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Sunday, August 30, 2015 : Balloon flight, Great Sand Dunes

 

We get up at 5am. Balloon flights always happen very early, to take advantage of the better lift of cool morning air. We have to skip breakfast at the hotel. Too bad, the buffets looked really plentiful.

 

It's still pitch dark when we leave. After quickly crossing Taos, we meet Ken and Jennifer, our flight companion this morning. We follow Ken to his place where his crew, Casey and Kory, are almost done with loading the van.

 

We then take the road for a few miles northward. We drive down along Arroyo Hondo, a small Rio Grande tributary, which we cross to our takeoff point, located on the edge of the gorge.

 

In 2013, a decree by President Obama protected the whole area as the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. Ken bitterly quips that the President just forgot to set aside some money for the roads which, as a matter of fact, look in quite bad condition.


Full moon near Rio Grande Gorge, El Prado, NM

Full moon near Rio Grande Gorge

 

It's still almost dark. Marie takes a few pictures of the full moon. Fortunately, the weather looks bright. It's quite cold, good thing we took our sweaters.

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Ken and the crew get the equipment ready

Ken and the crew get the equipment ready

 

Ken, Kory and Casey are preparing the equipment. They take a lot of care double-checking everything.

 

At this moment, the balloon is merely an absolutely empty 80-foot long nylon envelope lying on the ground. The burners are already in place on top of the basket.

 

Ken tells me that, although of an obviously simpler design, a hot air balloon is certified according to the same rules as an airliner, and has to be periodically inspected and maintained. As a matter of fact, Ken's balloon is registered ... exactly as an airliner.

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Sunrise on the edge of Rio Grande Gorge

Sunrise on the edge of Rio Grande Gorge

 

While the preparation work is proceeding, Marie takes more pictures, including this sunrise above the mountains facing us on the other side of Rio Grande Gorge. Somewhere in front of us is Wheeler Peak, the highest summit in New Mexico. Mountains around Taos even have a winter sports resort which may sound odd in this season, despite the early morning cold.

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We hold the lower opening while the balloon is inflated

We hold the lower opening while the balloon is inflated

 

Contrary to what I previously thought, a balloon is inflated with cold air, with the help of a very large fan, just to avoid burning the thin nylon envelope. At the beginning, help is needed to keep the lower opening of the balloon wide open, so Jennifer and I give a hand. Fast enough, the balloon takes volume and our contribution becomes less necessary.

 

Later on, Ken uses the propane burners to heat the air inside the balloon and give it its definitive shape.

 

Meanwhile, Casey, Kory and Ken are almost done double-checking each piece of equipment.

 

Boarding the balloon is moderately physical and straightforward : while the crew members maintain the basket flat on the ground, passengers take turns stepping over the edge.

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Casey, Marie, Christian, Jennifer and Ken, ready to fly !

Casey, Marie, Christian, Jennifer and Ken, ready to fly !

 

Here we are, everything is ready. We are on board and takeoff is imminent. While Casey maintains the balloon on the ground a  few more seconds, Kory takes one last picture.

 

For the record, the propane container that Casey holds is a spare. Ours (there's always two, just in case) are already strapped at the bottom of the basket.

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Rio Grande Gorge

Rio Grande Gorge

 

Takeoff is extremely smooth, without the slightest bump, and the balloon is immediately pushed by the early morning low wind. Ken already knows which way it blows at various altitudes : minutes before take-off, he launched a small helium balloon and watched it climb up in the sky, keeping a careful eye on its path. He therefore already knows how he is going to navigate, and in which direction. In fact, the only way to steer a hot air balloon is to vary its altitude, to take advantage of the various winds. There is only one navigation instrument onboard, and it is the altimeter. It may sound straightforward, but flying a balloon requires quite sophisticated aerology skills.

 

As for any other aircraft, there are ground-based weather services. Before leaving his base, Ken had called Taos Regional Airport and enquired about prevailing winds, in order to select, among the half-dozen launch points he has access to, the one we just left.

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Our balloon's shadow

Our balloon's shadow

 

The wind blowing sideways quickly takes us right above Rio Grande Gorge, pretty close by. The game (it's really one ...) consists in descending into the gorge. Since it seems better not to hit the rock walls, navigation grows more precise, and the pilot's skills take on a new meaning.

 

The sun is now completely up. It projects our balloon's shadow against the rock wall. Ken chose to take only little height, so the view is at the same time pretty close and really beautiful.

 

Apart from the occasional propane shot into the burners and our own conversations, silence is absolute. There is even no air whistling, since our balloon, carried by the wind, flies at its exact speed.

