Chasing balloons at Northeast Balloon Festival

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By Lisa K. Berton

Timing is everything. One can plan out the day's events with the best intentions, but things can quickly change due to the weather. Such was the case at the Northeast Balloon Festival in Northampton, Massachusetts from July 12th thru 14th. Welcoming strong breezes cooled hot flesh while simultaneously causing balloon flight cancelations.

V.A.P. Events moved the Northeast Balloon Festival to Three County Fairgrounds this year. Patrons and vendors vocalized grievances with last year's event in Milford, New Hampshire. It became clear that a larger venue with more parking and additional food trucks was necessary. Three County Fairgrounds met all their needs plus staffing for extra support.

The Festival opened at 3 pm on Friday with temperatures in the high 80s and humidity reaching 61%. Food trucks were lined up and ready to eagerly serve late lunches, frozen treats, and fried desserts. Choices included ribs, tater tots, pizza, hot dogs, steamed burgers, brisket, stir-fry, and sandwiches. The Fairgrounds opened up their indoor bar with plenty of seating for those seeking to escape the Sun.

Beyond the first row of food trucks was a section designed for kids. Carnival rides and games intrigued elementary and middle school-aged children from what I saw. And what's a fair without fried dough or a copious amount of lemonade?

Under a red tent, goats, sheep, a zebra, and other farm and zoo animals greeted folks of all ages. Most animals were okay to pet and/or feed using designated machines. Two parrots sat in separate cages, each with metal holes too small for fingers to get through yet also too small for adequate ventilation. The Macaw in particular demonstrated signs of wanting to get out of the cage, and a need for attention.

Beyond the Kid Zone, adults enjoyed shopping from small businesses. Shoppers bought clothing, hair accessories, jewelry, personal care products, art, and more. Kids got a kick out of the handmade finger puppets.

Additionally, food trucks took spots on part of the field closer to the stage and hot air balloons. Given the intense heat and a breeze that was nowhere near the ocean, I went for a shaved ice from Good Vibes. My flavor combo of choice of the Hawaiian style treat was lemon ginger. Not only did it hit the spot but also cooled my internal temperature. Later I tried a bison burger from Creamery Brook Bison. It was just slightly thicker than a hamburger patty and came naked, as they called it. No lettuce, no pickles, and fortunately for me - no spices.

Due to winds too strong for hot air balloons, they were unsafe to fly on Friday night. However, tethered rides for $20 did proceed during the late afternoon and evening. The 15 balloons on-site prepared for a balloon glow, and the results were magical. At night, the field filled with inflated grounded balloons. Pilots fired off long and short propane bursts as directed by Balloon Meister, Bill Whidden. It was like watching the lambent light dance from balloon to balloon.

The Northeast Balloon Festival marked the 98th time Whidden has served as Balloon Meister. I suggested he check with Guinness World Records to see if there is a title-holder. The Florida native got into ballooning by way of, as he put it, coincidental coincidences. The short story is that in 1982, his wife's friend re-married and they came to visit. The gentleman brought his hot air balloon and Bill got hooked. A year later Bill earned his license. He also co-created a balloon festival in 1983.

During the balloon glow, I was asked by Paul and Judy Sena of Worthington Ballooning to climb into the basket to help keep the balloon grounded. Having seen numerous folks attempt to climb into other baskets or gondolas by placing toes into foot holes, I was unsure. But, the Senas provided a step stool and a metal rung that went over the basket side with steps. Stand anywhere other than directly underneath the burner and you can feel the extreme heat it gives off. It was fun to watch the balloons light up and be standing underneath the burner at the same time, like being a part of the show.

They invited me to come back for the morning flight and chase the balloon with Judy in her truck. I happily obliged.

Paul Sena, Worthington Ballooning
Paul Sena, Worthington Ballooning
Bill Whidden, Balloon Meister
Bill Whidden, Balloon Meister

Up early and at Three Country Fairgrounds by 6:20 am, I saw the first balloon take off into the cool skies. Paul and Judy set up with assistance from a first-time passenger, Susan Dubay Christy. Sharon and Randy joined us after Paul and his 4 passengers took off. The couple made a surprise appearance and offered to help out with the balloon landing.

Judy and I chased the balloon in her van with a trailer attached and Sharon and Randy following behind. Via radio, Paul updated Judy on where he was headed and likely going to land. Most of the other pilots landed in the same field. Deflating the balloon, unhooking cables, detaching the burner, and many other steps were quite the process. Just as this high-flying community helps each other prepare for take-off they also assist when the ride is over.

I was grateful for securing the last room at the Quality Inn Chicopee-Springfield so I could return and rest. Unfortunately, the carpet was extremely filthy. Thankfully, I packed an extra pair of socks. After resting for a bit, I returned to the Festival where I found Paul holding court. He spoke to attendees about thermal activity, wind, and what makes flights last longer.

I did one more walk-through of the vendors, carnival rides, and food courts, For lunch I had an arepa overstuffed with cheese from Crazy Arepas. It was unlike the ones I've had elsewhere which were more like thick corn patties with a bit of cheese in the center. This was huge and tasty.

Daily tickets sold for $15. Advance ticket sales went for half off. Parking cost $5. The petting zoo was free with admission. Carnival rides and game prices varied. Balloon flights cost $275 per person and booked with the pilot in advance. Cheese arepa - $8, bison burger - $10, shaved ice - $5.

If you've never been to a balloon festival, try to find one near you. Even if you don't plan to fly in one, just being there, surrounded by colorful human creations working with nature is a sight to behold.

Thank you to V.A.P. for the media pass, Three County Fairgrounds for media parking, and Crazy Arepas for great customer service and lunch.

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