Have you ever taken a hot air balloon ride? It’s been on my bucket list for years. There’s a joke in the travel writer community about how hot air balloons are always dangled in front of you, but with weather and whatnot, nobody ever seems to get a ride. This all changed for me when I attended the Heritage Inn International Balloon Festival last September.
In case you didn’t know, I’m from High River, an adorable small town less than an hour’s drive south of Calgary. I’d never been to this balloon festival before, but it’s a deal. There are balloonists (is that what they’re called?) not only from all over North America, but all over the world attending.
Best is attending Balloon Glow, taking place this Friday. Pilots coordinate firing up their burners at the same time, so the balloons are illuminated all at once. It’s magical. You can also step inside a hot air balloon to see how it inflates. Last year I was lucky enough to go for a ride at this Balloon Festival. Here’s my take on what hot air balloon rides are really like.
Behind the scenes at the Heritage Inn International Balloon Festival
First up is an obligatory pre-meeting where all the pilots (maybe that’s what they’re called?) get introduced, we get our start times and I basically tune out. Sitting in a conference room listening to something you don’t really understand when you have self-diagnosed ADD is pure torture. Fortunately, I run into a good number of my high school friends who are volunteering at the festival, and we pass the time texting each other eggplant emojis.
I should’ve been paying attention though, because someone tells me I’ve been switched from flying with Jaimie Kinghorn, who’s an event organizer, to going with Searle “Cowboy” Sheldon of the Calgary Balloon Club. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not. No matter, the world’s longest brief is over and we drive to an open field – not three blocks from my childhood home in McLaughlin Meadows. We’re off to get our hot air on. But that sounds kind of sleazy, doesn’t it?
A black test helium balloon goes up first. I guess it’s to gauge the wind and the direction we’ll all be taking. “It looks like it’s headed for the Okotoks dump!” one of our crew gleefully informs me. Oh goodie, I think. Actually, I think something more crude, but I’m trying to keep this post family-friendly.
But it’s a gorgeous evening – one of those coveted Indian summer ones (are we still allowed to use that term?) and I have no need to be grumpy. Though, truth be told, I am slightly disappointed Searle’s balloon is boring blue and white stripes. I want to swan about in one of those fancy, flashy balloons. That turquoise fish looked pretty rad.
Volunteers hold the balloon as it gets filled with air. It reminds me of those rainbow parachutes we ducked under during elementary school phys-ed class. The noise of the propane engines blowing air into the balloon gets my heart racing. Suddenly, it gets real. Real fast.
Thoughts race through my head. What am I doing? Could this be dangerous? I realize I’ve never actually thought about what it means to go up in a hot air balloon. In my mind, I’d always fast forwarded to floating above postcard pretty landscapes. Fortunately, there’s so much action, I don’t have time to dwell on what-if scenarios. Everything happens so fast. One minute the team beside you is spreading out their balloon, the next, they’re up, up and away.
The hot air balloon ride
And then it’s our turn. We’re the last to launch and for awhile it doesn’t look like we’ll make it up. Then Searle whips out his bbq lighter wand, ignites the engine with it and we’re off to the races.
No lie: It feels incredibly wobbly, like we could spill over at any moment. We don’t though. All is settled down within about a minute (nerdy Jody clocked it) but it feels like five minutes of instability.
Just like when you’re peering down from an airplane window, the perspective you’re afforded is unparalleled. It’s unbelievably pretty. Who knew High River had so many trees? I sure didn’t and I used to live here. We sweep overtop copes of cottonwood, brimming with leaves ranging from chartreuse to amber to copper.
It seems the entire landscape is draped in blue and gold. There’s a brilliant blazing turquoise September sky with the bluish grey tones of the Rockies on the horizon. The patchwork quilt of farms below us are in various stages of harvest – their fields brushed golden from the sun casting out its final rays. Up here, we stand eye level with the setting sun. A more spiritual sort might think mindful thoughts when encountering such pristine beauty. I, on the other hand, FaceTime with The Huz and take shedloads of selfies.
But hot air ballooning is more than floating above what looks like farm Playmobile sets. There can be drama, too. Our pulley light goes out – which means we’re in for a bumpy landing. But where to land?
We tried to land a few minutes earlier in what looked like an accommodating acreage. As we hovered above an empty field, an angry white male (imagine that) charged out of his house towards us. No, we could absolutely not land on his property and if we didn’t get moving he’d blah, blah, blah. Total douchebag. Pretty sure his house still hasn’t sold. Karma.
Anyway, the pulley light is now out and we’re losing light. Fast. We coast across the road and aim for a field that’s been recently plowed with easy access for our ground crew to reach us. We touch down (hard), bounce back up, touch down and pop up, again and again. Though I was freaked out at the prospect, in reality it’s pretty fun. Finally we’re down, the basket tips over and I spill out.
Then the real work begins – folding that sucker up. All spread out, balloons are waaay bigger than you can imagine, and squeezing out all that air takes awhile. If this were a daytime flight, we’d have champagne immediately after touching down. Apparently that’s tradition and one I can totally get behind. But Searle needs to refuel before the station closes. The champers goes into the trunk and we plan to toast our successful flight after he’s sorted.
Except, I can’t. Or more accurately, choose not to. It’s already past 10 p.m. and I still have to drive back to Calgary. And that my friends, is my biggest regret about going on a hot air balloon ride. It’s like tucking into a birthday feast and not having a slice of the cake. I missed out. But you can be sure I’ll make up for it this year.
What to know if attending Balloon Glow in High River
- Balloon Glow takes place this Friday, September 28, 2018 at 5:00 p.m. at Spitzee Elementary School in High River, Alberta.
- There’s no charge, but donations are appreciated.
- You’ll also want to bring cash because they’ll be several food vendors.
- The actual glowing takes place around 8:00 p.m. for an hour.
- Bring your camera and your kids. This is totally a family-friendly event.
- Leave your pets at home (or the hotel) as the school field doesn’t permit animals. (And you just know Bylaw’s going to be milling around.)
- Turn this visit into a mini-break and spend the night in High River. My top recs are staying at the Heritage Inn, where the balloon peeps are also bedding down. My go-to eateries are Evelyn’s Memory Lane and The Hitchin’ Post. For tips on where I shop and play in High River, read this.
Have you ever taken a hot air balloon ride? Would you like to?
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