VIDEO BONUS Two!
BY LINDA MONDOUX
Majestic hot air balloons silently moving across the sky on a puff of breeze — it’s a spectacle of beauty and romance that is rarely seen in Ontario today. Except in Cornwall, where the excitement and adventure of hot air ballooning is re-created each July on the shores of the scenic St. Lawrence River.
The Kinsmen Cornwall Lift-Off
, held July 12-15 in Lamoureux Park on the waterfront, is a premier event and the only hot air balloon festival in Ontario. Little wonder then that the family-friendly festival, which includes live entertainment on the park’s bandshell stage, attracts thousands of visitors from the Ottawa Valley and beyond, including neighbouring New York state.
For those on the ground watching the balloons take off and soar up into the air, it’s truly a sight to behold. Book a ride on one of these colourful dream machines and the experience turns magical. “Unbelievable” is how Michael Galvin, Lift-Off’s director of media relations, describes the feeling.
“Most amazing is that there is no motor, so there’s no engine sound. You’re moving at the speed of the wind ... floating in space,” he tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com as Lift-Off organizers put the finishing touches on the 2012 festival.
Galvin, who has had the thrill of viewing Cornwall up above from a hot air balloon four times, says it’s amazing what you can hear beneath you while gently floating across the sky. “You can hear sounds from such a great distance ... someone putting out their garbage, dogs barking.”
North Americans have had a love affair with hot air balloons since American Ed Yost designed and built the first modern version in 1960. But the tradition goes back to the mid-1700s in Annonay, France, where brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier dreamed up this most unique mode of air travel. They experimented with barn animals (yes, the chickens survived the test flights!), then put humans in the basket while the balloon was tethered to the ground. The first free flight with human passengers — no strings attached — was on Nov. 21, 1783.
Sunrise flights a treat for the senses
This year’s Kinsmen Cornwall Lift-Off, which was established in 1994, features 25 hot air balloons, including the specialty balloons that have become crowd favourites. Among the special-shaped balloons will be a giant Canadian-owned Tyrannosaurus Rex, fresh back from a European tour. The T-Rex is 37 metres tall — that’s almost 122 feet! Joining the dinosaur will be the Purple People Eater, Super FMG and Stinky. “They’re a big hit,” Galvin says of the specialty balloons, some of which will be accepting passengers.
Flights leave at 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. daily during the festival, with the balloon ride lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to 90 minutes, depending on the wind. “I’ve never been up shorter than half an hour,” Galvin says. “The last flight, we were up over 7,500 feet in the air. I could see Casselman (a community 50 kilometres northwest, renowned for its fresh cheese curds)! You lose track of time up there. It’s just fantastic.”
Total flight time, including balloon preparation and retrieval, can last up to three or four hours, again depending on the wind speed and direction. In optimal conditions, the balloons will lift off from a launch site beside Lamoureux Park on the waterfront, with departure moved to the nearby rural hamlet of St. Andrews if the wind conditions aren’t just right. As for landing, again that depends on the wind. It might be a farmer’s field, a parking lot, or even someone’s front yard.
What is known is that you won’t be stranded — a chase crew will follow the balloon wherever it lands, helping to pack it up and transport everything and everyone back to Lamoureux Park. The $175 plus HST ride ($155 if booked before July 1) also includes a souvenir certificate and ceremonial champagne toast upon landing. The tradition dates back to the early ballooning days in France, when the pilot came bearing gifts of champagne for the farmer whose field he had landed in. It was a peace offering designed to signal a friendly visit, rather than an alien invasion.
Seems the first time a balloon landed in a farmer’s field more than 200 years ago, the passengers were so covered in soot from the burner smoke that they were unrecognizable. And no one had ever seen a hot air balloon before. Needless to say, the local farmers were scared witless, believing demons had landed from space, and were prepared to fight off these strange beasts. The pilot smartly decided he’d better come armed with a friendly champagne offering on future flights.
Don't forget to bring your passport!
You won’t have to worry about soot nowadays, as the burners, which do make a considerable noise when they are fired up, are clean-burning. You will have to bring a passport, however, just in case the wind pulls your balloon over the U.S. border (Cornwall is across from Massena, N.Y.) for a landing. Customs agents there don’t particularly like uninvited aliens, either. Organizers also recommend that children that wish to fly be at least 12 years of age, or be at least four feet tall.
You can reserve your flight online, or simply show up at the passenger area before sunrise at 6 a.m., or in the evening at 6 p.m. Organizers say your best chance of walk-on availability is for the sunrise flight.
Even if you don’t like to fly, you’ll want to be at Lift-Off for a firsthand look at the inflation and boarding process, before the hot air balloons take to the sky. And there is plenty else going on at Lamoureux Park during the festival, including a children’s carnival, family fun zone with inflatables and friendly competitions, buskers, seniors’ bingo, classic car show, barbecue tent, beer garden and lots of vendors. There's even fireworks!
Beyond the balloons — the star attraction — Lift-Off is hailed for its musical entertainment at the park’s bandshell. Performers this year include Big Wreck, Burton Cummings, Suzie McNeil, Marianas Trench, The New Cities and fabulous local talent.
Here’s to soft winds and gentle landings!
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. — June 2012