balloons hover above the Willamette River

balloons hover above the Willamette River

Today is my baby girl’s birthday. Scratch that. It’s my lovely young lady’s birthday.

I took a day from work and she skipped a day of the ballet intensive to celebrate by soaring up into the Oregon skies in a hot air balloon. Arno helped me make the decision to do this by mentioning that giving an “experience” can be more valuable than a gift. Miss T was certainly pleased all day, and I got a little charge each time she gave me a squeeze and a “Thank you!”

We flew with Vista Balloon Adventures, Inc. in Newberg, Oregon. I have not flown with other balloon companies in Oregon, so I am not able to compare. I can say that this one was professional, well-organized, and so much fun! The location is about a 45-minute drive from where we live in Montavilla in Portland, and I talked to a Salem couple who had made the trip in 45 minutes as well. So, it’s an easy trip for a lot of Oregonians. The roads were a breeze at 4:30 am. Yes, we had to get an early start. *Yawn*

The Ridge Runner lies flat, awaiting the infusion of air from the fans

The Ridge Runner lies flat, awaiting the infusion of air from the fans

One of my fellow passengers holds back the cords to keep them from burning up

One of my fellow passengers holds back the cords to keep them from burning up

As I pulled into the crowded parking lot, my spirits sank at first because I was hoping the weekday would mean fewer people and a more individualized trip. Once I got into the air I changed my mind. Being able to see four other balloons in the sky with us made my own experience so much more enjoyable. We could see what we must look like in the sky; where we had been; where we were about to go. A solitary balloon would have been wonderful, but fifty people in the sky was also an event! It became more and more celebratory as we saw incredible views and pastoral scenes floating past at speeds slower than a bicycle, but faster than a walk.

We checked in and were presented with name tags bearing the name of our mount (Miss T and I rode Ridge Runner), and directions to find her in the fields by the Newberg airport. Passengers are encouraged to get involved with inflating and deflating the balloon. There is also a crew of volunteers at each basket lending their expertise and their hands. Luckily for me, our basket was full, and thus there were plenty of people helping when I stepped away to take a photo.

There's our chase crew below, with the blue van

There’s our chase crew below, with the blue van and trailer. No, the tractors are not chase vehicles. 😉

The burner spitting fire into the balloon

The burner spitting fire into the balloon

Our pilot was Robert Craig, who dished out wisecracks all morning. “Do you think they still fall for those old jokes?” a volunteer asked him at one point. “They do!” he announced with a smile, “And I see no reason to get new jokes when the old ones still work.”

We lifted off into a perfectly clear morning. Still dark in the field, we rose rapidly and I witnessed the fastest sunrise of my life. It was so neat: first there was that little nub of molten sun leaking over a ridge, then it pushed up fast like a rising bubble: bloooooop! In two seconds, the sun was up and shining. (Yes, I know it was me that was rising so fast, and not the turning Earth, but the effect was pretty cool.)

The sun rose and fell at the horizon, as we did

The sun rose and fell at the horizon, as we did

Some of the other travelers with us, floating above the Willamette River

Some of the other travelers with us, floating above the Willamette River

Think about it: when you’re in a balloon, your craft floats with the wind. So in the basket, it’s calm. Few modes of travel could be this serene (except of course when the burners blast loudly enough to prevent conversation). Using fans, our pilot had shown us how he filled the large balloon with air as it lay stretched out across the field. Then he kicked on the burners, blasting fire into the center of the balloon, heating the air. Vista’s website had cautioned us to wear hats if the heat would be bothersome. Instead, in the chilly morning air, the heat was welcome. As we flew, Robert ignited the blaze often, to lift us, and then he pulled a cord that opened flaps to let air out, which dropped us. All five pilots impressed me with their handling skills because the balloons alternately dropped down to hover above ponds, or eye-level with stands of trees, then rose again.

Best of all was the river. The morning was so lovely that the river’s surface was clear enough to provide stunning reflections of the balloons. Our pilot took us over, and we watched as other pilots touched the baskets to water. It had a powerful effect by adding to our excitement; adding to the character of our photos. At the river, Tara and I took turns tearing the camera away from each other to get the shot that we didn’t want the other to miss. (oh, by the way, half these shots are credited to the birthday girl) we stayed at the river for some time, hovered two feet above, then wet the bottom of the basket and sat there as if floating. A paddle boarder came toward us, possibly wondering delightedly what was happening on the river. And then we pulled up again.

Great promo shot, eh?

Great promo shot, eh?

Tara took this one. Isn't it a wonderful perspective? There is a balloon below us, and our own reflection as well.

Tara took this one. Isn’t it a wonderful perspective? There is a balloon below us, and our own reflection as well.

Girlie and me on the Willamette River

Girlie and me on the Willamette River

DSC_0296We lifted in altitude up to 2000 feet to get a view of Mt. Hood, then settled back down closer to earth, and we watched the pastoral fields roll by beneath us. We excited a couple of hounds that barked their warnings/greetings at us. We frighted the sanity out of a flock of newly shorn sheep, who went tearing away from us.

Oregon fields from above

Oregon fields from above

terrified sheep

terrified sheep

As we drew toward the Mission Creek Reservoir, our pilot, Robert, began searching for a place to put down. He spotted a couple of fields and we moved in while the radios chirped back and forth about a low level cross wind.

We were low when the landing spot was chosen, so Robert was not able to give the chase crew enough time to get to us before we landed. He deftly landed us without a crew! The basket hit, tipped a little, went thump! thump! thump! as we dragged perpendicular to the freshly cut strips of hay stalks, and then settled down. It was much easier a landing than he had prepared us for.

getting ready to land in a hay field

getting ready to land in a hay field

It looked like the balloon was about to set down onto a hay bale

It looked like the balloon was about to set down onto a hay bale

Both crew and passengers hold the basket down while people climb out.

Both crew and passengers hold the basket down while people climb out. (That’s pilot Robert looking at the camera.)

In no time the chase crew arrived and took us back to the launch site for a champagne brunch. We all got glasses, and were led in a lovely traditional toast. Then we dished up food and ate from an unexpectedly lavish, delicious, and bountiful spread. There were the anticipated crackers with brie and smoked cheddar, marinated mushrooms, bowls of olives, and fresh veggies and fruit to include sliced mango. And on top of that, a real breakfast of potato casserole, a to-die-for polenta dish, scrambled eggs with bacon and cheese, breakfast wraps, biscuits and gravy, and a whole dessert section including chocolate cake, cream puffs, and Tara’s favourite: the rhubarb cake. I filled my plate twice. When everyone was finished, there was food left over.

That buffet, with refillable juices, lemonaide, or champagne to your heart’s content, would have been at least $30 in a restaurant, so I mentally subtracted that from the cost of a single passenger ($199) and came up with $169 for the flight. It’s surprisingly low, considering the number of staff, the fuel, the equipment, vehicles, and insurance. It was a reasonably priced birthday gift after all. Think of the experience we just shared!

the buffet table

the buffet table

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