Time was running out.

The third day of the Great Falls Balloon Festival was here and still, not a single hot air balloon had managed to make it off the ground. Well, with the exception of the mini remote-controlled balloon carrying Cuddles the Teddy Bear, whom I imagine everyone was just a tiny bit jealous of all weekend.

As launch after launch was canceled due to weather, my chances of riding in a hot air balloon for the first time were fading fast.

A small part of me was relieved, if I’m being honest. In the days leading up to the festival, I did my best to prepare myself for what to expect. Of course, I’d done a tethered balloon ride before, so the idea wasn’t completely foreign but as my colleagues informed me, that’s not the same thing.

On top of that, I kept hearing all kinds of conflicting phrases getting tossed about in the newsroom. “Thunderstorms” … “crash landing” … “explosion” … “champagne toast …”

I was starting to have some mixed feelings about the whole endeavor.


But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I reminded myself, and left it up to the mercy of the winds.

Sun Journal Audience Engagement Editor Nina Mahaleris peeks out of the basket of a hot air balloon Sunday morning before launching from Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston during the Great Falls Balloon Festival. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

A balloon ride still wasn’t guaranteed by the time the Sunday morning launch rolled around, but I had to try. Armed with our press badges and weary but hopeful smiles, staff photographer Andree Kehn and I stalked a festival director as she weaved through a sea of people, searching for a balloon pilot who might have room in their basket for us.

One by one, we tracked down pilots getting ready to launch and stood back as the director worked her magic (at 5:45 a.m., her level of patience is magic, believe me). Finally, we found one who could take one of us up — but only one. After getting the blessing from my colleague and the signal from the captain, I stepped into the basket to join the group of eager passengers.

As the basket door was closed and locked, I took a deep breath and quickly ran through a checklist in my head. Asthma inhaler? In my pocket. Phone? In my hand (don’t drop that). It occurred to me I should ask whether to take off my hat before we leave, but there wasn’t time.

Within moments, we were off the ground, floating up above the crowds of people who were shrinking by the second. I felt a wave of calm and relief wash over me as we drifted up into the skies. I was awestruck and nearly speechless as we moved through the air, looking around at the other balloons floating right along with us.

Matt Hurst, pilot of The 160 Balloon, snaps a selfie mid-air during Sunday morning’s launch from Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston during the Great Falls Balloon Festival. Matt Hurst/Lehigh Valley Hot Air.

Before we took off, a member of the flight crew told me to “look out and not down.”


Despite his advice, I couldn’t help but peek at the world below us.

I wanted to see what life looked like from that view so early in the morning, when the city is still quiet and the day brand new. I took it all in — from the tiny black specks walking back to their cars, to the other balloons floating off into the distance and the fog that settled over the hills beyond them.

Balloons float off into the distance during Sunday morning’s launch from Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston during the Great Falls Balloon Festival. Nina Mahaleris/Sun Journal.

As the balloon drifted further along, I forgot why I was even nervous in the first place. We were only moving six miles an hour, after all. I wasn’t even worried about how or when or where we would land; I just gazed across the skies in astonishment and trusted our pilot, Matt Hurst, to get us back down to earth safely.

As we came upon an open field beside a parking lot, Hurst tossed a line down to his crew to help guide us back down to the ground. The landing was much softer and frankly, not at all what I was expecting. In my head, we would plow through a patch of trees to break our speed before dragging across the ground, tossing all of the passengers out of the basket at once.

Fortunately, the real landing was much less dramatic.

After packing up the balloon and returning the basket to the van, the crew and passengers all congregated at Ness Oil Co. in Auburn to toast to our survival.

I can’t say drinking champagne out of a plastic cup beats floating through the skies in a hot air balloon, but it definitely didn’t hurt. And who knows? Maybe I’ll get to go on another ride someday. If Cuddles the Teddy Bear can do it more than once, so can I.

The crew and passengers of The 160 Balloon help pack it up after a safe landing Sunday morning in Lewiston during the Great Falls Balloon Festival. Sun Journal Audience Engagement Editor Nina Mahaleris, second from right, took a ride in the balloon. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

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