By Don Nelson
Kurt Oakley never offers — ahem — inflated promises about what to expect during the annual Winthrop Balloon Roundup. But if weather conditions are good, as many as 20 brightly colored hot-air balloons from around the region will drift languidly over the Methow Valley on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings (March 7 – 9).
It’s an eye-catching spectacle and a photographer’s delight, and the watching is free.
Oakley and his wife, Melinda, owners of Morning Glory Balloon Tours, have done most of the organizing for the 16 previous roundups. The event is hosted by Gene Westlund, owner of the Winthrop Inn on Highway 20. The Winthrop Chamber of Commerce provides promotional support, with sponsorship help from Pine Near RV Park and Rivers Edge Resort.
And this year, Oakley said, Okanogan County Energy (a subsidiary of Okanogan County Electric Cooperative) will provide free propane for all the visiting balloonists, who use propane burners to inflate their craft.
“It’s a big ‘thank you’ to the balloonists,” Oakley said.
Balloon inflation and launching will begin at 7 a.m. each day in the field behind the Winthrop Inn. Oakley will brief the pilots and make a hard-and-fast decision about whether it’s a good day to fly, based not only on current weather conditions but also what is expected. It doesn’t take much of a breeze to cause trouble for the balloons, Oakley said. Viewers are asked not bring their dogs.
On Saturday evening, a couple of balloons will be inflated on Riverside Avenue in Winthrop, starting at 6 p.m., for the annual Night Glow. This year, one of the balloons may be a 30-year-old “antique,” Oakley said, adding that most balloons don’t last that long.
After their early morning launches, the balloons generally meander south along the Methow River between Winthrop and Twisp, although they’ve been known to go the other direction, Oakley said. Most will be on the ground by 10 a.m., after finding a safe place to set down.
Often, that is on someone’s private property. Oakley said anyone who has questions or concerns can call Morning Glory at 997-1700.
While the balloons are aloft, “chase crews” try to follow their course from vehicles on the roads below, so that they can deflate and pack up the balloons after they land. Volunteers are still needed for chase crews, Oakley said, and anyone interested can also call Morning Glory. “It’s a great way to learn the sport,” Oakley said.
The best spots for viewing and photography are along Highway 20, Witte Road and Old Twisp Highway between Winthrop and Twisp, or on Twisp-Winthrop Eastside Road.
As for lighter-than-air trips, Oakley said his balloon is booked up and most of the spots are spoken for on the visiting balloons. He said it’s OK to call Morning Glory and inquire. “Occasionally there’s an opening,” he said.