Monday, May 27, 2013

Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival

A view from my back yard. Balloon Festival 2013 is June 14 and 15.

OK, you are not seeing things. That was the view from my backyard a few Sundays ago. And I am hoping the view will get better and better in June.

The Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival happens every Fathers Day weekend. This year, that is June 14-15. Fifty or more hot air balloons descend on the Foley Sports Complex, 18507 US Highway 98 West, Foley, Alabama each year. Here's the link to the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce. They are the people who put the event on.

The balloons are quite a sight to see floating through the sky. One warning – because the balloons have to fly when the air is still, most flights will happen early in the morning (around 6 a.m.) or in the evening (around 7 p.m.). Weather conditions have to be good, so check the weather before heading out. Weather permitting, there will be a balloon “glow” where balloons stay on the ground, but pilots inflate the “envelopes” (the colorful bags of gas we see) for an otherworldly effect. Get to the festival early!

Big hint: The festival used to offer parking on the grounds, but it has outgrown that. So a free shuttle bus will run from nearby Tanger Outlet to the festival grounds. If you must park on the grounds, it will cost you. Take the shuttle.

There will be tethered rides going up around 25 feet or so at the festival. They have to be purchased in advance, so go to the link above.

There is plenty to do and see on the grounds of the festival. The Disc-Connected K9's are a crowd-pleaser, and there is a craft fair, plenty of food and performers on the festival stage. Come and enjoy!
Oh yes, and once upon a time, I was a reporter. I got to ride a balloon. Here's my account:
Up, up, and away

Part of the fun of being a reporter is getting to go and try things that most don’t get to do.
So it was with the recent Gulf Coast Balloon Festival. The festival organizes a “media day” so TV and print journalists can go behind the scenes and experience whatever and take lots of pictures, write lots of words and hopefully provide some free publicity for the festival.
It’s something a lot of fests and fairs do, and as long as there isn’t some dark or commercial purpose to the event, it’s harmless.
So, when a reporter from a sister paper called and asked if I was up to going and taking some photos, I did not have to be asked twice.
It seemed that a balloon ride was involved.
I thought it was to be a “tethered” ride, one where you only go up 50 or 60 feet, hang for a few minutes and then float back down. At least, that is what I told my mother.
A quick e-mail to the festival’s organizers disabused me of that notion. This was to be a free flight from some field in Foley or near there and we’d drift in the direction of the festival grounds.
Ulp. Now I was very glad that my Mom was a thousand miles away. She was seeing my brother retire from the Marine Corps, and while it seemed that she got one chick safe at last, the oldest was going to fly. Literally.
So, I pored over ballooning Web sites, trying to figure out what I’d gotten myself into. Of course, I came across all the horror stories, tales of balloons getting caught in power lines and other lovely mishaps. I had also covered an emergency landing of a balloon and knew that not all rides are uneventful.
But, I noticed all the companies offering rides, and that this was the fifth year for the festival. If the local media had lost someone or if there had been a bad accident, I know I’d have found it. Besides, killing or maiming the media does not generate good PR.
So, I relaxed, and was really looking forward to the adventure.
Some of those doubts came back when the flight master for the event said that the winds were a little high for ballooning and that landing might be rough. He mentioned that the festival could not guarantee the safety of our cameras. Oh, and anybody with recent surgery or other handicap was to drop out. Now.
That got one local photographer to drop out, and caused a local TV news crew to call their boss for instructions.
You see, a journalist can be replaced. A camera, on the other hand …
Fortunately, the camera I carry is my own, and if it got hurt, I’d be in the hospital, not caring one way or the other. Think Psych ward, doped to the gills.
We broke into groups, and I met my pilot, Ken Garner. He seemed a steady, no nonsense sort, and I learned later he’d taken Chuck Yeager up in his balloon.
Garner had a few “dos and don’ts” for me and the other passenger. Don’t ever touch the red rope, (it releases all the hot air from the “envelope,” the balloonist’s term for the colorful bag that holds the hot air that keeps you aloft) do what he said to do, let him know if we spotted a power line, and stow cameras for landing. And he’d have a release form that basically covered everything. And I do mean everything from pimples to hangnail and much, much, worse. Ulp.
He and his ground crew had Black Magic, a black and multi-colored balloon, together and almost floating in a few minutes.
Of course getting into the basket was something else. The wicker basket is about waist-high to me and Garner had already said there was no ladylike way into it. Fortunately, a member of the crew made a gentlemanly step with his hands and we two passengers were in.
Taking off in a balloon isn’t like a plane. There’s not taxiing, no dash down a runway. One second you are on the ground, the next, you’re aloft.
Oh, and what a view. It’s quiet, except for the burners that keep the air in the envelope hot, and you could hear cows lowing below. We could see the condo towers of Gulf Shores in the distance. Beyond that was the Gulf of Mexico.
We passed over homes and subdivisions and people came out to look at the flotilla of balloons passing overhead. I waved to the kids, knowing that many of them would tell their friends and family about it for years.
It’s not often that you become a memory. Watching the sun set, the other balloons and the whole experience will be one of my treasured memories.
And then Garner said it was time to land. He found a likely field, directed the chase team to it, and descended. It was time to stow the camera, hold on tight, and bend the knees.
We hit, and the wind did drag the balloon and basket. The other passenger landed on top of me. But, we were all fine, if somewhat bruised and that was what was important.
One of the people who lived near the field had crewed for another balloon, and another gentleman came over, his little daughter on his shoulders, and helped pack the balloon away.
If a few minutes, everything was stowed and we were on our way to the festival grounds. The adventure was over.
If the chance comes to ride again next year, I’m going to take it.
And my I add, you should too!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Welcome to Baldwin County, Alabama

We've got the beach. And there is plenty to do when you are not on the beach. With more than 1,500 square miles of territory, and just less than 200,000 people according to the U.S. Census, the county was founded in 1809. Named for someone who never set foot in the area, Baldwin is one of the larger counties in the United States.

Best known for its beaches (Parents Magazine named an Alabama Gulf Coast beach one of its “top 10.” named Gulf Shore and Orange Beach to its best Gulf beaches list.), people may have the impression that we are still oil-fouled from the British Petroleum Macando well oil spill.

Au contraire! The beaches are clean, wildlife is coming back and while there are some effects left, it should not prevent you and your family from having a great time.

Besides, there is more to Baldwin than the beach. There are plenty of fun and educational (but fun!!!) things to do. Visit an old train station, walk a rose trail, take Fido or FiFi to one of our dog parks, play disc golf, go shopping, canoe/kayak/stand up paddle board, learn some history or grab a soda at an old-fashioned fountain. The northern part of the county is woodsy and less-developed, while the southern part (south of I-10) is partly a suburb of Mobile, partly beach, and all fun.

Enjoy your trip, and if you have any suggestions, add them to the comments section!