Balloon migration

July tradition drifts south to new launch site

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One of the hottest fixtures on Steamboat's summer resort calendar is drifting south.

Officials of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association confirmed this week that about 40 hot air balloons taking part in the 26th Balloon Rodeo will inflate at a new launch site west of Lake Catamount on July 8 and 9.

Throughout its history, the Balloon Rodeo has been based in a large hay field adjacent to the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.'s Meadows parking lot. That site soon could be under construction as part of the Wildhorse Meadows residential development.

Organizers have known for a couple of years that they needed to find a new site. There was even some thought given to ending the event. But the Balloon Rodeo, which together with Art in the Park makes up the popular Rainbow Weekend in Steamboat, has a new home on about 35 acres about 8 miles south of Steamboat. The land is owned by Steamboat building contractor Tom Fox. The Chamber plans to run shuttle buses to the launch site.

"We wanted to make sure we had a location that offered longevity," Chamber spokeswoman Riley Polumbus said. "We're really excited because we think we have a location that really shows the beauty of the valley."

Fox, who also is a balloon pilot and one of the founders of the event, agrees.

"I think it will be really different out there with just colorful balloons and a natural backdrop without condos and hotels in the view," he said.

The chamber is referring to the new site as Fox's Pond Launch Field. It is south of Colorado Highway 131 on Routt County Road 14C, just west of

C.R. 14E.

Rainbow Weekend helped draw 10,700 visitors to Steamboat in 2005. Fox, who formerly served on the Chamber's board of directors, said the Balloon Rodeo probably isn't as critical to summer tourism as it was a quarter of a century ago, but "it still holds its place."

Polumbus hopes the shift south will be inspiring to spectators as well as balloon pilots.

"At the old site, so many people just sat on the hillside and watched the balloons," she said. "I think at the new site, they'll be more inclined to get right down among the balloons as they inflate. That's something special."

Fox said impending development wasn't the only problem at the Wildhorse Meadows site. The FAA, which licenses hot air balloon pilots, was always somewhat reluctant to grant the waiver needed to fly low over residential neighborhoods, he said. And the number of open meadows for alternative landing sites near the base of the ski area was filling in.

"Our No. 1 priority is pilot safety," said Jody Anagnos, special events director for the chamber. "This area is more open and therefore safer for pilots than the previous location."

There are fewer power lines near his property west of Lake Catamount, Fox added.

"At the old site, there were always pilots who felt nervous," Fox said. "There was a tendency to just land the balloon. Now, they'll see all these open fields around them, and hopefully, they'll feel reassured and fly a little longer."

The new launch site will force balloon pilots to adapt to new wind patterns as they search for the invisible currents of air that allow them to steer a course. At the Meadows, pilots were able to fly in a rectangular pattern by seeking out localized breezes flowing down creek drainages.

Wind patterns are largely unknown west of Catamount. Fox said as soon as summer weather patterns set in, he would make a number of test flights in the area.

A big part of relocating the Balloon Rodeo is securing the cooperation of adjacent landowners and determining whether they'll permit unexpected landings.

"My neighbor to the west (Joe Duksa) is making some of his land available for parking, and we've made all the other owner contacts already," Fox said.

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