Hot Air Ballooning

(Published in the August Citizen September, 2010)


When I was a grade-schooler back in the mid-1950’s I read a lot during the summer. We had no TV, no electronic games, and obviously there was no e-mail or Facebook to suck up my time.  I rode my bike, I swam, I played badminton with the next door neighbor, and I read books. Lots of books. My favorite series was about a pig named Freddy who was a detective and an adventurer.
The books were written by Walter R. Brooks who created a pig who could talk to the farmers who owned him, Mr. and Mrs. Bean, and to the other animals: Jinx the Cat, Charles the preening rooster, Hank the old white horse and Mrs. Wiggins, Wogus and Wurzburger the cows. Freddy could, somehow, type with his little trotters and was an accomplished poet. In my favorite of the series, Freddy and the Perilous Adventure, Freddy the Pig commandeered a hot air balloon and he and a few friends set off in it. I have wanted to do so ever since.

Filling the Balloon WIth Hot Air

July 6th was the one-year anniversary of my sister Ruth Anne Mitchell’s untimely death. I dreaded that the approach of that day, that memory. My friend and companion, Cindy Heath, asked me if we could do something to make that day something to look forward to, rather than dread. I thought of Freddy the Pig and decided we should sign up for a hot air balloon ride.
We took off from a tiny airstrip in Post Mills, Vermont with Brian Boland, a delightfully eccentric guy with a dark bushy beard and sunglasses that hide his eyes. Brian not only flies hot air balloons, he collects them and has a museum  of all sorts of interesting stuff – cars, sidecars, balloon baskets and much more. He and friends built a life-sized brontosaurus out of scrap wood not long ago at the edge of the air strip. Brian exudes confidence, and with good reason. He is in his 40th year of ballooning, and has flown 8,133 flights – in 24 nations.  
A hot air balloon is a wondrous thing. Point a stream of hot air (created by a propane burner) into the mouth of a multi-colored, rip-stop nylon balloon that is 75 ft tall and 55 ft wide, and it will gently lift you up. There is no jerky motion, no jet-propelled angst as your body is slams against an airplane seat. In fact, there are no seats. We stood in a wicker basket for the flight. There are no waiting lines, no airport security, no tickets to lose. In fact, Brian forgot to ask me for the fare, and I had to remind him that we needed to pay after the chase car returned us to our car.

Flying High in Vermont

So there we were: Brian, Cindy and me. And Freddy the Pig, though only I could see him. My sister Ruth Anne, an American who adopted Ottawa as her home 40 years ago, might have been there in the balloon, too. She loved ballooning, and once had floated over the Serengeti Plain at dawn, hovering over wildebeest and eland and elephants.
I loved looking down on trees and farms and twisty dirt roads. On Lake Fairlee and little homemade ponds. From time to time Brian would squeeze the handle of the propane heater, producing a blast of hot air that would, a few moments later, bring us slowly, gently higher. There are no quick movements in a balloon, and never did I feel even the slight bit nervous.
We watched kids from Camp Lochearn walking down the road to get their evening ice cream in Post Mills, a chase car following them in case a camper got tuckered out or developed a blister. (Are kids a bit overly tended-to these days?). One hundred kids waved and hollered and wished they were up there with Freddy and me. We flew over my favorite plant nursery in Thetford Center, Vermont, giving me a different perspective on a place I’d visited countless times to buy trees and shrubs. We floated over Interstate 91 and I felt a bit sorry for the folks hurrying along at 70 mph while we floated listlessly in the breeze.
The temperature on the ground that day was in the nineties – one of those hot days I generally dread. But up in the balloon we were comfortable, though the heat and humidity limited our long distance views of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and made our photos less than distinct. Still, I felt like Zeus as I looked down on the world.

Floating Above Still Water

We approached the Connecticut River, but the winds were not right for a river crossing. Shortly before the sun disappeared Brian spotted a postage-stamp parking lot at a boat launch on the Pompanoosuc River. He gave directions to our chase car and Tina Foster, the driver, arrived and screeched to a halt. He threw down a wide nylon web line to her so she could guide us in. Brian called out to people at the boat launch, asking for help pulling us toward the designated stopping point. They did. Brain pulled a cord to release hot air from the balloon, and we gently descended. We landed spot on.
Even when we landed the adventure was not over. Half a dozen people helped us fold up the balloon, including Sophie, who appeared to be about 7 years old. We chatted and drank champagne and soft drinks with some of those who helped us – and found points of connection spanning decades and continents. It was a wonderful evening. I just wish my sister could have been there with us – but who knows? Maybe she was.
If You Go:

Where: Post Mills, Vermont, 20 minutes from Hanover, NH and Dartmouth College
Who to contact: Brian Boland, Balloon Vermont, 802- 333-9254
Cost: $260 /person for a 60-90 minute flight
Lodging: The Silver Maples Lodge and Cabins offers a package including lodging for 2 nights, Continental breakfast and the balloon ride for 2 adults for $725. or 803-333-4326. Silver Maple Lodge is one of Vermont’s oldest continuously operating country inns, with the main building dating back to the late 1700’s. Located in Fairlee, VT, just a few miles from Post Mills. (802) 333-4326 (802) 333-4326 (802) 333-4326 (802) 333-4326

Hiking the Rogue River Canyon

  (Published in Ottawa Citizen, August 20, 2011)


          When I was a young man I took some fearless – and perhaps inadvisable – trips. I rode freight trains from Jersey City to St. Louis, Missouri. I bummed my way across the Sahara on lorries and Land Rovers. I hiked 8

days through an African jungle so remote that money had no value and small children wanted to touch my skin because they had never seen a European.  But I’m not a kid anymore. I’m 65. I still love hiking and adventure, but I fractured my fibula last November, spraining my ankle so badly that it took 6 months to (mostly) heal. So I’ve been looking for adventures that are a bit tamer, and recently found one.


