Balloons fly last time at Meadows

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Karen Beauvais was teary-eyed Sunday morning as hot air balloons were preparing to take off for the last time in the field next to the Meadows parking lot.

The launch site -- with close proximity to hotels and condominiums, favorable wind patterns and the Steamboat Ski Area as a backdrop -- is special, Beauvais said. She wondered whether the community would find one to replace it.

"I'm very, very concerned," she said. "It's such an ideal spot."

After taking off in the Big Top Balloon, which belongs to Beauvais' longtime friends, Jon and Robin Seay, Beauvais recalled memorable landings on the Yampa River, at a time when most pilots attempted to fly over power lines and the nearby ranchers made sure they didn't land on hay fields.

Beauvais, who was among the organizers and sponsors of Steamboat's first Hot Air Balloon Rodeo 25 years ago, said the morning was an emotional one.

The idea for the Balloon Rodeo was spurred from the success of similar events in Vail and Snowmass. Beauvais said it also was helped along by Steamboat's first commercial hot air balloon pilot Mike Bauwers and a group of five or six pilots who would come up together on weekends to fly.

For the first event, Beauvais said about 20 balloons and 2,000 spectators showed up. Beauvais, with her husband, Mix, has attended all but one of the Balloon Rodeos since then and has watched the event grow to include 45 balloons and draw 10,000 people to town. Each year, their business, Coldwell Banker Silver Oak, is a sponsor, and the Beauvaises have supported the Big Top Balloon's owner and pilot for years.

With the balloon's carnival theme, the group dressed in clown suits and handed out red noses Saturday, drawing attention for their enthusiasm.

"Once you are in the balloon, it is forever," Karen Beauvais said as the balloon joined others in a sky full of bright colors Sunday morning. "It is addictive."

By 10 a.m. Sunday, the group was celebrating the successful weekend of good weather and crowds with champagne and a picnic lunch on the launch field.

As in past years, people lined the top of Mount Werner Road overlooking the Meadows parking lot with cameras in hand as balloons began inflating and taking off at about 7 a.m.

"It is one of the prettiest places in the nation to hold a balloon rodeo," said Dave Sweeney, who has been one of the announcers for the event for the past 13 years. "It is one of the last times in this field. It is kind of a shame, it's such a pretty place."

Developer Whitney Ward has bought the land where the balloons are launched. Plans are for construction to start next summer on the land, which previously was owned by the ski area.

Judy Anagnos, who organizes the event with the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Assoc--iation, said members are looking at three or four potential replacement sites.

"I think the balloon event is always going to happen," Anagnos said. "Everyone wants to be here with all the balloons. It is such a great way to spend the weekend."

Nostalgia was flying high Sunday morning as some of the longtime pilots and organizers looked back on the event's 25 years.

Pilots Dennis Brown and Dewey Reinhard, who remember flying in Steamboat even before the Balloon Rodeo, said that in the old days, they would take off from the other side of Mount Werner Road, which could be tricky.

"It was like we had died and gone to heaven when they moved over here," Reinhard said.

The two recalled when one of the events was a race in which cowboys and their saddles would ride in the balloon baskets. The pilots would attempt to land and drop the cowboys off as close as possible to a corral of horses.

With saddles in hand, the cowboys would run to their horses, saddle them up and ride through a course.

From the air, the event looked stunning, but on the ground, the horses were more than a little skittish because of all the balloons in the air. Brown said that for obvious reasons, the race was held only one year.

But in the winter, a similar event was held for cross-country skiers.

"It hasn't changed in 25 years. It is still one of the better places to fly in the world," Reinhard said.

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