Crews inflate balloons Friday at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Timothy Clifford delivered packages for UPS for 36 solid years in all kinds of weather. There’s no way he’s daunted by a little bit of rain. 

Clifford, from Fairfield, was in Simard-Payne Memorial Park with his wife, daughters and grandchildren, standing near the stage and watching Robert Washington croon Elvis. It was drizzling at the moment and so the family took refuge under a rather large umbrella. 

Timothy Clifford, left, of Fairfield, with his family at the Great Falls Balloon Festival Friday evening in Lewiston. Mark Laflamme/Sun Journal

“It’s actually a beach umbrella,” Clifford said. “Anyway, I’m skinny so the rain mostly misses me.” 

That’s the spirit, and there was a lot of it going around early Friday evening at the Great Falls Balloon Festival. In spite of steady rain and swampy conditions under foot, well over a hundred people had gathered in the park, taking in the entertainment and waiting for the arrival of the balloons. 

That part didn’t work out so well. As the morning launch was canceled earlier in the day, the evening launch was called off, as well, and for a variety of reasons. 

The field was soaking wet and soft — too soft, maybe for the vehicles required to haul the balloons to the site. 

The cloud ceiling was low and ominous and the winds were erratic. 

The news that the balloons had been grounded was disappointing, but the crowds didn’t disperse. There was still plenty of entertainment to be had. There was still shopping to do at the various vendor tents and festival food was everywhere. 

“We’ve still got a good evening lined up,” said festival logistics coordinator Alan Collins. “Right now everybody’s excited to see Elvis. The next band, Breaking Strings, just pulled in and they’re getting ready to go up on stage as well. The vendors are up and selling, the food is excellent… there are a lot of good things happening here and tomorrow will be even better.” 

After a soggy, dripping start to the festival, hopes for a sunnier weekend became a kind of mantra. Festival goers eagerly checked their weather forecasts and surmised that Saturday and Sunday had better chances of decent weather. 

Balloons were set up for spectators’ viewing pleasure Friday at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston. The first launch of the weekend was declared a no-go when it was determined that the cloud cover was too low. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“It looks like it’s going to be beautiful,” Collins said. “We’ll have a tethered balloon all day long, for the most part. We’ll have launches at six in the morning and six at night and there’s the parade at 11 a.m.” 

Friday was marred by the same conditions that have vexed the entire Maine summer. There was rain, heavy at times, and there was wind. There were threats of thunderstorms and even talk of the potential for tornadoes. There were the familiar warnings of flash flooding around the region as storms moved through. It was not good weather for ballooning — to state the obvious — and so the optimistic festival fans turned their thoughts to the weekend.  

They crossed their fingers and hoped for weather good enough Smiley the Scarecrow and Lil D — much ballyhooed hot air balloons from Indy Hot Air of Indianapolis, Indiana — would soon fill the skies. Weather permitting, those two balloons are to lead 14 others from across the country, including two local pilots from Lewiston and Dixfield and a radio-controlled balloon from Turner. 

At about 5:30 p.m., the fickle weather took another freakish turn. The rain stopped and, though heavy, dark clouds still bore the threat of further unpleasantness, the sun came out. It was enough of a break that Robert Washington, all the way into his Elvis act, was able to step out onto the grounds and hand out some scarves to the fans in front of the stage. 

Bruce Byberg gets in the basket of the ReMax balloon Friday at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston. The balloon was inflated but did not leave the ground due to low cloud cover creating visibility problems. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

One man, Mikel Tabor, came to see Washington specifically. The two used to work together at Bath Iron Works, as it turns out, and Tabor has always appreciated Washington’s Elvis act, even before he went pro. 

“Even at work, he’d walk around singing Elvis songs,” Tabor said. “All of a sudden, it took off and now he’s doing it as a permanent gig.” 

The beginning of the festival got off mostly without a hitch, in spite of the weather. The festival team had been preparing for the annual event for months. 

“It’s not easy to organize and execute a festival for a hundred thousand people,” said Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline. “The festival directors and volunteers work tirelessly to bring this festival to Lewiston-Auburn and I’m extremely grateful for their dedication and time.” 

Prior to the morning festivities, a festival volunteer from Auburn was struck by a vehicle as it was being driven onto the festival grounds. 

Police said Catherine Collins, 68, was walking on the vehicle bridge leading into the park when she was brushed by a truck also crossing the bridge. 

The vehicle was driven by balloonist Derald Young, 75, of Dixfield, who was hauling a balloon basket, police said. The basket shifted slightly as Young swung his vehicle off the bridge and Collins was struck. 

She was taken to a hospital to be examined for a possible leg injury, police said. It was believed she was later released. 

By 6 p.m., the weather had remained stable enough that the Brave RC balloon was able to be set up on the field for a demonstration. The Broken Strings were on the stage and the crowds remained. With no balloons in the air, Friday night was mainly about eating, shopping and soaking up the entertainment. 

That and waiting for 6 a.m. Saturday when the balloons will have another chance to soar.

The Sunrise Passion balloon gets a blast of hot air Friday at Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

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