Balloons over Steamboat

Annual event launches into 22nd year with wide variety of activities

— Hot air balloons in a rainbow of colors sprinkled the sky around Mt. Werner yesterday morning during the 22nd annual Balloon Rodeo.

The Balloon Rodeo, which included balloon launches and games on Saturday and today was a part of Steamboat Springs' Rainbow Weekend. The annual balloon shine scheduled for Saturday night was canceled because of high winds.

The weekend also featured Art in the Park and performances by Strings in the Mountains and Perry-Mansfield students.

As always, watching the balloons on Meadows Lot fill up with hot air and take off into the sky was a highlight for many people.

Riding along in baskets were people with lives as vivid and varied as the colors and patterns of the balloons.

Such as pilot Maria Bousselaire of Lakewood, whose father and sister were also piloting balloons.

Bousselaire said the Steamboat balloon show is one of her favorites because she gave birth to her son a few days before the show six years ago. Whenever the balloon rodeo falls on July 18, the entire field of balloonists sing "Happy Birthday" to Bousselaire's son after the National Anthem.

Bousselaire became interested in piloting balloons with the encouragement of her father. After she took her first ride in 1988, she was hooked.

"I said, 'no matter what I do in my life, I'm going to fly balloons,'" she said.

Skip Howes of Colorado Springs pilots a balloon at about half a dozen shows each summer. He and his wife started off working on the crew of a pilot about 14 years ago.

Crew members help get the balloon set up, follow it on the ground to help it land and enjoy an occasional ride in the basket.

His first experience controlling the balloon seeded his love of flying.

"One day (the pilot) took us up for a ride and he turned to me and said, 'Want to try it?'" Howes said. "My hand went up to the burner and the flames went 'wosh, wosh,' and my adrenaline went, 'wosh, wosh, wosh.'"

Howes said although flying can be hard work, it is also a nice break from life on the ground.

"It's very quiet and very relaxing," he said. "You're flying on the wings of the wind."

It's that passion for flying in a balloon that brought 44 balloonists from all over Colorado to the Steamboat balloon rodeo this year.

The excitement of watching the balloons fill up, rise into the sky and compete in the rodeo games is enough to get hundreds of Steamboat residents and tourists out of bed and onto the fields just after the sun has risen.

"I just thought that it was amazing that so many people knew to get up at 6 a.m. and walk down here," said resident Flo Hencken, who was at the show for the first time.

Entire families came out and craned their heads towards the sky as the balloons took off.

"They love it," said Sue Winters about her two young sons. "They love the colors and the noises."

Winters' 4-year-old son Billy said his favorite part was watching the blue, orange and white Broncos balloon.

The crowd cheered loudly as the balloonists competed in two balloon rodeo games. To get points to win prizes, pilots tried to pop weather balloons using nail-studded broomsticks and tried to toss rope rings around a plastic steer head on the field.

"Well, we try but it's not all that serious," said Steve Fenn, a pilot from Lafayette. "It's fun competition."

Steamboat pilot Bill Butler, the postmaster in town, agreed that it's tough to practice for the games, especially since most balloon shows have different ones.

"You just get going and you try to exercise your best flying skills," he said.

Butler has piloted his own balloon since 1990. He said he tries to get children who are watching the shows involved in the setup process.

As he worked to prepare his balloon for flying yesterday, he explained the process to a group of adults and children. At one time he showed the children how to pull the balloon's fabric up and out as a large fan blew cold air into it.

"What we're doing is we're blowing up the balloon," Butler said to the group of half a dozen children following him around. "You guys are called fluffers."

They smiled and one girl shouted, "Ooooh, we're the fluffers!"

Some people are happy to stay on the ground.

Ed Bosier of Littleton has worked as a crewmember for the last decade, and although he was a commercial pilot for Continental Airlines, he said he does not plan on flying balloons and doesn't even love to ride in them.

"I try not to fly in it very often," he said, "because you can't control the damn thing."

Hot air balloons are steered completely by the wind. At different elevations, wind moves at different speeds and in different directions. Adding more hot air to the balloon or letting it out makes the balloon go up and down so it can reach different wind currents to ride.

Sometimes that means balloons end up landing in inconvenient places.

Bosier said he has seen balloons land in irrigation ditches, golf courses and even busy roads.

"After awhile when you run out of wind and you run out of ideas, you just land," Bosier said.

Balloonists said that around Steamboat air currents are such that it's often possible to land in the take-off spot, a feat that is usually a challenge.

Yesterday, the lack of wind made that more difficult.

One balloon hovered a few feet above and to the side of Highway 40 east of town for about five minutes yesterday, but then the pilot found a breeze to start back towards Meadows Lot.

In-the-air etiquette for ballooning is straightforward: The balloon closer to the ground has the right-of-way because it can't see balloons above it.

Sometimes balloon envelopes, the fabric that makes the balloon, bump each other.

"It's called kissing," said Bill Wright, a crewmember for one of the balloons. "You just float along together."

Organizers of the event agreed that it was successful this year.

"Our sponsors have come through this year, the volunteers are just flowing in," said committee member and balloon sponsor Connie Tilley. "It's been good."

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