Balloon ride offers serenity in the sky
ABOVE SOUTH LAKE TAHOE – My ears popped as pilot Aaron Dieringer blew the propane burner and took a dozen people to 13,000 feet early Thursday morning. And we weren’t on foot or wheels.
Lake Tahoe looks, feels and sounds a whole lot different from a hot air balloon. The shores are carved out as a jigsaw puzzle piece. Landmarks some never see from the trail or road open up – including mountains as far away as Yosemite National Park.
It’s a scene like no other. After the balloon was launched off a large barge that serves as a certified aviation facility, not a word came out of the “aeronauts,” as we were called by the crew of Lake Tahoe Balloons.
About the only thing that broke the silence was the occasional whooshing of the propane burner, along with some radio chatter and distant murmur of boats. They resembled toys in a bathtub.
There was a feeling of weightlessness as the basket drifted up and down, ascending and dropping 100 or 300 feet a minute at a time.
Early on, Dieringer descended to allow the basket to kiss the lake. A vivid reflection of the balloon’s colors could be seen off the lake’s surface.
Then, he called out – 3,000, 4,000 and 5,000 feet above the lake, and upon our ascent, Carson Valley came into full view. A plane landed at the Lake Tahoe Airport, but it looked a half inch long. As synchronized personal watercraft at the mouth of Emerald Bay drew wakes like firework streams 5,000 feet below, Pyramid and Dick’s peaks towered above the Desolation Wilderness.
Still, halfway into the flight, the group was speechless as Dieringer pointed out varying landmarks.
“Some of those hills still have snow from the year before. When we start this season, we’ll have three seasons (worth) there,” Dieringer said, glancing over toward Emerald Bay.
A balloon rider can see how the snow melts from the high country, filters the sediment through the marshland and then empties into the lake. A large green swath with brown streaks swirled out from the Tahoe Keys channel.
“We lost some of (the marsh), and you can see it’s affecting the quality of the water,” Dieringer said, providing a brief lesson in lake clarity to visitors. According to co-owner Harley Hoy, almost half of their customers come from Texas, and Florida and California split 30 percent. Anniversaries and birthdays dominate the occasions.
For some families, the event is nostalgic. The Elliotts have spent years coming to Tahoe, but this summer Laura Elliott of Houston wanted to relive and recapture the magic and mystery of a visit with her teenage son Connor 13 years ago. She talked the Wellman family into going with them.
“I have a photograph of him at (age) 4 standing on the beach back there looking up at this big balloon. I always wanted to do it,” she said from the boat.
After the flight, she said the trip was incredible.
“We whispered the whole time,” she said.
It was also a special time for South Shore man Argenis Flores, who returned to fly with his fiancé Aneta Czapla, after windy weather kept them from going up in the balloon a week ago. He was going to propose marriage. He ended up doing so at Cave Rock.
“She’s worth it,” he said, while holding a glass of champagne in his hand on the return boat home. The two dozen customers – broken up into two flying groups – had just toasted their safe returns.
Lake Tahoe Balloons co-owner Harley Hoy pointed the champagne bottle toward the 475-pound bag holding a deflated balloon.
“If the cork falls in the (bag), it’s good luck,” he said.
When the Hoys took over the hot air ballooning operation in the last few years, the business became a culmination of two companies – Balloons Over Lake Tahoe and the former Lake Tahoe Balloons. The Hoys bought the launching and chase boats from the two respective companies. Their capital investment also includes hot air balloons, which at a cost of about $100,000, span 87 feet wide, 98 feet high. They last the company about two years.
Hot air ballooning comes with a unique history.
The first hot air balloon was invented in 1783 by Parisian brothers Jacques and Joseph Montgolfier, with the latter’s birth date celebrated in 10 days 266 years ago. They made the discovery after being enamored with papers taking flight over fire. They sent up a rooster, sheep and duck on a test flight. On their own flight, the brothers supposedly brought champagne as a peace offering to property owners when they landed.