LEWISTON — It was drizzly and damp early Friday morning for the annual Great Falls Balloon Festival kickoff, but by 5:30 a.m. there were more than 100 people assembled at Simard-Payne Memorial Park, many holding mugs of steaming coffee with cameras at the ready.
The first balloon launch was scheduled to begin at 6 a.m., but the weather canceled it. Still, the crowd continued to grow throughout the morning. Soon, the field at the park was full of spectators, many of whom had clearly been here before.
Danielle Fenderson of Poland said she’s been attending the event for as long as she can remember, quite possibly since the festival started 23 years ago. She set up folding chairs in a spot she knew from experience would give her and her companions — her friend Jeanne Nadeau of Auburn and her great-grandson Owen Estes, 7, of Wales — the best view.
“They have new ones every year,” she said, which keeps her coming back.
Young Owen has attended the festival every year of his life. His favorite part is watching the balloons go up. He’s partial to the ones with his favorite colors of red, green and yellow, but he also likes the special balloons. He keeps a lookout for a bear balloon he saw a few years ago that he hopes might return one day.
Periodically, a volunteer wearing a blue shirt would shout over the crowd, “Balloon coming in,” and, in unison, the crowd on the lawn would part, creating a wide path for the arrival of another truck laden with a basket and other gear to the staging area at the center of the park.
Joseph Chizmar, 10, of Lewiston was keeping track of how many balloons had arrived — his excitement growing with each one.
“There’s like 14, 15 or 16 here now,” he said.
Joseph’s father, Mark, said few boys had as much enthusiasm for the big balloons as his son did.
“If there’s a balloon in the air, this kid will find it,” said Chizmar, who encourages his son’s love for balloons by taking him to festivals around the region and hopes to maybe someday take him around the country.
“We like to chase them and help take them down,” Chizmar said.
The youngest Chizmar hopes to have his own balloon someday, but he knows he has a way to go.
“I’m saving up. I bet you when I’m like 16 or 18, I’ll have my own balloon. I’m just 10 or 20 grand away from my own balloon,” said Joseph Chizmar, who says he has already saved about $2,000 toward the lofty goal.
So many colorful and interesting balloons in one space provided a unique opportunity for people looking to capture the visual side of the event. Such was the case with 24-year-old Daniel Poulin of Auburn, who has come to the festival every year since he was a child.
“I like taking photos of the balloons,” he said. However, he’s never entered the annual competition for nonprofessional photographers where the big prize is a ticket for a balloon ride in the following year’s festival: a $200 value.
Heather Staples, 19, of Auburn said the event was unique enough to pull her out of bed early on a Friday morning.
“It’s probably one of the most exciting things that happens around here. I like the food and all the stalls. They’re really fun to see and the people who run them are really nice,” Staples said.
Both the rain and the low-lying cloud cover Friday morning halted the scheduled launch, but that failed to stop some balloonists from setting up.
“They’re lighting it up,” shouted one eager fan when the first propane flame signaled a balloon was about to be filled. On cue, the crowd migrated toward the attraction — a 70-or-more-foot tall balloon that looked like a fish bowl, blue with various fish and sea creatures sewn onto the sides.
The baskets that attach to the giant balloons generally are made of wicker. Ray Fournier of WhatsUpBallooning.com of Tennessee said that, despite their appearance, they are quite safe.
“The wicker is just to hold you in the basket, it’s not for support,” he said.
Several thick ropes from the balloon circle underneath the wicker basket to a platform made of a plywood floor set atop oak runners. His basket is about 5½ square feet and can hold six passengers, plus the pilot.
Fournier said he started bringing his balloons to the festival in 1999 when he lived in New Hampshire, before more recently relocating south.
“So, we moved, but we had to come back to see our friends,” he said.
Balloonist Bill Whidden of Mount Dora and Taveres, Fla., said the worldwide ballooning community is actually small.
“There’s not a balloonist here who I don’t know,” he said, after saying hello to a ballooning friend from England.
Whidden said for balloons to fly safely, the pilots had to have 1,000 feet of “ceiling” and at least three miles of visibility. As of Friday morning, the ceiling was 200 feet with approximately half a mile of visibility.
Even without the launch, festival-goers have plenty to look forward to throughout the remainder of the weekend.
The park will host a slew of performers and activities, including the ZuZu African Acrobats, Brazen Cane, Veggies by Day, Yellow Brick Road, Skosh, Zealous Bellus, Eds Meds, The SkidMarks, Shady Lady, Jeroba Jump, Mad Science of Maine, the Veayo Twins, Downeast Brass and Brian Patrick. In addition, food and souvenir vendors should be open, weather-permitting.
For a full schedule, go to: greatfallsballoonfestival.org
Our Great Falls Balloon Festival section has stories, photos, videos and social media coverage of the launches and non-launches.