LEWISTON — Balloon meister John Reeder laughed as the clouds darkened Sunday evening, bringing with them an off-and-on drizzle.
"We call that 'Scud,'" the meister said. "It comes and goes."
Pilots began driving the uninflated balloons into the Simard-Payne Memorial Park, where the 18th annual Great Falls Balloon Festival hoped to see a triumphant fifth launch of the three-day event.
Then, the wind picked up. The drizzle thickened and stayed.
Reeder still smiled, talking with folks who lined up for refunds on their rides. He looked to a nearby row of food stands, all run by groups who serve Lewiston-Auburn: churches, schools, veterans organizations and people who build affordable homes.
"The nonprofits are saying that their sales are up over any other year," Reeder said. "That's a success."
In all, festival leaders say the weekend surpasses all recent numbers for attendance and spending, with an estimated 130,000 people attending on Saturday evening alone.
"We won't know how we did financially until we tally up at the end," said Tracey Steuber, a spokeswoman for the festival. The anecdotal evidence suggests an unqualified success, she said.
In Auburn, police reported that every available parking space in the downtown was taken, she said. At the park in Lewiston, the crowd was shoulder to shoulder.
"You literally couldn't move," Steuber said.
Nor could you buy an onion without a long wait.
At the Habitat for Humanity booth, the lines were unbroken on both Friday and Saturday nights from about 4:30 p.m. until 9:45 p.m., said Deb Leonard of Lewiston, who worked the booth all weekend.
They started with 25 bags of onions, each holding 40 or 50 fist-sized unions.
"It's a huge bag," she said.
On Sunday at 5:15 p.m. she had only three onions left.
She has helped run the booth for three years and this year easily surpassed the others, she said.
"We try to prep ahead and do our best," she said. There were moments when the line turned long, though. Her 15 to 20 volunteers managed to coordinate their work and keep focused, she said.
The ballooning also surpassed last year, which saw blowing winds and torrential rain. That event was too appropriately themed, "World of Water." None of the scheduled launches made it. And on that Monday morning, a few balloons managed to go up, but they were the exception.
This year saw launches on Friday morning, Saturday morning and evening and on Sunday morning.
The weather seemed to toy with spectators Sunday morning, raining lightly until just minutes before the launch time.
And with little wind, the balloons lifted straight up rather than taking off toward Turner or Lisbon, Steuber said.