Hot air balloons lift off Friday morning from Simard-Payne Memorial Park in Lewiston. It was the first day of the 2022 Great Falls Balloon Festival. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

There’s a quiet energy here.

There are the pilots and their crews; the passengers and spectators.

I hear soft voices all around me at Simard-Payne Memorial Park — a tone almost reverent to the pre-dawn stillness.

At 5:30 a.m., the grass is still wet with dew and the sky still a muted gray-blue. A cloud cover struggles to break apart.

I watch as the crews pull out their gear: the basket, the nylon balloon.

The crowd of a couple hundred people train their eyes on the pilots, who, until the last minute, are watching the wind above, looking for signs that liftoff is going to happen.


Suddenly, the roar of fire breaks the stillness and ignites a new energy. Anticipation blurs into excitement.

The hot air balloons begin to fill, slowly rising as if they are waking up from a long sleep.

The air is buzzing now. More people arrive.

To my left, some children stare up in amazement, their parents now seeing on the kids’ faces that the early morning trip was worth it after all.

To my right, a couple wonders aloud what it’s going to be like up there: cold, windy?

In front of me, a group of festival volunteers express gratitude and relief for the impending takeoff: “Thank God the weather held out this year. We needed this.”


Then, almost as if it was nonchalantly stepping off for a quick walk, the first balloon is in the air. It rises fast — faster than you’d expect. Rising, rising as it floats just over the trees and toward the mills and Lisbon Street.

One by one, eight balloons take flight.

The crowd collectively smiles — phones aloft and pointed toward the people waving goodbye from above as they reach higher and higher into the now bright, light blue sky.

Back on the ground, one balloon is still flat on the grass — someone says there was a problem with the propane tank and it wouldn’t be flying.

Another, shaped like a sloth, is inflated but also won’t be taking off today — I hear that the wind is too much for the specially designed balloon.


Word has spread one pilot couldn’t make it to the field.

Some would-have-been passengers mull around, waiting for a sign they might get up in the air. They won’t — not this morning, anyway.

Someone near me says, “Unfortunately, that’s the nature of hot air ballooning. There’s always challenges. If it’s not the wind, it’s something else.”

A couple passengers are able to catch a lift on another balloon, salvaging their long trip to Lewiston from Connecticut.

Despite the setbacks, the takeoff is a success.

At this moment, high above us, floating over the Twin Cities, several dozen people are having the ride of their life.

To the east, a bird’s-eye view as the sun pushes through what’s left of the clouds.

Morning breaks on another Great Falls Balloon Festival.

Marla Hoffman is a managing editor for the Sun Journal.

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