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Ballooning over Belview

We were 30 seconds into our flight and 10 feet off the ground when the realization hit me: “This is really going to be a lot of fun!” My husband, Paul, and I were taking off in the hot air balloon Too Fun, piloted by its owner John Lewis. Our starting point was a farmsite along the south edge of the Minnesota River Valley, just a few miles north of Belview. Our landing spot? Well, that was going to depend a little on the wind currents and a lot on the skill of our pilot. Belview, population 375, is located 11miles northwest of Redwood Falls – as the hot air balloon flies; it’s 15 miles away if one needs to use ground transportation. In January 2011, the Minnesota State Senate approved a Senate Resolution – authored by Senator Gary Dahms (Senate District 21) – designating Belview as the “Hot Air Balloon Capital of Minnesota.” Belview has more hot air balloons per capita than any other municipality in the state. They have two balloons. “We’re having a lot of fun with it!” City Clerk Lori Ryer said of Belview’s claim to fame. Lori was part of our balloon’s ground crew and gave me a reassuring pat on the arm and a “you’re doing great!” mini pep talk as we lifted off. This would be in response to my admitting to her earlier in the day that I was excited and somewhat terrified at the thought of floating high in the sky in a wicker basket. (I seriously don’t like heights. Any heights. While my husband enjoys walking all the way to the edge of any high place he happens to be, I’m much happier at least 15 feet back from the precipice in question.) But when the opportunity arose to fly in a hot air balloon (and live to write about it afterwards) the choice was easy – let’s go! John and Barb Lewis have been flying Too Fun, an 84,000 cubic foot Cameron balloon, since 2000. “If you could fill it with water, the envelope (that’s the balloon part) would hold 634,000 gallons of water,” John explained as we drove out of Belview toward our launch site. “The Belview water tower,” he said pointing toward the northeast edge of town, “holds 50,000 gallons.” Filled with air, Too Fun stands seven stories tall. The Lewis’s were living in Beldenville, Wisconsin (near River Falls) when they began flying Too Fun. That’s an entire state away from the prairie and Belview, begging the question: what exactly brought them to Belview? “The mayor’s wife is into balloons,” Barb said smiling, but in all seriousness. Marlo and Kim Sander (Belview’s mayor and his better half) had been regularly attending the Hudson (Wisconsin) “Hot Air Fair.” Soon they began looking for pilots willing to bring their balloons and be a part of Belview’s annual celebration, Old SOD Day. John and Barb took them up on the offer. “I came down Main Street and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up,” John explained. “I knew I belonged here.” John and Barb introduced ballooning friends Bill and Bonnie Marhoun to the friendly, small town.  Eventually, both couples – and their respective hot air balloons, Too Fun and Liberty Belle – relocated to the Minnesota prairie. And so that’s how it came to be that, a handful of years later, we were caravanning north out of Belview toward our launch site. Upon arrival, the balloon owners and ground crews piled out of a half-dozen vehicles. John produced a small black balloon, filled with helium. The balloon was released to show “what the upper winds are doing.” That decided, the crew – under the careful direction of the pilots – began unloading the “big balloons” from their trailers. The baskets (and yes, they really are wicker – with leather bottoms) came out of the trailers and the supports (which hold up the propane burner) were attached to the baskets. Too Fun’s basket is (give or take) four-feet wide by three-feet deep by three-feet tall – just big enough for the three of us and a couple of propane tanks. Once the base of the balloon was set up, the envelope was pulled from its very large tote and stretched out along the ground – in Too Fun’s case, all 70 feet and 270 pounds of it. Gas powered, five h.p. fans were then fired up to “cold fill” the balloon so that it could be raised up above the propane burner-fitted basket. It takes an experienced crew of five about 15 minutes to set up a balloon. With Liberty Belle and her passengers on our right, we began our ascent. As we nudged up above the trees lining the river valley, the only sounds were the on-and-off whoosh of the propane as John maneuvered the balloon and the occasional lowing from the cattle pastures way below. Conversing is easy high in the air (between propane whooshes) and John began to explain the intricacies involved in the sport of hot air ballooning. A little wind is good, we learned; a lot of wind is not. Winds of three to seven miles per hour are ideal. “In the wintertime, we can fly anytime, weather permitting,” he said. “In the summer, right at sunrise or two hours before sunset is best. Otherwise we’ve got thermals to contend with.” Hot air balloons are regulated by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) which requires all hot air balloon pilots to be licensed as commercial pilots for “lighter than air” craft. As we approached an altitude of 250 feet – and I had long since relaxed my grip on the basket – I asked John if being a balloon pilot was one of those life-long dreams. “No, it just kind of happened,” John said. “Bill taught me how to fly.” That was back in their Wisconsin days when Bill was buying hay from John, Bill looked around John’s place and said “this would be a neat place for a balloon rally.” “A couple of weeks later he’s knocking on my door … ‘let’s go for a ride’.” That’s all it took. John, and Barb very soon after, were hooked on balloons. From our vantage point in the wicker basket high above the Minnesota River Valley, it was easy to understand. “When the basket leaves the ground, everything is right with the world,” John said. But busy – for the pilot, anyway. “You have to keep an eye on your group, watch for power lines and watch for your crew on the ground,” he said. John pulled up over the top of a huge cottonwood tree growing on the river bank and Paul plucked a few leaves from the very top before we descended down to the water for a “dip and dash.” Just like it sounds, John gently dipped the bottom of the basket into the water (which came in and up to our ankles – refreshing!), then we dashed back up past the tree tops. We ascended to 900 feet – the cars and the cattle are really tiny down there! Then we were up to 1500 feet! Oh, my! We could see all the way to Renville, 10 miles to the north. From that height, the prairie spreads out in all directions just like a patchwork tapestry (done all in greens, of course), with the Minnesota River stitching its way through the  middle and teeny farmhouses and barns scattered throughout. It was kind of a reality check to come back down to earth a few minutes later and skim the top of some soybeans for awhile. So, as any good Minnesotans will do, we discussed the weather for awhile:  The summer air temperature is only four degrees cooler at 1500 feet than it is at ground level. In the winter, however, it’s significantly warmer up there than down in the snow pack. Back way up above the trees again and, all too soon,  John began looking for a landing spot. We’d been in the air for about 45 minutes and traveled about four miles. The ground crews, who had been balloon chasing, arrived as we were making our final descent and, in less than a half an hour, both balloons were packed in their respective trailers and ready for the next flight. “I don’t know of any words to describe what you just did,” John said of our first hot air balloon flight. He’s right.  But I do know Paul and I will both climb back into one of those wicker baskets first chance we get! There will be at least eight more balloons in Belview for Old SOD Day weekend. This year’s celebration is Sept. 17, with events scheduled on the 16th and 18th as well. (Old SOD Day has been going on in Belview the third Saturday of every September for decades. SOD stands for School, Odeon Hall, and Depot – three of the town’s historic landmarks.)

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