LEWISTON — It’s been a little touch and go for the 2015 Great Falls Balloon Festival.

Bad weather grounded the balloons Friday night and a $50,000 theft of vital equipment – copper power cords stolen from a storage facility last winter – nearly derailed the event, which has been an annual regional celebration since 1993. But at 7 a.m. Saturday it became a definite go, when in the highlight of the festival, 10 hot air balloons left Simard-Payne Memorial Park and soared into slowly clearing skies.

A few hundred people watched the liftoff in the morning, more lined the streets of the Twin Cities to watch an 11 a.m. parade, and by afternoon, with the carnival in full swing, the event’s director, Troy Mills, said he thought the crowds had reached 8,000 by midafternoon.

The community raised about half the cost of replacing the copper power cords, which authorities said at the time were probably stripped for their copper to be sold as scrap. The Dempsey Challenge, the annual October run, walk and bicycle fundraiser for the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing, paid the balance, Mills said. The Dempsey Challenge uses the same equipment for its event that the Great Falls Balloon Festival does.

The 10 balloons that went aloft in the morning flew for nearly an hour, reaching a top speed of 17.9 mph before landing in a farmer’s field near the Auburn-Lewiston Airport, pilot Jim Rodrigue of Androscoggin Balloon Adventures said. After being grounded Friday night, he was elated to get in a good flight. “It was really unstable last night,” Rodrigue said. “Didn’t hit here, but we had lightning and thunder all around us.”

Saturday’s weather may not have been as spectacular as much of August has been, but former Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert, who was collecting signatures on a petition to raise the minimum wage, was happy with the break in what had looked like a gloomy weekend. “This is great,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rodrigue was looking forward to taking to the skies again early Saturday evening. Why the morning and night flights?

“Mother Nature is at her kindest first thing in the morning and just before sunset in terms of the right thermals,” Rodrigue said.

Then he climbed into his recently restored 1964 Malibu and got into position for the parade, which featured a team of “Kora Crazy Cops” Shriners in miniature police cars, some wearing police uniforms, others the black and white stripes of “prisoners.” Judging by the anticipation from the crowd that lined the parade route down Main Street in Auburn, across the James B. Longley Bridge and down Lincoln Street in Lewiston, the Shriners were a favorite. “I just want to see the Shriners,” a woman said as she stepped out of Le Nationale Social Club on Lincoln Street, lit up a cigarette and started intently down the block. “Those guys are so funny.”

If anyone had been handing out a youthful enthusiasm award for the parade, it should have gone to the Skidmarks, a rock group made up of seven middle and elementary school children who rode on a float intended to represent multiple decades of rock ‘n’ roll history. How do you do that? A lengthy medley? “We dressed up as different decades,” explained guitarist and lead vocalist Mike Brackett, 13. They chose three songs, the Beatles’ “Twist & Shout,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California,” to represent the changing face of music. And they brought their own power supply. (The power cords that had to be replaced were needed for the rides, food booths and entertainment at the Simard-Payne Memorial Park.)

One group that was completely untouched by the power cord theft was the Society of Creative Anachronism, the medieval re-creators who set up camp in Auburn’s Bonney Park. Cece Hunter, who also introduced herself as Lady Rose, explained that the group didn’t require anywhere to plug in. “If we don’t run it with fire, we just don’t run it,” she said.

Eighteen members of the Ravensbridge group, a subset of the Society of Creative Anachronism, had slept in the park Friday night and cooked steaks, hot dogs, chicken and the like over open fires. The air smelled of wood smoke, while across the river in Lewiston, the dominant smell was classic carnival: french fries and fried dough.

“Most of us like to rough it,” said the group’s designated spokesman, Dave Poulin.


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