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A Natural High

Four hot air balloons flickered like colorful giant Japanese lanterns Saturday night in a field off Highway 62 in northeast Medford, eliciting cheers and applause from a crowd of about 1,000 people.

The annual Rogue Valley Balloon Rally's "Night Glow" almost didn't happen this year because of wind. Shortly after dark, the winds calmed down enough for pilots to ignite the gas under the balloons, illuminating them in colors of the rainbow while dance music boomed.

"That's cool," exclaimed 8-year-old Emma Ward, of Medford, as she jumped up and down.

Her mother, Cindy Ward, took Emma and her 3-year-old daughter, Maddie, to the event as a surprise.

South Medford High School senior Kelly Schultz, who attended the event, was one of many who snapped photos on his camera phone as the balloons illuminated.

"I never heard of it before," Schultz said.

The 14th annual hot air balloon rally continues at 6:30 a.m. today in a field at 4541 Grumman Drive behind Lithia Motors on Highway 62. Balloons launch at 6:30 a.m. Tethered rides begin at 7 a.m. for $3 each. There is no charge to watch, and balloons are visible from some area neighborhoods.

After covering expenses, proceeds from the event go to the Children's Miracle Network, said organizer Treasa Sprague.

Fourteen balloons are participating in this year's rally with sponsorships for each balloon, ranging from $500 to $2,000. A tally for this year's proceeds is not yet completed, Sprague said. Last year, the event raised a total of $4,500 for the charity, Sprague said.

The pilots floated up in their balloons Friday and Saturday morning, gaining a bird's-eye view of the Rogue Valley.

"I love the terrain," said pilot Gay James, of Orland, Calif., who has been flying hot air balloons since 1978. "It's a beautiful place to fly."

James soared over the valley Saturday morning at about 5 mph in her balloon, named "The Wanderer."

Her friend, pilot Dana Thornton, of San Jose, caught a faster wind at about 3,000 to 4,000 feet high and floated at about 11 mph in his balloon, "Free Spirit."

Pilot Chris Lamb, of Eagle Point, said he used to be terrified at the prospect of floating in a hot air balloon until he tried it.

"My wife wanted to go," Lamb recounted. "I told her there is no way I'm going to get in one of those little baskets in the air. One of the pilots asked me if it was OK if my wife took a ride with him. Before I said anything, she had one leg in the basket."

When she glided back to earth, the pilot told Lamb, "It's you're turn," Lamb recalled.

"He finally convinced me, and since then, I have become a pilot myself."

That was 13 years ago, Lamb said.

"It's like riding a magic carpet," Lamb said. "It's the most peaceful thing in the world."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

A Natural High