Rogue River Canyon

My companion, Cindy, and I hiked and rafted 40 miles in 4 days along the Rogue River Canyon in Oregon. We signed up with an outfitter, Rogue Wilderness Adventures, that leads hiking trips through a designated wilderness area under the administration of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Each week just 120 visitors are allowed into the area which was one of 8 rivers protected by the Wild Rivers Protection Act of 1973 (there are now some 220 protected rivers in the United States). Sixty visitors are allowed into the area through a lottery conducted each January, and the rest are allowed in if traveling with an outfitter which contracts with the federal agencies.


Rogue River Camp

The Rogue River, located in southern Oregon, is largely unspoiled. There are a few camps and lodges that were built before the area became a designated wilderness area, and these have been allowed to continue operating. We stayed 3 nights in wonderful funky lodges built during the 1950’s. And although we saw a couple of motorized boats the last day, the first 3 days are so remote and the river so rocky that only rafts – and fish – can do down it. Early settlers are said to have thrown sticks of dynamite into some of the rapids to make them more navigable.

          Our trip began at the Grave Creek Boat Launch and continued to Foster Bar, 40 miles downstream. In the late 1800’s the area was filled with gold miners who brought supplies in – and their riches out – by mule. We

Rafting The Rogue River

followed their trail, which wends it way some 100 to 200 feet above the river. In places trail was only made fit for mules by using dynamite to chip away at the bedrock of the steep hillside.  No roads follow this canyon, no cell phones work, and there is only electricity at the lodges that have generators – and then generally only in the evening until 10 pm.

          This was a comfortable trip. We had 2guides –knowledgeable, helpful, funny, full of of lore – and 2 rafts supporting the six of us hiking (though often the trips include a dozen hikers). We stayed in lodges with comfortable beds, hot showers and plenty of good food. The trail climbed and descended, but never was uncomfortably steep. The precipices were scary, but safe.

Each day at lunch time we met the rafts at a sandbar and were treated to a buffet lunch set up under a 10- by 10-foot tent. We had folding canvas chairs to sit on, Gatorade to replenish our electrolytes, and a raft to carry us if we were tired. And, best of all, we did not have to carry our gear. I carried a daypack with raingear, camera, snacks, extra clothes, a journal and wildflowers books. The rest of our stuff went on the rafts.


WIld Iris

Spring in Oregon is full of wildflowers. We hiked from May 30 to June 2 when the wildflowers were at their peak. Most years the wildflowers bloom a bit earlier, but it had been a cold, wet spring, so the flowers waited for us. There was never a moment on the hike that I couldn’t see flowers in bloom. And many of the wildflowers were related to those that I know as garden flowers: iris, poppies, coral bells, larkspur and sedum. Others were new to me, luscious and exotic.

If you go now, there will be few if any wildflowers blooming, but the trees will be reward enough: Pacific madrone trees with bark you’ll just have to touch. Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine that tower above the trail. You’ll see Big Leaf maples with leaves that make our maples seem undernourished. And the ferns will be luscious in the shady gullies, including some that gardeners like me buy at nurseries (you can see maidenhair fern, for example, in its native environment).

          I was struck by the sheer exuberance of the wildflowers – and their number and diversity. The irises were at their peak – and blooming magnificently in full shade. The colors of iris changed as we proceeded: from yellow to pale yellow to purple. And coral bells (Heuchera spp.) grew in rocky faces where no self-respecting garden flower would want to grow. The meadows were filled with soft grasses and uncountable California poppies. It was a gardener’s dream.


Madrone Tree

The landscape is magnificent, wildflowers or no. Douglas fir tower above the trail, which is often intersected by small streams.  Madrone  trees with sensuous smooth bark posed at the edge of precipices. Waterfalls cascaded down the hills. Ferns, lush and green, looked like food for dinosaurs. The rain and drizzle of Oregon – though not always welcomed by hikers – helps to create a lush habitat.

          There are bear, rattlesnakes, deer and birds. We saw deer and osprey every day, some bald eagles, and one golden eagle (my first ever) – but no rattlers or bear. The biggest hazard was the poison oak, which was omnipresent. Fortunately there is the equivalent of a “morning-after pill”. We purchased little packets of  “Tecnu” cream that we rubbed on our skin after our evening showers. It is useful not only in preventing poison oak allergies, it allegedly is good for curing you, should you get it. I was careful, so I never contracted it.

          I jumped onto a raft a couple of times to get a taste of the river. It is full of rapids from Class II to IV, and the guides negotiated the steep bits the way cabbies drive in rush hour traffic. Wet gear was provided for the more extreme bits. The guides encouraged hikers to hop on a raft before blisters formed or anyone got too tired. Quite the luxury.

I liked the fact that I could take this hike in a remote area, a place where no one is texting (or telling, via cell phone, their child to feed the parakeet or discussing their relationship with their mother), and yet know that if something bad happened, someone was there with a radio to call in the helicopters. Our group had 2-way radios at the lead and tail-end of our group, ready to tell our guide that the bears had us surrounded. But of course the bears are timid and hid from us. I returned home ready for another, similar adventure.


If you Go:
Where: Rogue River Canyon. Trips departing from Merlin, Oregon, just outside Grant’s Pass, OR.
Contact: Brad Niva, Rogue Wilderness Adventures. or 541.479.9554
How to Get There: Rent a car in Portland Oregon then drive4-5 hour to Grants Pass. Or fly to Medford, Oregon which is less than an hour by car from Grants Pass.
When to Go: Raft-supported hiking trip are available May and June or September and October. Summer is too hot to hike.
Cost: $989 USD, inclusive of everything except liquor (BYO) and tips.