Rise with the sun: Ballooning at Lake Tahoe
July 19, 2013
Lake Tahoe's blue is seldom more vivid than when viewed from the spellbinding heights of a hot air balloon. What also becomes chillingly clear from this vantage is that all that prevents one from tumbling into that perfect cerulean is a waist-high wall of wicker.
I gripped the edge of that basket with white knuckles and smiled as a marriage proposal unfolded sweetly 18 inches from my face. Up until then, I just thought the guy was more scared of heights than I was.
One recent morning before dawn I'd stumbled out of a messy bed and made the call to Lake Tahoe Balloons. Captain and owner Harley Hoy confirmed that the balloon would indeed fly that day. I parked in the still dark lot of Tahoe Keys Marina and watched the lagoon steam with the sunrise.
This would be my first trip aboard man's oldest flying machine. In planning, I'd imagined the calm and silence of hovering above the Sierra in the early morning. Though not inherently acrophobic, I braced for the rush that comes with inhabiting high places. Do look down, I told myself. But little could have prepared me for bearing witness to a proposal.
“The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with his warm hands. You have flown so high and so well that God joined you in laughter and set you gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”
— The Balloonist’s Prayer
"Has anyone ever been on a hot air balloon before?" pilot Mark Boulet asked our small crowd of 11 as we made our way out onto the lake. No one raised their hand.
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"Okay. Us neither. It's supposed to be really fun," he joked.
The 120-foot barge, the only one of its kind, is specially built to launch and land hot air balloons. The boat-balloon team is the only such combination approved by the Federal Aviation Administration in the country. Hoy has been running the business for more than 10 years. Boulet has piloted the balloons for more about 35 years, with 15 of those years at Lake Tahoe, he said.
Backs bent and heads cocked, Boulet and Hoy released helium-filled balloons to monitor the upper elevation winds. If the little yellow orbs spastically flip, change directions or run on a raging river of wind known as a rotor, it might not be the best day to fly, Hoy said. Luckily, that's not their only way of monitoring the weather — which can mean life or death in a hot air balloon.
"Fifteen years ago nobody flew hot air balloons in the mountains unless it was a daredevil thing. But now because of the number of sensors you can tell if it's going to be a safe day," Hoy said. "In the morning, I get up at 3 a.m. and by 3:30 a.m., I know if it's a good day or not."
The crew of four unrolled the massive colorful balloon on deck. A pair of fans blasted air into the hull, inflating it sideways before a fiery shot from the propane tanks righted the whole operation. We — all 1,800 pounds of us — climbed into the wicker grid and waited for liftoff.
Boulet wrenched on the propane and a flame burst out of the burner. Slowly, weightlessness took hold, and the boat began to drop away. The passenger next to me, Brandon, who preferred to not have his last name mentioned, seemed nervous. I watched him carefully. The pilot, on the other hand, was suspiciously comfortable.
"We used to spit over the side and watch the different layers of air move," Boulet said, yanking the propane for more fire and hot air.
Something strange happened. Cameras were being exchanged and I could tell a momentous occasion was about to take place. I edged toward the wicker and hung on.
"She thinks she's here for her birthday. Here it goes," Brandon announced to the crowd, motioning toward his girlfriend, Melissa.
"I love us…," he continued.
Brandon dropped down on one knee and I backed away from the action, trying to avoid intruding on the moment without tipping over the wicker. He popped the question. She said yes. Everyone cheered. It was a relief, as the ride down could have become suddenly awkward. My knuckles eased.
Below us, the barge, like a big green beetle, followed our trail through the sky. The South Shore's shallows glowed verdigris above the sandy bottom. The balloon drifted east. We topped out above 10,000 feet.
Just as we had ascended, the balloon slipped downward steadily. After a quick photo opportunity, the balloon touched down on the barge. Its giant swirling pattern deflated like a jellyfish caught in a basket.
Back at the dock, we rounded out the trip with tradition. Hoy popped a bottle, letting the cork fly. It landed with a bounce in the basket. Good luck. He recited The Balloonist's Prayer and poured the bubbly.
"Some people call this champagne," he said. "Balloonists, we call it breakfast."