Chris Arends prepares the drone for flight. Photo courtesy of Christian Gianfagna

Chris Arends prepares the drone for flight. Photo courtesy of Christian Gianfagna

Weather balloon from California rescued near Campbell River

Search led rescuers to remote wilderness on Quadra Island

When the call came in, the people at Quadra Island Kayaks didn’t quite know what to think. It was an odd request to be sure.

A climate company from California had flown a balloon up the Pacific Coast and it had landed – according to their data – at the northern tip of Quadra Island.

Quadra Island Kayaks assembled a team of four, including owner Chris Arends and kayak guide Christian Gianfagna and set out with a couple sets of GPS coordinates to find the balloon.

They drove about 20 minutes and then hiked into the dense forest for a few hours.

“It was the middle of nowhere,” said Gianfagna.

They couldn’t find anything and returned to the van in the dark.

The request to find the balloon had come from Gilroy, Calif., about a two-hour drive south of San Francisco. The startup, WindBorne Systems had been testing to see how different the wind forecast from the American National Weather Service was from reality.

The company, founded by a group of Stanford graduates, is aiming to improve the quality of weather data gathered in places no one goes, like over oceans and deserts.

“We’re fundamentally a climate company,” said CEO Paige Brown. “We’re trying to help humanity adapt to climate change by getting weather data in places were people usually can’t access it.”

WindBorne Systems’ balloons are about nine feet tall and are attached to a unit the size of a milk jug that gathers all the data.

The team on Quadra Island sets out again a few days later. They’re better equipped this time with a drone, a saw, and some climbing equipment. They park the van – a lookalike to Mr. T’s GMC, earning them the nickname “The A Team” – and head into the heavy bush again. They follow a set of GPS coordinates rather than a set trail and make their way through the woods past fresh cougar tracks, through mud and swamps, gaining and losing elevation. They get chased by a swarm of wasps.

While the group of four enjoys spending time hiking and paddling outdoors, they have never explored this part of Quadra Island and aren’t familiar with the terrain.

“It was pretty fun,” said Gianfagna, “but it was also pretty dangerous.”

This year, WindBorne has sent about 35 balloons into the air to collect wind speed and direction data. In this prototype phase, they’re trying to get all the balloons back to analyze what Chief Product Officer Kai Marshland calls “high resolution data.”

Their balloons have travelled all over the U.S. and Mexico and have even made it across the Atlantic Ocean to Morocco.

Brown said they’ll try to find the balloons themselves or ask family and friends to help. Brown’s dad and grandfather have found balloons before and so has Marshland’s grandfather. Next, they’ll reach out to someone local.

Quadra Island is the fourth time a balloon has touched down in Canada. They’ve also had them land in Quebec, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

In their Pacific Coast experiment, the team discovers that the National Weather Service prediction is off by about 30 per cent.

“This was a big indication that the wind data out over the ocean isn’t very good and there’s a lot of room for us to improve the way weather is predicted,” said Marshland.

Windborne Systems is able to fly the balloons kind of like a sailboat, rising and falling to catch different wind currents.

“As it flies, we can continue to make better predictions because our balloon is collecting that wind data that let’s us figure out where it’s going to go next,” said Marshland.

With a few dozen flights under their belt, the team at WindBorne is looking at scaling up. While there are other weather companies out there, Brown said no one is taking the same approach as them – flying low-cost small latex balloons. Soon they hope to add temperature and humidity data to their collecting. Then they will have all the ingredients for a full-blown weather forecast.

Once the data from a payload is analyzed, they can essentially hit a reset button, swap out the batteries and send it up again to collect more data on another flight.

They didn’t want the balloon to continue north and end up as pollution in the ocean or the mountains, so they brought it down in a remote corner of Quadra Island.

It’s later in the day and the A Team has all but given up.

Gianfagna hikes up a cliff and looks out over the late August forest, already turning yellow in splotches. In the distance he sees a yellow blob – it could be a balloon, or after two days of searching, his eyes could just be playing tricks.

“All I could see was just a little yellow sort of thing,” he said. “We thought we’d seen it about 100 times.”

They take out a pair of binoculars and a drone to confirm the sighting. Sure enough, caught in a branch about 40 metres up a tree is the deflated latex balloon with its payload dangling underneath.

“If I stepped one foot to the left, one foot to the right, I couldn’t see it,” he said. “I could just see it from the exact spot I was standing.”

