File photo by Marcy Stamper Get your camera ready for this weekend’s Winthrop Balloon Roundup.

File photo by Marcy Stamper

Get your camera ready for this weekend’s Winthrop Balloon Roundup.

Annual event draws balloonists, visitors from around the Northwest

By Don Nelson

Kurt Oakley’s introduction to hot air ballooning was as a “chaser” — part of the ground crew that follows a balloon to where it lands and helps pack it up.

Then he got off the ground for a balloon ride. Not long after that he had his own balloon.

As Oakley jokes, his life has been up in the air ever since.

This week, Oakley and his wife, Melinda, owners of Morning Glory Balloon Tours, are again organizing a gathering of like-minded folks: the 19th annual Winthrop Balloon Roundup. The three-day festival, which runs from Friday (March 4) through Sunday (March 6), will draw up to 20 balloonists, mostly from the Northwest.

Balloons are scheduled to rise from a field behind the Winthrop Inn on Highway 20 about 7 a.m. each day, weather conditions permitting. Balloons need nearly still air to safely drift down the Methow River Valley, which is where they generally go. Under good conditions, they are typically aloft for up to two hours.

On Saturday at 6 p.m., a portion of Riverside Avenue in Winthrop will be closed for the free “balloon glow” event during which balloons are inflated in the street.

Spectators can watch it all for free. Sunny weather and a sky full of colorful balloons will create a frenzy among photographers. 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.

Checking conditions

Oakley continuously checks detailed weather reports before the scheduled flights to ensure that conditions are suitable for flying. A general forecast for the entire valley area may not be the determining factor, however. “We have our own little micro-climate here,” he said.

If you are interested in being part of a chase crew to follow and pick up balloonists when they land, contact Oakley at 997-1700.

“Visitors love to have someone local” on their chase crew, Oakley said.

Viewers are asked not to bring their dogs. Property owners who have concerns about where the balloons might land can also call Oakley at the same number.

Ballooning is not for control freaks. Weather conditions have much to do with whether the balloons will lift off, and how they’ll do once airborne. But Oakley pointed out that balloon pilots are not helpless — they can maneuver their craft to fly safely. “We have control and can avoid things,” Oakley said.

Hot air balloons are registered and inspected according to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. Balloon pilots are certified through the FAA and must have a commercial rating to fly for hire.

Between the balloon festival and the continued good Nordic skiing, the Methow Valley can expect a heavy influx of visitors over the weekend. Lodging in the valley is expected to be full or nearly so.

“I’ve heard from the regulars,” Oakley said. A few balloonists have been coming since the first roundup in 1998; others may be here for the first time this weekend.

The festival is presented by Morning Glory Balloons and sponsored by the Winthrop Inn, KOZI Radio, the Chewuch Inn, Pine Near RV Park, Okanogan Energy, Rivers Edge Resort, Common Sense Custom Homes, Hotel Rio Vista, Freestone Inn and the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce. For more information, visit www.balloonwinthrop.com or http://winthropwashington.com/event/winthrop-balloon-festival.