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Bridge on the Rio Grande

Bridge on the Rio Grande

 

Today's challenge is to fly down as low as possible into Rio Grande Gorge to, ideally, gently touch the surface of the water, and climb back up toward the plateau, obviously while still not touching anything. Since the wind blows sideways, it makes for a slightly complicated navigation. Ken solves the problem by resolutely crossing Rio Grande and completing the descent above Arroyo Hondo, the small tributary along which we arrived. The first attempt fails, Ken does not insist, the second brilliantly succeeds.

 

During Wild West times, Arroyo Hondo was part of an old pioneer trail. A small wooden trestle, long washed away by the sometimes ferocious Rio Grande floods, stood a few dozen feet upstream of the metal bridge shown on the picture. More recently, US Route 64 replaced all former trails in the area, crossing Rio Grande with a beautiful metal bridge we will see later.

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Inside the balloon, the burners

Inside the balloon, the burners

 

I thought that two burners and propane tanks were merely justified by redudancy, in case one of the systems should fail. Ken tells me this is not the only reason. Basically, there is also a desire to get more autonomy, for longer flights. By the way, I see he takes some care alternatively using both systems, to keep a comparable level in both propane containers.

 

A moment later, at Ken's invitation, I fire a few gas shots with one of the burners. The response time is long : no less than 7 seconds elapse between the gas shot and the moment the balloon begins to gain altitude. Of course, it is a big part of the pilot's skill to anticipate this huge lag.

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The surface of the Rio Grande

The surface of the Rio Grande

 

We have now reached water level. A second later, the bottom of the basket gently kisses the surface of Rio Grande, leaving but tiny waves in its wake. As we already said, the wind blows slightly sideways, and we ought to quicky gain altitude and exit the gorge. It is a matter of a few gas shots with the burners.

 

Before coming here, I assumed Rio Grande was a big, deep and wide river. After all, a few hundred miles south, it sets the border between the United States and Mexico. But not at all. In this end of summer, it is a shallow river, with a low water flow, and rocks showing here and there. This is one more reason not to spend any more time here than necessary.

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Taos plateau

Taos plateau

 

After wandering inside the gorge and kissing the surface of Rio Grande, Ken takes altitude to try and pick a wind current that could bring us back toward the plateau where we started from. As a matter of fact, Casey and Kory, who remained on the ground, have to pick us up with the van. Ken finds what he was looking for at 8,600 feet, 1,800 feet above the plateau.

 

From up there, thanks to the gorgeous weather, sight extends dozens of miles around. Ken is more than happy to give me a geology lesson. The region was split in two by a deep rift between tectonic plates, later filled with sediment, giving the plateau its smooth and flat look. Rio Grande never had to carve its gorge, it merely wrought its way through the fault. Volcanic cones, the last witnesses of a formerly intense geological activity, are in no shortage. Fortunately, they have been extinct for quite a while.

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Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

 

Thanks to the altitude, looking south, we enjoy an excellent view of Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, one of the most spectacular metal bridges in the United States. On our way back, we will cross it.

 

After slightly more than an hour in flight, we land in a vast prairie quite close to where we started from. During landing, the trick is to touch the ground at wind speed, without overturning the basket, its equipment and its passengers, which is, well, us. It's not that easy. Most like an airliner, landing is in fact the most tricky operation.

 

Moreover, a hot air balloon cannot land anywhere. The least of things is to ask permission from the landowner. Ken has long had agreements with local farmers to use their land, and he knows where to go. The place also has to be accessible with the van. This is yet one more reason for a precise navigation.

 

Immediately before landing, the balloon basket scares away a whole pack of jackrabbits. Fortunately, they are way faster than we are, and we do not run over any.

 

Casey, Kory and Ken, with some help from us, repack all the equipment and load the van. We are then on our way to the traditional champagne brunch, which is supposed to follow any hot air balloon flight.

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Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

 

We have the brunch at the rest area off US Route 64, next to Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. This place is a great choice. Not only does it have shady tables and chairs (the sun is now high in the sky), but it also enjoys a beautiful view of the gorge. I jokingly quip to Kory that the place is not their headquarters but, so to say, their brunch office.

 

We do not have to walk long for Marie to take this picture of the bridge, hardly a hundred feet.

 

Meanwhile, I enjoy Kory lecturing me about where the historical tradition of the champagne brunch that follows each hot air balloon flight comes from. It actually dates back to the very first manned flight on November 21, 1783, with the famous French gentlemen Pilâtre de Rozier and marquis d'Arlandes as passengers. A straw fire, producing thick plumes of black smoke, helped keep the balloon airborne for a moment. Then, they oddly landed in a field, right at the feet of fearful farmers, terrified by this flying dragon appearing from out of nowhere. To win over the angry crowd, the two gentlemen had no other way than to throw them the champagne bottles they had brought along to celebrate an eventually successful flight. Heated minds could cool down, the tradition was born.

