By L. Scott Swanson, Editor Straitsland Resorter
|Riding in a gondola, 1,800 feet in the air over
the middle of Burt Lake, suddenly I had an overwhelming feeling
that I didn't want to be there.
As these photos attest, I rode over Burt Lake and Indian River in a hot air balloon Sunday morning. Quite a trip.
To begin with, when I left the house, I didn't know exactly what I was in for. I figured they were just going to take me up in the air a little way, I'd take some pictures, the balloon would come back down, I'd be home in 45 minutes. No big deal.
I arrived at the RE/MAX office at about 6:50 a.m. A few minutes later people start showing up. Wayne and Diane Stahl, some other RE/MAX people, John and Grace Lover, the balloon pilot Tom Bergeon and his wife.
Grace and I were the designated passengers, selected in a drawing which was part of the RE/MAX grand opening. John's name was selected, but being pastor of the United Methodist Church he was busy Sunday morning so he gave his spot to Grace. A couple of other names were drawn for the second spot, but for various reasons they couldn't go. Eventually they drew their way down to me.
Tom and his wife had the gondola riding on a little metal platform
attached to the back of their SUV. Realizing I'd be spending some
time in this gondola thing, I start looking it over a little closer.
I don't speak French, Swiss, Italian or whatever language the
word "gondola" is derived from, but translated into
English the word gondola means "glorified picnic basket."
Built to be light, but sturdy the gondola is kind of wicker type
contraption about as big as an office desk.
We drove out to Ellinger Road to launch the balloon. First we spread the balloon out on the ground and hooked a bunch of cables to the gondola. A big fan and inflated the balloon. The balloon holds 90,000 cubic feet of hot air, even more than...oh, I best not name names. Air in the balloon is heated by flames from two big propane torches. Each torch has a handle. When the pilot wants to gain altitude, he reaches up and squeezes a torch handle. That puts more hot air in the balloon and up you go.
| As the ground crew held on, Tom and Grace
and I climbed into the gondola. Once we were situated, they turned
us loose and it was up and away. I was amazed by how smoothly
the balloon lifted off and by how quickly everything on the ground
shrunk into the distance.
In no time we were nearly 1,000 feet in the air drifting out over Burt Lake. I looked down at the lake and at the things on the ground trying to get my bearings. As we rose higher and higher I saw Crooked Lake off in the distance.
For the first few minutes, I had fun and felt fine. Grace and I looked around and enjoyed the view. I asked Tom how he got into flying balloons and he told me that several members of his family flew, but that bouncing around bothered him so instead of planes, he began flying balloons because they provide a quieter and smoother ride. And he's right. Floating above that lake, it's hard to imagine anything more peaceful and serene.
|| Then I got the cameras out and started
taking pictures. I brought along two cameras; a 35 mm with a
wide angle lens; and a digital with a zoom lens.
I held onto a cable with my left hand and took pictures with my right hand. I'm used to being able to move around when I take pictures, but I realized that probably wasn't a good idea. And as I took pictures, for some reason it struck me just how far I was off the ground. I began to feel odd. Kind of nervous, weak and wobbly. Not a pleasant feeling.
During the next few minutes, I grew tense. I felt like I was in a place where I really didn't want to be and there was no way to leave. With my left hand, I held onto one of the cables with a death grip. I felt the palms of my hands sweating.
When you get nervous in a situation like that, your mind gets far more active than it needs to be.
I considered telling the pilot that I'd had enough fun and it was time to land this thing. In my mind, I thought about how that conversation would play.
"I've had enough. Bring this thing down. I want out."
"But we're over the middle the lake."
"I don't care. I want out."
"Can you swim?"
"Not well. But better than I can fly."
Running that conversation through my mind, I concluded it made no sense so I didn't say anything. I put the camera down on the seat and thought about sitting down myself. But sitting down would have required moving and I didn't want to move. Sitting down would have required temporarily letting go of the cable I was clenching and I wasn't about to do that. So I just stood there looking around and trying to think calming thoughts. Inhale. Exhale.
After a few minutes I felt better and I picked up the camera again and took more pictures. As we approached the mouth of the Sturgeon River and DeVoe Beach the variations in the colors of the lake where the Sturgeon empties its water and where the lake drops off were an impressive sight.
As we came over land, I started trying to pick out specific places and get photos. I took pictures of the Indian River and various places in town.
Floating over the center of town, we looked down and saw a large group of people on the street near the intersection of Straits Highway and Martha Street.
"What are those people there for?" the pilot asked.
"They're getting ready to run a race," I said.
The pilot hollered, "Hello runners."
I'm not sure if the runners even heard us. We didn't hear them holler back. I took a couple of pictures.
| Looking ahead, we saw the airport in the
distance. The pilot said we would try to land there. That was
fine by me.
We began our descent. I began to feel a sense of relief. Steering hot air balloons isn't as precise as steering a car or a plane. You are to a great degree at the mercy of the winds. Coming in at the north end of the airport we saw some wires. The pilot radioed the ground crew. We were too close to the wires. We would have to land somewhere else.
He squeezed the torch handle and back up we went to 1,200 feet. So much for my sense of relief. We drifted over Cochran and Roberts Lakes, looking ahead for a suitable open spot to land. We spotted a clear cut area near the corner of Onaway Road and West M-68. Once again the wind didn't cooperate and we missed the edge.