On calm summer mornings, a massive colorful hot air balloon rises from the middle of Lake Tahoe. It hangs silently in the blue sky, drifting in the breeze, before dropping back down and disappearing on the water’s surface.
Operated by Lake Tahoe Balloons, the hot air balloon is launched from and lands on a 120-foot barge that slips onto the water at dawn. The boat-balloon combination is the only such operation in the world.
“What we do is a combined effort,” pilot Mark Boulet said. “I do the up-and-down part. When the captain is happy with our position, he’ll drive the boat under the balloon.”
Though hot air ballooning has been around since the late 1700s, flying in the mountains was widely regarded as too dangerous due to constantly changing weather conditions. Today, advances in weather forecasting equipment and one specially built jumbo barge, allow the company to safely hover in the skies above Lake Tahoe.
“Fifteen years ago, nobody flew a hot air balloon in the mountains unless it was a daredevil thing. But now, because of the number of sensors, you can tell is it’s going to be a safe day,” Lake Tahoe Balloons owner Harvey 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.”
If it is a good day, Hoy, Boulet and a crew of four along with a basket load of guests make their way from the barge’s home in the Tahoe Keys to the lake. As the boat travels to the launch point, Hoy releases helium-filled balloons and watches how they rise, what direction they float and whether they make any strange movements.
“Understanding the weather is the biggest thing,” Hoy said. “The winds can change in minutes.”
Once in position, the crew inflates the balloon, initially on its side, using giant fans. The guests climb into the wicker basket and Boulet pulls the throttle. A geyser of flame roars upward and the craft lifts slowly off. The boat, longer than a basketball court, shrinks away.
As Boulet lets off the propane, the ride floats in silence. The balloon levels out just higher than Mount Tallac. Fallen Leaf Lake looks like a big blue jellybean. The passengers stare across Lake Tahoe in awe.
“I’ve done helicopters and parasailing, but that was just so peaceful,” said Cindy Hogan, a visitor from Oregon, who took a recent flight with Lake Tahoe Balloons.