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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Full of hot air: Balloons take to the skies in Steamboat Springs Hot Air Balloon Rodeo

May 29, 2018 10:11PM ● By Diana Barnett

John Seay’s Western Spirit has one of only 12 hand-painted envelopes (balloons) in the world.

When the wizard had trouble navigating his balloon in “The Wizard of Oz,” the spark was lit for me! It was my first introduction to hot air balloons. The wizard’s balloon looked dangerous, but beautiful, and fit perfectly with the other colorful, unusual objects and creatures in the movie. It may have started in Kansas, but it seemed straight from Oz.

Nowadays, it’s not so unusual to get up close and personal with a hot air balloon and its pilot, as festivals across the country provide numerous opportunities. Each July, balloonists across the country visit Colorado for the annual Steamboat Springs Hot Air Balloon Rodeo.

“The neat thing about balloons is that they have a magical influence on everybody, no matter what age,” said Debby Standefer, the rodeo’s balloonmeister.

This year’s rodeo, which takes place July 14-15, hosts 25-30 balloons. Pilots inflate their craft at 6 a.m. in the field next to Bald Eagle Lake, and begin liftoff at 6:30 a.m., prepared for a little competition.

They take part in a splash and dash event on the lake, where pilots float the balloons low enough to lightly dip their baskets in the water, some going farther than others. Other tasks involve throwing beanbags at a target in the middle of the field— whoever gets closest wins a prize. Then the balloons just float through the air, following the current.

Ballooning is dependent upon gentle winds and balloons don’t do well in approaching cold fronts or rain. In the mountains, the winds tend to be varied, light and wispy. Each pilots is constantly watching the other balloons or looking at flags around the town below to see which direction the wind is blowing. Sometimes they’ll spit to check the wind, too. They don’t have control other than going up and down, but are able to use their intuition and experience to know what the winds will do to their craft.

The Routt National Forest and its surrounding peaks provide a beautiful backdrop for this amazing event that is entering its 37th season. Red-winged blackbirds and Sandhill cranes lift off alongside the balloons, making for a truly sensory occasion.

Several pilots return to the Steamboat event again and again. Pat Carter, pilot of Colorado High, has navigated a version of his balloon in the rodeo since 1981. The son of a Colorado ballooning pioneer, Carter travels to several festivals each year and said Steamboat is one of his favorites.

“It definitely ranks up there with the absolute top places that I’ve flown,” he said.

John Seay’s Western Spirit has one of only 12 hand-painted envelopes (balloons) in the world.

Another balloon, The Western Spirit, also makes regular appearances. Piloted by Jon T. Seay, Sr., the balloon’s envelope (the part laymen think of as the balloon) is one of only 12 hand-painted envelopes in the world. Seay owns two of them. The Western Spirit features eight cowboys, each 40 feet high and created using airbrushing and dyes and took more than 2,000 hours to complete.

“I really enjoy the quiet of ballooning and sharing it with people and friends,” said Seay. “It’s great to take people up in the balloon who may not have the chance to do so elsewhere.”

The Smokey Bear balloon, sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, is an annual favorite. Smokey is so large that he is inflated and launched in a separate area of the rodeo.

The rodeo concludes with the Balloon Glow, a stunning event at the base of the Steamboat ski area. Pilots illuminate their tethered balloons beside Burgess Creek, taking advantage of the amazing views and cooler air. The Candle Stick Glow provides another amazing effect— burners in the balloon baskets ignite and make it look as if a candle is burning beside the creek.

Steamboat is full of more than hot air that weekend. Besides the balloons, visitors can enjoy the city’s annual Art in the Park event, which includes more than 150 vendors in Lincoln Park, adjacent to the Yampa River.

For more information on events in Steamboat Springs, visit

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