Hudson: Hot Air Affair for balloonists

DAVID REINEKE PHOTO

People in Hudson have been playing pirate for a few months now.

Learning about the life of pirates was a lesson in musical storytelling at the public library during spring. Then came a pirate-themed cruise along the St. Croix River.

Talk Like a Pirate Day, last September, brought costumed mates and marauders to a local microbrewery for a silent auction that raised funds for the area’s marquee winter gathering: the 30th Hot Air Affair.

The colorful Feb. 1-3 event brings up to 40 balloonists to the St. Croix Valley, an area whose history includes the manufacturing of hot air balloons. Businesses long ago would design envelopes (the inflatable part of the apparatus) in unusual shapes and paint them by hand.

“They were incredible pieces of art,” recalls Evy Nerbonne, Hot Air Affair organizer.

This year’s Hot Air Affair celebrities include a Jack Sparrow impersonator (as in “Pirates of the Caribbean”) and Peg Leg Pete, an 85-foot-tall hot air balloon owned and operated by Dave and Kathy Reineke of Illinois.

Event theme? That would be Pirates Fly’n the Croix-ribbean. In some circles, it will be a multi-day costume party, and you are invited too.

Expect classes in Caribbean cooking, the painting of parrots on canvas, a treasure hunt and costume party with a pirate theme, rum cocktails and tropical foods. A pirate-centric torchlight parade kicks off the weekend.

The all-hands-on-deck, all-volunteer effort has grown to involve the second and third generation of local families. Nerbonne calls it a homecoming for the aerostat operators because many are repeat Hot Air Affair participants. Most are from the Midwest, but one will travel from Pennsylvania to participate.

Nerbonne was part of the original quartet who organized the first Hot Air Affair, which was the result of brainstorming about how to entice people to visit during winter. Nerbonne was managing a golf course, and her bar director was a hot air balloon pilot who took Nerbonne for her first ride.

Balloon rides for the public are not a part of Hot Air Affair. Nerbonne calls it a spectator event, with the opportunity to walk among the balloons and chat to pilots during an after-dusk balloon glow.

Balloon baskets are set up and propane burners heat air inside of the envelopes, creating a brilliant field of fiery beauty. Bring a camera, Nerbonne advises.

Businesses and individuals sponsor a “Lift Me Up” effort to provide hot air balloon rides to patients with cancer or another life-transforming illness.

Although the hope is that balloons will fly during the weekend, there are no guarantees. Pilots are at the mercy of weather conditions.

“We want it to be about 20 degrees and not too windy,” Nerbonne says, regarding the temperamental nature of hot air ballooning. If the temperature is much warmer, mud dirties the envelope and causes sloppy landings. Rain or snow makes the balloon harder to control. Excessive wind grounds everybody, with one exception.

One feet-on-the-ground tradition is part of Hot Air Affair: smoosh boarding. What happens? Four people share one pair of cross-country skis to maneuver a figure-eight course on a school playground. The team that can turn in sync and walk fastest wins.

“What they strap onto their feet may or may not look like skis,” Nerbonne says. Think shoes bolted to planks, or duct tape as shoe straps.

“Whatever Mother Nature gives us for a course – ice, mud, a blizzard – is what they walk through,” says Nerbonne, who acknowledges the idea is patterned after an event in International Falls, Minn.

The prize? Not much more than “an ugly trophy” and bragging rights, “but some teams take it pretty seriously.”

The Hot Air Affair is Feb. 1-3 at various locations in Hudson, especially downtown.  Look for hot air balloons at the grounds of E.P. Rock Elementary School, 340 13th St. South. hudsonhotairaffair.com

Where can you fly in a hot air balloon in Wisconsin? Options include:

Lake Geneva Balloon Company, Lake Geneva: The pilot-owner’s two decades of experience include years of balloon racing. Aerial tours of Lake Geneva are $240 per person, or $650 per couple for a private flight. lakegenevaballoon.com

Wisconsin’s Majestic Balloons, Ripon: Flights soar over the farmland, forests and waterways of Green Lake County, using an eight-passenger wicker basket. In business since 1978. Fee: $269 per passenger. wisconsinballoon.com