Flying High at the Lake Havasu Balloon Fest
When people think of Arizona, their first image is usually of a hot, dry desert. This is mostly true, but tucked in the Northwest corner of the state is an oasis called Lake Havasu. Locals, as well as a fair amount of Vegas and Southern California neighbors spend their summer vacations here. Snowbirds flock here in the winter. We came to witness the 3rd annual Balloon Fest.
Every January, balloonists from around the nation and Canada converge on Lake Havasu for 4 days of ballooning over the lake and around the historic London Bridge. Anywhere from 50-100 balloons will float over the city, and land precariously around town. Balloon launches only happen at sunrise and sunset, weather permitting, so we had to get up early to catch all the fun.
On the first day Dino and Avery hitched a ride with a balloon crew that went to follow their pilot who was flying over the city. Hannah and I stayed on the balloon field and watched the pilots that were taking off near the lake.
As I was snapping away with my camera, a pilot asked Hannah if she wanted a ride. Of course she agreed, and went up with him and his other passenger. They crossed the lake and landed near the freeway. I followed in the chase van, and once the balloon was packed away, they held a toasting ceremony for her first flight. It was a neat experience for her, and I remind myself that it’s days like this that affirm why I’ve taken my children on this journey – to have unique, spontaneous, enriching life experiences.
The second day I went out on one of the rescue boats to observe the balloons from the water view. It was spectacular to watch dozens of balloons hover over the water. Several brave pilots would even touch down their baskets on or in the water before rising up again and floating over the glass-like water. If balloons flew too close to the California border, a pontoon boat could tether up to them and pull them back to the Arizona shores. Besides boats, the lake was sprinkled with kayakers and paddle boarders who were eager to get an up close view of the balloons. A few were even close enough to a balloon basket to give the passengers a high five when they came down for a dip in the lake. It was a spectacular sight!
We became friends with two pilots, Bruce Sidlinger and Dave Reineke. Dino shadowed Dave and his crew, while I shadowed Bruce. When Dave had an opening in his schedule he took Dino and Avery up on a tethered ride over the balloon field. On the last day, Avery and I were able to go up with Bruce on a sunrise flight.
Right after we took off we got into a current that took us to the border. Luckily a rescue boat came and got us, and we were able to be towed back to shore. He dunked our basket several times in the water, and completely drenched our feet. Then we headed toward the channel that took us toward the London Bridge. It was such a picturesque scene floating through the heart of the park where people walk their dogs and hang out on park benches.
Once we reached the London Bridge we had to ascend over the buildings and find a place to land. Unfortunately our nearly two hour adventure was coming to an end. As we climbed to our highest level in the air, the vistas were amazing. The lake below us, the mountains in front of us, the balloons surrounding us – everywhere I turned I felt like I was looking at a postcard.
We found a baseball field that was occupied by baseball practices, so we thought. Once we landed, the players came over to inform us that we were actually interrupting a game. They were patient with us as we disembarked, and with the help of our chase team, broke down the balloon and packed it away. Once they were finished with the balloon maintenance, Avery and I were given the same new balloonist toast, prayer and initiation ritual. It was a joyful way to end the wonderful morning.
Every pilot we met that weekend was gracious, and you could feel their passion for the sport exuding from them. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and by the end of the weekend I think each of us was secretly contemplating what it would take to become a balloonist ourselves. I hope our path will put us back in Havasu again soon, preferably during the next annual balloon festival.
All images via Shannon Watt