Spotting the balloon may have been the easiest part. Next, they had to figure out how to get it down. Not wanting to fall any trees, they climbed a nearby cliff instead and lassoed the tree, bending it toward them. Then, a member of the team scaled a nearby tree and knocked the unit out of the tree with a branch.

“It was a bit of an effort,” said Gianfagna.

With unit in hand, they trudged back to the van, posed for some photos with it and shipped it back to the States.

All in all, said Gianfagna, it was a “proper adventure.”

RELATED:

Quadra hikers found after two days in the wild

Woman donates her land as nature reserve on Quadra Island


@marissatiel
marissa.tiel@campbellrivermirror.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

A sampling of past routes WindBorne Systems’ balloons have taken, including the Quadra Island balloon. Photo courtesy of WindBorne Systems

A sampling of past routes WindBorne Systems’ balloons have taken, including the Quadra Island balloon. Photo courtesy of WindBorne Systems

Christian Gianfagna (far left) and Chris Arends (far right) were among the ‘A Team’ that rescued a Californian weather balloon in a remote area on Quadra Island this summer. Photo courtesy of Christian Gianfagna

Christian Gianfagna (far left) and Chris Arends (far right) were among the ‘A Team’ that rescued a Californian weather balloon in a remote area on Quadra Island this summer. Photo courtesy of Christian Gianfagna

Just Posted

Elvira D’Angelo, 92, waits to receive her COVID-19 vaccination shot at a clinic in Montreal, Sunday, March 7, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
110 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

Provincial health officers announced 1,005 new cases throughout B.C.

File
TNRD to test emergency alert app

The Voyent Alert! emergency notification will be sent April 23.

Interior Health nurses administer Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to seniors and care aids in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16. (Phil McLachlan/Kelowna Capital News)
69 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

The total number of cases in the region is now at 9,840 since the pandemic began

Kelowna General Hospital (File photo)
Interior Health hospitals not strained by rising COVID case counts

While provincial hospitalizations rise, health care systems in the B.C. Interior remain robust, say officials

An Interior Health nurse administers Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to seniors and care aids in Kelowna on Tuesday, March 16, 2021. (Phil McLachlan/Kelowna Capital News)
105 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

Just over 8,000 new vaccine doses administered in the region for a total of 158,000 to date

Rainbow trouts thrashing with life as they’re about to be transferred to the largest lake of their lives, even though it’s pretty small. These rainbows have a blue tinge because they matched the blue of their hatchery pen, but soon they’ll take on the green-browns of their new home at Lookout Lake. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
VIDEO: B.C. lake stocked with hatchery trout to delight of a seniors fishing club

The Cherish Trout Scouts made plans to come back fishing soon

Photos of Vancouver Canucks players are pictured outside the closed box office of Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver Thursday, April 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Canucks games against Leafs postponed as team returns from COVID-19

The team has had 11 games postponed since an outbreak late last month

Vancouver Police Const. Deepak Sood is under review by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. after making comments to a harm reduction advocate Sunday, April 11. (Screen grab)
VIDEO: Vancouver officer convicted of uttering threats under watchdog review again

Const. Deepak Sood was recorded Sunday saying ‘I’ll smack you’ and ‘go back to selling drugs’ to a harm reduction advocate

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry prepares a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic, April 21, 2020. (B.C. Government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate persists, 1,005 new cases Friday

Hospitalization up to 425, six more virus-related deaths

Premier John Horgan receives a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the pharmacy in James Bay Thrifty’s Foods in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. Premier John Horgan gets AstraZeneca shot, encourages others

27% of residents in B.C. have now been vaccinated against COVID-19

The Nautical Dog Cafe at Skaha marina is getting its patio ready in hopes Mother Nature will provide where provincial restrictions have taken away indoor dining. (Facebook)
‘A lot of instability’: B.C. restaurants in layoff limbo

As COVID-19 cases stay high, restaurants in British Columbia are closed to indoor dining

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Expectations high as Trudeau Liberals get ready to unveil first pandemic budget

The Liberals will look to thread an economic needle with Monday’s budget

Coldstream students took over the Your Letters page in the April 9, 2021, edition of the Vernon Morning Star to offer advice to adults about COVID-19. Interior Health took notice and offered their praise. (Vernon Morning Star)
‘We can get rid of COVID together’: B.C. kids share heartwarming advice

Grade 2 and 3 classes from a North Okanagan elementary took over Letters page of this Black Press newspaper

Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops. (Dave Eagles/Kamloops This Week file photo)
RCMP intercept vehicle fleeing with infant taken from Kamloops hospital

The baby was at the hospital receiving life-saving care

Most Read