Balloon Roundup not grounded by COVID
By Don Nelson
Last year’s annual Winthrop Balloon Roundup launched just as the COVID pandemic was setting off a cascading cancelation of public events.
The popular gathering of hot air balloon enthusiasts and delighted observers went off as planned in the first week of March. Everything started to change rapidly after that.
The Roundup is back this year for its 24th iteration, the weekend of March 5-7. It is somewhat scaled back, but will still be a spectator-friendly event as it all occurs outside, where COVID-appropriate social distancing is possible.
Kurt Oakley and his wife, Melinda, who own Morning Glory Balloon Tours, launched the Balloon Roundup in 1997. Oakley said last week that while the event typically draws about 20 balloonists from around the area, this year he is expecting about a dozen.
The Winthrop Chamber of Commerce is coordinating the balloon gathering. On its website the chamber notes that the number of spectators at the launch site — a field behind the Winthrop Inn — will be limited to 200, under existing statewide guidelines for outdoor gatherings. That’s quite a few more than usually show up at 7 a.m., when the balloons launch each morning. Masks will be required.
“It will be prudent for people to show some caution and common sense,” Oakley said.
Most observers follow the balloons as they drift down-valley, generally along the path of the Methow River, before alighting. The flying is usually over by about 9 a.m.
“It’s not so much of an up-close-and-personal, hug-a-balloon-pilot sort of thing,” Oakley said. “Most people are there for the panoramas.”
Good viewing spots can be found on Highway 20, Witte Road and Old Twisp Highway. There is no charge for spectating. Launch viewers are asked to park at the Methow Valley Thriftway, and not on the road or at Winthrop Ace Hardware.
Missing this year will be the Saturday night “Balloon Glow” event, which has typically featured a couple of balloonists inflating their craft on Riverside Avenue. Organizers are “acting on the side of caution” by canceling the Balloon Glow, Oakley said, to avoid close personal contacts. “We understand how entertaining it is, but discretion is the better part of valor,” Oakley said.
Meteorological conditions determine whether the craft take off each morning. Flying balloons is weather-dependent, mainly dictated by the winds. Balloon pilots have extensive flight training, and ballooning is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Other sponsors include Glassworks of Winthrop, Three Fingered Jack’s, River’s Edge Resort and River Run Inn & Cabins.
For more information, visit https://winthropwashington.com/events.