly’s migration route, Jordan became the first person to fly by way of paraglider from Mexico to Canada. With production and filming assistance from his girlfriend, Lyndsay Nicole, Jordan was able to document his journey and produce his fifth film, “Fly Monarca.”

The capturing of content in itself was an adventure.

“We weren’t sure how this was going to go in terms of my ability to sustain life in a van for over half a year, all the while trying to find him in the wilderness where he lands,” said Nicole, who compared her documenting of the expedition to filming wildlife. “I didn’t want to participate in a way that changes or affects the expedition; I just wanted to be there to document it.”

“Fly Monarca” is scheduled to come out this summer. 

paragliding camp with music and pizza
Not just a great hiker, paraglider and photographer/filmmaker, Lyndsay Nicole is also Jordan’s best friend.Benjamin Jordan
SAVING THE MONARCH: WHAT YOU CAN DO

“Doing this was so much more than just completing this expedition,” Nicole said. “What it was all about was bringing awareness around this tiny little creature that is so marvelous and does this amazing journey every year, which is so unbelievable.

Although not officially registered on the endangered species list, the existence of the monarch butterfly is at risk. Here are a few ways to help preserve this tiny creature:

  • Plant native milkweed in your garden: This plant serves as the only source of food for the monarch caterpillar.
  • Stop using pesticides: These chemicals are deadly to monarch butterflies.
  • Join local National Wildlife Federation (NWF) efforts, or donate.

For more information on the documentary, visit www.flymonarca.com.