Taking flight in Medora: 10th annual Balloon Rally meets ideal conditions for afternoon liftoff
MEDORA -- A pristine blue sky hovering over the Badlands was dotted with every color of the rainbow as hot air balloons took off at Saturday's 10th annual Medora Balloon Rally.
Strong upper atmospheric winds that had prevented an early morning takeoff from the Badlands Motel subsided by Saturday afternoon.
"This is the first balloon rally I've ever seen, and it's so exciting," said Paula Lemoine, a New Iberia, La., native who works for the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, as she snapped photos of the last two balloons to leave the yard behind the motel.
Weather permitting, the public will have another opportunity see the hot air balloons take to the sky around 5 a.m. today at the Badlands Motel.
"I've flown in Australia, Canada, Mexico, and all over the U.S., but my favorite place to fly my balloon is right here in Medora," said John Bougler, a 29-year veteran balloonist from Fargo who has flown in nine of the rally's 10 years and taken hundreds of people up in his balloon, Dakota Diamond. "This place is drop-dead gorgeous. We have pilots here from out of state and they are even more disappointed than the in-state pilots about this delay because they want a chance to fly in the Badlands, over the mountains and through the canyons. There's simply nothing like it."
After discovering that there would be no 5:30 a.m. flight Saturday, Denis Montplaisir, who assisted with organizing the rally and who was supposed to take his first-ever balloon ride that morning, said he hoped the weather cooperated later in the day.
"My wife is recovering from an illness and we thought this would be a great thing we could do together," he said. "Safety is, of course, the No. 1 priority, but we'll stick around and hope that we are airborne later today."
Balloonist and the rally's "weather guy," Tom Tollefson, Detroit Lake, Minn., said there's nothing harder on a balloonist than being grounded, which is only compounded when there are passengers, young and old, who are itching to get up in the air for the first time.
There's nothing quite like that first time a person's feet are lifted off the ground like a bird, he said, thinking back to his first hot air balloon ride over Fargo.
But it was his inaugural journey over Theodore Roosevelt National Park that remains one of Tollefson's most memorable rides.
"The first time I ever flew across the park it was October 1986 and it was cold," he said. "We brought so much survival gear with us. We were afraid that we were going to get stuck. Of course we didn't, but we gave the people in the park something to watch as the balloon flew overhead."
Even with 30 years of flying in the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta -- the world's largest hot air balloon festival -- the Medora Balloon Rally remains Tollefson's favorite ballooning event because of the "wide open spaces."
"The scenery here cannot be matched," he said. "In Albuquerque, you fly over a big city with tall buildings, but when you fly in Medora, you get an eagle eye's view of the land. It's the oldest human dream to be able to fly and to be able to do it over the scenery in the Badlands, there's just nothing better.
"And the local cowboys are a fabulous crew and the foundation really rolls out the red carpet for us. The only issue we've ever had here is weather, and only one of the 10 years the rally has been held has it grounded us."
But it's safety first, Tollefson said.
"As far as I know, none of these guys have caused any serious injuries to themselves or others while ballooning," he said. "We learn to fly in difficult wind conditions, but safety is the No. 1 priority when you fly with passengers, and that's why we decided not to fly this morning."
If it was up to Tollefson, who works in advertising, he would have more time in the sky than he does on land.
"I try to fly 15 to 20 times over the summer," he said. "Ideally, I would be able to fly a few times a week. The problem with that is that you need to get a crew together and I have a job, so time is an issue."
In his ninth year at the rally, balloonist Brian Christianson, Glenburn, said he and his wife wait with anticipation every summer for the balloon rally in Medora.
"It's gorgeous flying over the Badlands and it is the highlight of the summer for me and my wife and crew chief, Johnet," he said.
It's a love of the sky and a balloonist's heart for adventure that will keep Tollefson flying in the Medora Balloon Rally for year to come.
"The nicest people I know are people in the balloonist community," he said. "You can't go to one of these balloonist events and not see people with smiles on their faces."