'Kind of like carnies': International balloon festival returns to High River, Alta.

·3 min read

HIGH RIVER, ALBERTA — The windswept prairie east of the Rocky Mountains seems an unlikely spot for a hot-air balloon festival, but the town of High River, Alta., is celebrating the event's 10th year.

More than 20 brightly coloured balloons — including a pink elephant, a black and yellow bee and the purple and yellow Eye of Ra, named after the Egyptian sun god — took advantage of a lull in the prevailing wind this week to get some up-in-the-air time to mark the opening of the Heritage Inn International Balloon Festival.

"We get about 50 per cent of our flights off. Weather impacts us everywhere," said event director Jamie Kinghorn, who is also a town councillor.

"This is our 10th. We started in 2013 partly because of the flood that happened. I'd been to a number of balloon events and thought this might lift the spirits of the folks in town."

The town of 12,000 just south of Calgary gained an international profile in 2013 when flooding in parts of southern Alberta caused billions of dollars in damage.

High River was one of the hardest-hit communities. Entire neighbourhoods were under water for weeks.

"I called in a bunch of friends from the balloon community and they knew what happened, so 20 of them came into High River and we put on a balloon festival that was actually amazing for the community," Kinghorn said.

"That was sort of the first major thing toward recovery after the flood and we've been doing it every year since at the end of September."

Kinghorn said the festival is a boon to local tourism and there's not a hotel room to be had in town.

He had his first hot air balloon over the city of Calgary in 1988. A year later he was a balloon pilot.

There are 23 balloons participating this year, including some from the United States, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Kinghorn said it's a pretty small community.

"We tend to meet at various events. We tend to travel. We're kind of like carnies to some extent," he said with a laugh.

"We travel around to different cities to different balloon events."

Alan Davidson, who has been involved in the sport since 1977, is one of the volunteers.

He said those who get involved tend to stick with it.

"The amazing thing is that there are still seven or eight of the people I was ballooning with in the '70s and early '80s who are still here at this event," said Davidson. "They've been working with balloons for over 40 years."

Kinghorn, who is the owner and pilot of the Eye of Ra, was the first balloon in the air Thursday morning after a Wednesday evening flight was cancelled due to the wind.

"My God am I glad we got this off," he said as the flight came to an end.

The festival runs through Sunday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 23, 2022.

Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press