 

Following the custom, we are treated to a plentiful brunch, watered down with California champagne. I eat quite my share of sliced cheese and pork deli, while discussing the history of ballooning with Kory, whose knowledge of the subject seems to know no bounds. I go easy on the champagne, we have some driving to do, later on.

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Christian, Kory, Ken, Jennifer, Casey

Christian, Kory, Ken, Jennifer, Casey

 

Before driving back to the base and parting ways, Marie take a last group picture.

 

Then we drive back to Ken's place, take our cars and leave. Later on, I realize I forgot my sweater in the bathroom. Bad move, I will miss it more than once.

 

We drive SR-522 toward the North and enter Colorado. This is the second and last state on this trip that we had not previously visited.

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Rio Grande Scenic Railroad

Rio Grande Scenic Railroad

 

At the entrance of Fort Garland, we are stopped for a few minutes at a level crossing by Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, a regional tourist train that links Alamosa to La Veta, offering many scenic views of the Colorado mountains. Perhaps next time ...

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The Great Sand Dunes seen from afar

The Great Sand Dunes seen from afar

 

After another few miles north, we come in sight of the Great Sand Dunes, more than 600ft high dunes right in the middle of the Rocky Mountains, at an about 8,000 ft elevation. They can be seen from quite afar, they mark the edge of the plateau we are now crossing.

 

We make a quick stop at Great Sand Dunes Lodge. Since our room is not yet ready, we leave to visit Great Sand Dunes National Park, pretty close by. It is the first National Park on this trip, so we buy our America The Beautiful Interagency Pass, which grants us unlimited access to all National Park Service sites. Considering our packed schedule, it will provide great value !

 

We begin with the visitor center, very informative as usual, where we watch a film about the origin of the dunes, unexpected  in such a place. Everything begins with erosion caused by water, which rubs material off the mountain and wears it thin till it turns into sand. The sand is then washed down to the base of the mountain by runoff water. But, instead of being carried to the valleys and to the ocean by the rivers, it stays there, on this plateau surrounded by high mountain ranges. Prevailing winds, which blow opposite to the flow of runoff water, bring it back to its starting point, creating these spectacular dunes. The move is permanent and has sustained itself for tens of millenia.

 

There, we also buy me a new ranger hat, a wise precaution since we spend most of our time outside, and our new National Park passport, the previous one having been badly soaked by the rain two years ago in New York City.

 

Outside is very hot and damp. We are advised to avoid the mid-afternoon searing heat to climb up the dunes, which we gladly do. We satisfy ourselves with a rather short walk on a well-shaded trail, then we have some rest at the lodge. I enjoy spending some time at the pool.

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The Great Sand Dunes

The Great Sand Dunes

 

When we get back to the park at the end of the afternoon, it is slightly less hot. We spend a moment walking along an almost dry Medano Creek. The width of its bed is nonetheless quite impressive, giving an idea of its flow during snowmelt. It now makes sense that huge quantities of sediment are washed down to here, and become the sand of the dunes.

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The Great Sand Dunes

The Great Sand Dunes

 

After crossing the bed of Medano Creek and coming back opposite our starting point, we decide to climb up the dunes. But walking in sand, on a steep slope, with ordinary (though good quality) trekking shoes is not that easy. For each two steps we walk up, we slip one step back. We nevertheless persist and, little by little, gain height and enjoy a much more spectacular view.

 

We do not quite make to the top of High Dune at 699 ft. Marie gives up at about two-thirds of the way. I persist another few minutes, still without quite reaching the top.

 

From where we are, we can see groups of sandboarders climbing up smaller dunes with their boards, then surfing their way down. We are now fully aware that when there's no snow, it's entirely possible to surf on sand.

 

Sitting on the sand, we enjoy some rest, watching the gorgeous landscape. Then we set on our way down.

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Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park

 

As we leave the park, Marie takes this picture of the ubiquitous entry sign. We now have quite a nice collection of those, and it is going to build up even more in the coming weeks.

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Hummingbird

Hummingbird

 

Back at the lodge, before dinner, Marie watches the hummingbirds flocking on the terrace. We notice that the lodge supplies these water dispensers. The flight of the hummingbird is quite spectacular : it flaps its wings so fast they become nearly invisible, bringing it to to an almost stationary position, a bit like a helicopter.

 

We then have dinner at the Oasis, the restaurant below the lodge. Later in the night, we watch thru the window as a female deer walks by quietly between the buildings, with her two fawns behind.

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