Early today and Sunday morning, pilots licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration will soar over Steamboat Springs in hot air balloons bearing everything from bright colors to cowboys and Indians.
One pilot is even flying a giant duck with a pink and blue bowtie for the 24th annual Balloon Rodeo.
Forty-three balloons will take off from the hay meadow next to the Meadows parking lot. They will launch at least six at a time, and if calm winds prevail, the hot air balloons will all linger for a while with the Steamboat Ski Area as their backdrop.
"It's really nice to look at," said "Balloon-meister" Marty Pearlman, who will be coordinating the launch from the ground this year. Pearlman also is an FAA-licensed "lighter than air" pilot who has flown in 22 Steamboat balloon rodeos.
The Yampa Valley is a really exciting place to fly balloons, Pearlman said. That's because of the unusual "box" winds that circle the valley and enable balloon pilots to take off in one direction and come back, he explained.
"We have it more times than we don't," Pearlman said. "This valley is a very maneuverable place, so it's fun for people to fly."
To take advantage of optimum winds, the balloon rodeo starts early, with balloonists gathering at 6:30 a.m. on the field to start inflating their balloons for a 7:15 a.m. launch.
"What we do is encourage people to come down to the field, see the balloons inflate and talk to the balloonists," Pearlman said.
Once the balloons are in the air, pilots compete in two maneuvering events each morning.
For the Don Quixote race, each pilot is equipped with a broomstick that has a sharp nail on the end. They try to pop helium-filled weather balloons that will be tethered around the launch field at 100 feet.
Pilots score points for each punctured weather balloon.
The second event, "Rodeo Roping," keeps with Steamboat's Western tradition by having balloon pilots attempt to lasso a makeshift steer on the ground. The pilots have to maneuver their airborne balloons as close to the steer as possible to toss their rope lassos over the steer and gain points depending on how close each lasso lands.
Balloon pilots are competing for gift certificates to restaurants each day and the grand prize of two round-trip plane tickets for the best overall weekend score. Pilots share their prizes with their local sponsors.
After balloons with names such as "Spirit in the Sky," "Ramblin' Rose" and "Fire N'Ice" come back to earth, pilots and their passengers will be sharing a traditional hot air balloon ceremony of sorts. They will drink champagne and recite the "Balloonist's Prayer":
"May the wind welcome you with softness.
May the sun bless you with his warm hands.
May you fly so high and so well that God joins you in laughter
and sets you down gently back into the loving arms of Mother Earth."