Flying makes me nervous. Not to the extent that it stops me from getting on a plane, but a stiff drink beforehand is required regardless of time of day. And while the kids are still young enough to find the thrills and spills of violent turbulence hysterically funny, I have to contain a rather different kind of hysteria by constantly reviewing the balance of probabilities, scouring the faces of cabin crew for any signs of concern and testing the compressive strength of my arm rests.
Hot air ballooning is an entirely different experience for me, however, as I discovered when Jenni and I took our maiden flight in the Dubai desert last year. Oddly, the low-tech mechanics, together with exposure and surrender to the elements somehow banished any nightmare scenarios, making way for a sense of languorous, antiquated adventure. So I’m quite looking forward to the International Balloon Festival in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, some 20 minutes from Montreal where we’ve been spending a few days. It’s an annual event that includes fairground rides and a large concert venue (Mika, The Wanted and Carly Rae Jepsen are among the performers this year), but it’s also an opportunity for a balloon ride, with over a hundred flights at dawn and dusk for nine days straight.
My youngest isn’t tall enough yet. I’m not sure if this is a safety issue or just because there’s little point if you can’t see over the top of the basket, but either way I’ll be taking Stanley for his first flight, while Jenni remains with Carla on terra firma.
It takes a team of six about an hour to unload, unpack and inflate the canopy, while all around there are dozens of others at various stages of the process, feeding into a continuous stream of ascending balloons.
Passive resignation turns to quivering embrace when our basket lifts off and buffets against another inflating canopy, but once we’re a few hundred feet up, Stanley takes a backwards peek and his anxiety palpably melts away.
We don’t feel the wind, because we are moving with it. In fact, we don’t feel any motion at all. It’s as if we are perfectly still and it’s the earth below that’s dragging by, receding further with every roaring flame that breaks the silence.
The pilot speaks very little English, and I clearly didn’t pay attention when we covered hot air ballooning vocabulary in French class, but I do manage to establish that he can’t steer the balloon at all. All he can do is go up or down and let the chase team with the SUV and trailer know where he thinks he’s going to end up.
With the sun setting, the time comes to land. I say ‘land’, but you can’t really ‘land’ a balloon; you just have to crash it as gently as possible. Ours is a comparatively soft impact, with minimal bouncing and scraping, but I haven’t prepared Stanley for this bit and it’s his least favourite part of the experience. He finds the subsequent efforts of others, however, far more entertaining…and even more so when they clip trees or tip the basket with people still in it.
The chase team pack the balloon up into their trailer and drive us back to the festival. By the time the family is reunited night has fallen, and the dazzling fairground rides and live music are in full swing.
When Carla’s grown another six inches, we might just have to come back.