Alaskan Cruisetour Photo Gallery

Day 8 (May 24, 1999) - What Goes Up...

Preparing the balloon for flight. Everybody in my flight (except me) is visible here. The two travel agents are in the blue jackets, Jack the pilot is in the black jacket, and the instructor pilot is the bearded man in a gray coat. The fans to either side of the gondola are used to inflate the balloon.

After leaving the Discovery, it was on to the Bear Lodge, our residence for our single night in Fairbanks. It might be called the Bare Lodge for the plainness of its interior, but the rooms were large and comfortable. After dinner, it was time for me to make an escape from the clutches of Princess-controlled tours. Before leaving for our cruise, I had made reservations for a late evening hot air balloon flight with Advanced Balloon Adventures. Jack Klein was both my contact at ABA, and my pilot, as well as my driver for their pick-up service. So, I was soon off for the highlight of my trip - no pun intended.

I had asked Mom if she wanted to go, but she declined - adamantly. A good thing too - while I had a great time, things were to turn a mite bit hairy towards the end.

I was to be Jack's first paying customer of the year. Joining us were two Fairbanks travel agents being given a free ride as an enticement to sell rides to their customers. We were also joined by a balloon instructor pilot who was to handle some of the annual checkout requirements for Jack during the ride. (Primarily, this involved proper procedures, and a brief landing out in the middle of nowhere.)

Jack inflating our balloon.

Up and away...
Moments after liftoff, a look down at one of the other two balloons that joined us.

Several thousand feet up
Several thousand feet up, one of the travel agents is just now getting over a bad case of nerves.

Preparation and inflation of the balloon gave me my first introduction to the unofficial Alaska State Bird - the mosquito. Soon after arriving at the lift-off site, we were being consumed by thousands of the little buggers. There are 3 types of mosquitoes in Alaska, and these were the fat and slow types - they're considered to be the least bothersome, since they're slow enough to be swatted away before they can land. Still, you do get chewed up a bit. Jack's crew was kind enough to let me use their repellent, which made life on the ground much more bearable.

The evening was almost dead calm. When Jack released a test helium balloon, it just went straight up, and showed no signs of movement in any direction until it was almost out of sight. Calm is generally good in a balloon, but you do want some sort of breeze. Seeing that there was at least some movement up there, we decided to make a go of it.

Inflation took the better part of a half hour, but soon we were on our way with liftoff just a few minutes before 10pm. Liftoff was incredibly smooth as we climbed at several hundred feet per minute until we were several thousand feet up. The only sounds once we got up there were our own voices, and the sporadic roar of the jets used to heat and cool the air in the balloon. Each time the jets were fired, we were buffeted by tremendously hot air, and we were unable to hear each other speak. We soon became accustomed to both the heat and sound, and just learned to pick up sentences where we left off.

Treetop Level
Flying at tree-top level. That's Jack on the left. We would more than once brush through the tops of the trees, and could easily lean out and pull twigs from the uppermost reaches.

About to fly through a treetop.

Throughout the early part of the flight, Jack and the instructor pilot told numerous entertaining stories of previous flights - mostly about things that had gone wrong. Most folks probably don't get entertained in this manner, but the somewhat non-typical passenger list encouraged this type of story telling. I spent a great deal of time laughing.

We spent some time jockeying around in the air trying to find a bit of a breeze blowing in the right direction, but soon we were moving, albeit very slowly, in the direction we more or less wanted to go. Once we got past a lightly populated area and were over the taiga, we descended to treetop-level where we would spend much of the flight searching for wildlife.

But first, Jack had to put down in the taiga as part of his check ride. This went quite smoothly, and we touched down with barely a bump deep in the taiga. During and after the landing process, we had the opportunity to observe beavers in a nearby pond, and observe the taiga landscape up close. After a minute or so on the ground, we were on our way again.

Another Balloon
One of the other two balloons joining us, shortly after we touched down on the taiga. There are two moose in the clearing, believe it or not.

Most of the rest of the flight was spent trying to find wildlife. Moose in particular were plentiful. I lost track of how many we saw after we hit 20. We also spotted several beavers - they're incredibly easy to see swimming through the ponds when you're a few tens of feet above the pond. Rabbits were extremely plentiful - every time the balloons engines were fired, it would flush a dozen or so rabbits out of their hiding places. Off they'd go in all directions until the next time the engines were fired. Moose, on the other hand, were nearly oblivious to us and the noise we made. A few just walked away into the bush, and two took on a more aggressive posture, but most just ignored us.

Moose. The combination of low-lighting, the camouflage of the moose, movement of the balloon, and my excitement made this the least blurry picture I managed to take.

Relevant Web Links

NOTE: These links will open a new window in most browsers. To return to this page, just close the new window.


Alaska seek

Copyright © 1999, Pete Hanson