Trekking Tales: A ride in the wizard of Oz’s balloon

"For our next major birthdays, let's do something we've never done before." Going aloft in a hot air balloon was IT.

Crew members work to direct the heat from giant propane burners to fill a large hot air balloon in preparation for a ride over the countryside near Kelowna recently.

Five years ago, when friend Mary from Creston and I celebrated significant birthdays, we made a pact. “For our next major birthdays, let’s do something we’ve never done before.” Going aloft in a hot air balloon was IT.

This dream came true mid-September of this year, between our birthday dates. Mary not only made the arrangements, she talked to mutual (Girl Guider) friends about our plan. Two of them joined us in Kelowna.

“We meet up in the parking lot behind Burger King,” said Mary as we set off – wondering what we had gotten ourselves into this time! A man releasing a normal-sized green balloon seemed a most appropriate identification, but there was another purpose.

“Windy conditions forced us to cancel all flights the past three days, including this morning,” John told us, pilot for this family-operated business.

Oh no! We’ve waited five years and it might not happen. “What are our chances?” we asked as he drove us to the launching site, a trailer behind this company van.

“About 90 per cent,” he said. In a large flat open area nearby, John released a small black balloon. We held our collective breaths as it floated up without going very far this way or that. “It’s a go!”

Watching the preparation of our flying machine was an education in itself. One heavy item after another was pushed, pulled or carried carefully out of the trailer: motorized fan, green sack stuffed with our yellow balloon-to-be, metal cage to hold flames aloft, and a sturdy, six-passenger, woven wicker basket. The team worked in an orderly fashion. The fan was started, propane burner lit, directing hot air into the stretched-out balloon.

Muscles then strained to keep it from floating away while the basket was righted, pilot in, and we climbed (ungracefully!) up and over. Safety orientation included “Don’t touch that lever.” As the hold on the ropes was gradually loosened, burner roaring above our heads, we had no sensation of “lift-off”. Watching the ground fall away, people, and our rig’s shadow becoming smaller, we knew we were flying.

Because the wind decides the course, even this experienced pilot cannot predict the exact course.

“Each trip is different,” John said. “I can control only our height – to some extent!”

The breeze took us away from Okanagan Lake, busy streets, and Kelowna’s many shopping centres. Soon we were above orchards, trees colourful with ripe fruit, beautiful homes, swimming pools, and suburbia. People waved; cameras clicked both ways, and children ran below us.

“Here come some trees.” I had stated the obvious, but the response was serious.

“I’m looking ahead at those power lines.” A momentary delay follows the whoosh of the burner before the balloon responds by drifting upwards. Radio contact was maintained throughout, including with the control tower at the Kelowna Airport.

Time drifted by quicker than our imperceptible motion suggested. All too soon, messages going back and forth to the ground crew attempting to follow us with van and trailer, increased. Possible landing sites were discussed. A grassy park looked good, but, as the young folk raced across the field below us, the wind took us above a corner filled with trees.

After we floated across Highway 31, open hillside beckoned – as long as the wheeled vehicles could get close enough to gather up the heavy items that formed our low-flying craft. Touching down in the dry, rocky, weed-filled space, some distance from any road, we felt nary a bump.

The young crew had run to us and now grabbed corners of the basket. Ingeniously, with short bursts of hot air, John held us just above the ground while they pulled us towards the nearest road. “I’ve got burrs in my hair,” complained one.

“But I’ve got prickles in my belly button!” announced another.

We gently bounced over the uneven terrain for some 300 metres, coming to a rest right beside a paved turn-around. Time to clamber out of the basket/cocoon, in our usual ungainly fashion.

Watching the dismantling, we thought, “Oh no. It’s over.” Nope. Trailer loaded, we piled back into the van and returned to the aforementioned park. Here, clutching certificates, we toasted that one-of-a-kind experience with goblets of champagne. What a memorable way to celebrate a couple of birthdays….