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At The Whim of The Wind

"There's something magical about those balloons in the air," says event director Lee Perry. It's the most photographed festival in Bend."

And why not? Take panoramic vistas of the snow-mantled Cascades rising above vast swathes of evergreen trees and set them against skies blue as polished sapphire. Sprinkle a couple dozen gaily colored hot air balloons floating in those skies and, yes, it's an almost magical treat for adults and children alike. That treat comes around for a three day visit, June 5, 6 and 7, in Bend's Old Mill District.

In this, its seventh-annual iteration, Balloons Over Bend lays claim to being central Oregon's only festival of its kind. At first, this seems surprising. You can't help but wonder, "What took them so long to get balloons over that magnificent setting?" After all, ballooning has been around since late 1783 when French brothers, Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier, launched themselves from downtown Paris for a 15-minute excursion into history.

More recently, the Festival of Balloons held in Tigard two weeks after Bend's extravaganza will celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary this year. Then there's the western granddaddy of them all, New Mexico's world-famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, well into its third decade of annual operations. They hosted more than 700 balloons last year.

To hear Bend event planner Barbara Malcolm tell it, she encountered a surprising and educating answer to her own question of "why not in Bend?" first posed in the year 2000. "It seemed like a great opportunity to help the town fill its hotel rooms," says the chamber of commerce member. "So I spent the next two years visiting balloon rallies and talking to the pilots. Turns out Bend is quite a challenge for balloonists because we're not like say, Madras, where there's lots of open ground. They need a space with at least a 100-foot radius to land and let their balloons collapse."

Upon further research and inspection, experienced pilots identified sufficient landing choices in places like parking lots and school playgrounds. So in 2003 Malcolm coordinated the first Balloons Over Bend festival and it proved an instant success that's grown bigger and grander every year. So big, in fact, that Malcolm sold her rights two years ago to Perry and his larger staff at Lay It Out Events, Inc.

It's more than just the approximately 10,000 festival-goers who keep the Bend event permanently marked on their calendar every year. The balloonists themselves rave about it. Globe-trotting pilot, Michael Blum, says after his first central Oregon experience last year, "Bend is probably my most favorite place to fly, with the exception of Wheeling, West Virginia where I grew up." Seconding that emotion, Malcolm notes that the Albuquerque festival president brings his own balloon to Bend every year.

Graceful, even serene they may look, but a balloon launched into flight is essentially a crash-landing waiting to happen. Make that, a controlled crash landing; accidents rarely occur. A balloon's only true directional mechanism comes from the valve regulating the pressurized propane gas tanks aboard the gondola.

Open the valve to feed gas to the burner heating what's known as the "envelope's" air and up you go. Shut the valve to cool the air and down you go. Otherwise, as Perry says, "You're at the whim of the wind."

Portland artist and 16-year balloonist, Darren Kling, explains how pilots play that "whim of the wind" in their favor. "We do get quite a bit of steering because we get different winds at different altitudes. Sometimes you might have a change in wind direction in just a hundred feet or so." Which all sounds good, but Kling finally acknowledges the truth, "It's like flying a three story building with no steering wheel and no engine." And with only a vague notion of where you will land, he might have added. Yet they do it safely thousands of times every year.

Given the more or less unidirectional pattern of a typical flight, a "chase car" and crew are essential to the mix of safe, successful ballooning. They also add to the expense of a hobby that is not for the financially faint-hearted. Off-the-shelf pricing for the smallest balloon begins in the $25,000 range. First, you'll need to spend more money and time for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification; it's mandatory. Private or "sport" pilot licenses can only be earned after ground schooling and training flights similar in length to fixed-wing aircraft requirements. If you want to fly passengers for hire, or become an instructor, you'll need even more time and schooling.

In deference to the capricious nature of winds on the ground and aloft, balloonists plan most of their flights for earliest dawn when winds are typically quieter. With one thrilling exception, the balloonists in Bend this June will confine their flying to the morning hours only. In between catching some great photographs in the dawn sunshine, festival-goers will find plenty of attractions, amusements and treats, many geared toward kids in this family-friendly venue.

Live music, gourmet food, a beer garden, vendor exhibits including wine tastings are among the activities rolling through the weekend. All of this will revolve around a nationally-recognized Street Art Exhibition that is one of only two such events in Oregon. Throughout the weekend, artists working on hands and knees will craft stunning displays of depth perception in the artworks they render from chalk in the roadbed. Patrons will have the opportunity to sponsor these works with the money donated to regional student art programs.

Without question, the highlight of the festival comes after dark on Saturday. Of last year's show Perry says, "Some 5 to 6,000 people gathered in the Les Schwab Amphitheater for 'Nightglow.'" While musicians and fire dancers performed on stage, the festival pilots and volunteer crew members lit the burners and floated aloft on a special night flight. With the burner flames lighting the balloons from within, the baskets lift skyward in a living kaleidoscope of colors, light and darkness. A visual indulgence you'll never forget.

At The Whim of The Wind