Today, we will be amongst thousands of people who visit Canada's largest balloon Festival in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. Some Balloon Pilots and visitors have traveled far and wide to attend this unique event. With an average of 350 000 visitors per year, the festival presents a vast array of activities for children and parents alike: concerts, stand-up comedy, carnival games and rides, a petting zoo and much more!
In less than thirty minutes, we arrive at The Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu Airport from Montreal. The Air-stip has been magically transformed into a colorful wonderland. As I make my way through the crowd, my senses are flooded by countless neon lights, children's laughter, blearing pop music and occasional screams of people on rides in the amusement park. The atmosphere literally vibrates with life. I observe with curiosity the great variety of visitors: a mother calling her mischievous son, parents taking pictures with their children, young lovers holding hands, toddlers gazing at passers-by, elderly couples reclining in picnic chairs, balloon enthusiasts scanning the sky above in anticipation for what lies ahead.
As sunset draws near, most everyone anxiously listens to the announcements regarding weather conditions. Since the festival's organizers believe that safety comes first, the balloons are only allowed to take off if the weather conditions satisfy the necessary requirements. Even in this era of modern technology, we still remain at the mercy of Mother Nature! As we are scheduled for a flight in a balloon, I grow alarmed at the strong gusts of wind, which do not seem to diminish. A mass of ominous clouds gathers over our heads and a growing anxiety can be felt both amongst pilots and visitors. To distract ourselves, we ask our pilot about his balloon. It is indeed the only home-built balloon at this year's festival. Dan Helmboldt informs us that he built his special-shaped Tweetie Bird himself at his home in Colorado, using but a simple industrial sowing machine… It is quite an accomplishment, since Tweetie's eyes are a mere 22 feet tall and 9 feet wide! He further explains that there are less than a dozen special-shaped home-made balloons in the world. At the International Balloon Festival of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, one can find other fun-shaped balloons (such as a panda, a rooster, a beaver, a daisy, a pair of bees, a pirate in a barrel, etc.), but they are all factory-made. In total, this year's festival is proud to present 115 different balloons from all over the world.
At 6:30 p.m., the wind has not decreased. Everyone has hoped that the wind would settle down (which usually happens at the end of the day) and some disappointed visitors are ready to leave. However, at everyone's great surprise, the decision committee finally grants permission for take-off. In less than ten minutes, more than fifty balloons spring out of nowhere. There is no time to lose. The race against time begins, for all balloons must land before sunset. Our pilot considers the weather conditions to be too risky and decides not to take any chances. Ballooning can be quite a dangerous hobby, especially in such perilous conditions as a strong wind, fog or even the lack of wind (since in the absence of wind, the balloons might be unable to find an appropriate place to land). My slight disappointment soon vanishes when I learn that we will be able to witness a Night Glow – an unforgettable experience during which balloons light up at night.
On the following day we are extremely lucky to have quasi-ideal weather. This time, we are scheduled to fly with one of the local pilots. We lift off at 6:55 p.m. for a fifty-five-minute flight. Initially, I feel overwhelmed by anxiety at seeing the festival site grow smaller and smaller. Nevertheless, as I admire the breathtaking landscape in every direction, I forget about my fears and marvel at the beauty of nature. We rapidly ascend to an altitude of 2500 feet and cross The Richelieu River in the stillness and serenity of the pre-evening sky. The air is crisp and I feel transported into a land beyond time. We can see the other balloons floating at different altitudes, like so many colorful dots in the distance. The scenery bathes in a golden light, the setting sun reflected by The Saint-Lawrence River. We descend above a corn field and our pilot François Doucet desplays his skills by grazing the field with the gondola (the basket). It is as if we were sailing in a sea of corn; a truly unforgettable moment. Guided by the wind, we ascend again, floating gently until the pilot spots a good place to land. As we approach, he asks the field's owner for permission to descend. Farmers who accept balloons on their property are rewarded with a bottle of Champaign, an age-old tradition. Within minutes, the chase-crew (the team which follows us on the ground) arrives and helps us fold the balloon, just before the sun dips into the horizon. As we drive back to the site of the festival, I wonder if all this was not just a dream – what an out-of-world experience!