QUEENSBURY — A handful of balloons took flight for a brief period as part of the Adirondacks Hot Air Balloon Festival on Saturday, although an hour-long delay in fog kept most on the ground.
The tarmac and surrounding grounds at the Warren County Airport were inundated with thousands of eager pre-dawn spectators. Gates to the festival opened at 3:30 a.m. and the first flight was due to take off three hours later.
Conditions looked promising before sunrise. The wind, which brought the balloons to the ground a day earlier, was almost non-existent, and there was no sign of fog as the moon and a few stars dotted the night sky.
For Chris Utter, the excitement was growing as she looked forward to taking her first hot air balloon trip – something she’s had on her to-do list since first attending the Balloon Festival 20 years ago.
A direct care provider with the ARC in Warren, Washington and Albany counties, Utter was one of several dozen essential workers selected to receive a courtesy hot air balloon ride, a small token of appreciation from festival organizers for their frontline service during the pandemic.
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The gesture was more than appreciated by Utter, who retired last year after 37 years of service but returned on a day-to-day basis due to a staff shortage.
COVID tore through the facility where she worked, and while there were no fatalities, nearly every resident and staff member was infected with the virus at some point, Utter said.
When approached about the hot air balloon ride, Utter was shocked.
“My first reaction was, isn’t there anyone else who deserves to ride more?” she says. “Amazingly, they said there were people who didn’t want to do it. Not me. I am here.”
But as soon as the sun started to rise, the fog set in and seemed to get worse as the hours went by.
By the time the launch signal was given just after 9:30 a.m., most of the 42 balloon operators due to take off had packed up and left the field. Only five balloons took off.
Balloon launches are very weather dependent, said Mark Donahue, chairman of the Balloon Festival board.
He said the launch in honor of essential workers will take place on Sunday, but the weather will have the final say on whether the balloons take off.
“We will try to do it tomorrow,” he said.
A “moonglow” launch was scheduled for Saturday evening and the balloons should take off Sunday morning from 6:30 a.m.
Pilots and balloon crews made the most of the foggy situation by inflating their balloons, prompting roars from the eager crowd, who rushed to take photos and pose for selfies.
A few operators even performed tethered launches in an attempt to entertain the crowd.
But many headed for the exit as the fog lingered.
Some who stayed said the event was different this year due to a lack of vendors and fewer balloons, which were safety measures implemented to reduce crowding in light of the growing pandemic.
Eileen Caulin, a South Glens Falls resident who has been attending the festival for 20 years, said vendors haven’t made waiting for the balloon launches a bit more tedious than in years past.
“It’s not the same,” she said. “It loses something.”
But other people present said they were just happy to see the colorful balloons and that the protocols were in place.
For Don and Debbie Hoffmann, who made the trip to Warren County Airport from Guilderland for the first time, the protocols were part of why they were there, they said.
They had wanted to come to the festival for years, but the first few hours, coupled with the long drive, seemed impossible. But this year, knowing their event would be scaled down, I felt good, Debbie said.
“That’s why we came this year,” she said. “We’ve lived here all our lives and it’s like, oh, there won’t be any of that, so maybe it’s a good year ahead.”
Chad Arnold is a reporter for The Post-Star and covers the city of Glens Falls as well as the town and village of Lake George and Washington County government. Follow him on Twitter @ChadGArnold.