A couple of years after first learning about the annual balloon festival at Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu we finally reserved our tickets for a flight this year. We booked a Saturday evening flight and left Toronto on a Friday afternoon. We left fairly early in the day and had plenty of time to take slower country roads and enjoy the beautiful summer afternoon on the road.
In the morning we planned to head out to the festival right away. The gates open at noon and we arrived there around 11:30, so had to wait a bit to be let through.
Funny enough, there was no sign of balloons at that time, apparently they only start bringing them in and setting them up around 4-5pm for a 6pm take off. There were lots of family and kid oriented activities in the meantime, so we opted to go back into the city of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and explore that instead. We roamed the river shore and the streets for a few hours, notably stopping for a bite in a little café with fun name Manneken Pis. Not sure why they thought the name was appetizing, but the food was good and location and decor fitting. Another place that caught our attention was an antique shop that had a vintage Esso gasoline pump on display, along with a vintage motorcycle and some mouth watering old Coca Cola ads, some featuring 19th century corset-wearing women. We spent some time inside and chatted with the owner, who showed us another vintage bike which was used for flat track racing – a type of race where no brakes are used.
We made our way to the passenger waiting area and eventually got picked up by a member of our assigned balloon crew. They started unwrapping and setting up the balloon and even got Alex to help out in the process. Unfortunately the weather was not ideal for ballooning – not enough wind – and our balloon did not fly that evening. As we later found out, quite a few balloonists that did fly received a stern lecture from festival organizers the following morning. When you have lemons you make lemonade, so as we found ourselves inside the fenced off balloon field, we took advantage of the situation. We wandered around taking pictures of all the fancy shaped balloons, no doubt photobombing many of the shots taken from the other side of the fence. After a while somebody from the festival team approached us and inquired if we have crew passes, we said we had tickets for one of the balloons and that seemed to satisfy him (although Alex totally wanted to chat some more and confuse him further). I must admit those balloons do look cool, especially up close and in such large numbers. As the evening wound down we decided to head back to get some sleep ahead of our flight, which the festival graciously rescheduled for 6am the next morning (and refunded the price difference, as the morning flights are a bit cheaper).
We were told to arrive at 5am for our flight, and that meant our alarm went off at 4. We headed towards the balloon site in near total darkness, with only a tiny sliver of red showing low in the eastern skies. There was moderate fog all around, and unsurprisingly, the balloonists want the fog to dissipate before taking off. It took about an hour after sunrise (7am) for that to happen, at which point the crews of all the balloons started coming in to pick up their passengers and head off to the launch sites. At the launch site we waited for an additional hour for the zebra-lady (a festival rep wearing a striped outfit and equipped with a direct connection to the flight control tower) to give the green flag – go ahead for take off. Our crew did not inflate the balloon until the very end, and apparently it only takes them no more than 10 min to get up and running, i.e. flying. It really seemed to happen very fast, one moment you’re swinging your legs over into the basket, the next moment you’re watching the earth recede under you quickly and irreversibly. I kept looking down at the houses and roads below, but that proved a bit too stressful. Look ahead and around and it gets much calmer. The scenery changes slower and smoother, allowing for some beautiful photos of the landscape with the other balloons. The thoughts of what would happen if you were to drop out of the basket diminish into nothingness and the whole trip becomes very serene. After about 30 min of flying our pilot started descending over some corn fields to plan for landing. Landing actually occurred in a field of cut wheat, so there was no tall vegetation to make things complicated. It was curious how low over the ground the balloon can fly, with the bottom of it touching the tops of the corn plants, and then just a short burst of fire from the burners sends it back up another meter or two. As we started to land we were warned that we would likely bounce a couple of times, but the landing was actually quite soft. The basket dragged for about a meter on the ground and tipped on its side as it came to a stop. We waited inside while the pilot released all the air from the balloon – if you come out too quickly it can shoot back up in the air.
The next stage would be to have the chase crew come and get us and the balloon. This is where the weird part began – the chase crew was chasing just fine, but they could not figure out how to actually get to the landing spot to pick up the balloon. We were actually not that far from a road, but there were several different fields around us, each separated from another by a deep ditch. Long story short, people spent 3 hours going back and forth trying to figure out how to reach us by truck, while we spent these 3 hours chilling in the hay, sharing stories and waiting to be rescued. Eventually the red pickup truck showed up on the horizon and the balloon equipment was hoisted up on it, right beside another balloon (balloonists like to travel in groups). A 5 minutes ride around the fields later we met up with an additional portion of the crew, who moved the balloon into another vehicle and headed back to the location where our bikes were parked. It is a balloonists’ tradition for pilot and passengers to drink champagne after a flight, but seeing how at 11:30am none of us had breakfast yet and everyone had many other things to do and places to go, the pilot presented us a bottle of sparkling Quebec cider to drink later and also gave us souvenir pins that looked just like the balloon we flew on. He asked if we loved it, liked it or would never fly with another Quebec man again :).
We rushed back to our hotel, checked out, had breakfast and headed back home. We took the smaller roads along the north shore of St. Lawrence river and joined the Waterfront trail once we were back in Ontario. It twisted and waved around several small towns, eventually passing through the beautiful 1000 Islands region. We stopped in Gananoque for dinner at a Czech restaurant called the Maple Leaf Restaurant and had some yummy Central European cuisine, highlighted by schnitzels. As it was getting late in the day we took the 401 the rest of the way, where my bike’s odometer casually rolled over the 9000 miles mark, less than 3 months after its purchase.