The Mountain Times

°F Sun, April 20, 2014

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Rising above

Thousands enjoy the Quechee Balloon Festival over Father's Day weekend
By Stephen Seitz

QUECHEE - Sunshine over Father's Day weekend did quite a bit to spur attendance at the 34th annual Quechee Hot Air Balloon Craft and Music Festival, June 14-16.

"It was a little slow on Friday with all the graduations," said Strafford resident Ken Alton who handled festival logistics. "There was no flight Friday due to the wind. We always place safety first. We have an experienced pilot who lets us know what conditions are going to be."

The festival routinely makes lists of top Vermont events. Alton said attendance hit a peak of 15,000 one year, and that it might happen for 2013.

"The vendors seem pretty happy," he said. So were the crowds.

"This is my second one," said Boston resident Hollis Muldoon. "Some relatives in New Hampshire brought me last year, and I had a good time, so I thought I'd come back on my own."

Weather permitting, balloons are launched at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. each day during the festival. Some 19 hot air balloons participated in the festivities this year. A ride cost $230, plus sales tax.

Between rides, the skies were not empty. The parachute school Jumptown, based in Orange, Mass., sent several sky divers to the festival. Billing itself as the first commercial skydiving center in the U.S., Jumptown divers kept many festival attendees eyes on the skies as they performed several times throughout the weekend.

Jumptown parachute trainer Brian Boyle said this trip was the first he had made jumps in Vermont and was excited to offer the experience to others.

"We offer tandem skydiving," he said. "Someone will put on a parachute, and do a little training, which takes about 20 minutes. Then we both jump out of the plane together."

Jumptown takes jumpers age 18-years-old plus.

"We had one guy who was 96 years old," Boyle said.

It was also a great day for young children wanting free balloon animals. Stephen Gratto, standing eight feet off the ground, not only made balloon creatures but also juggled and performed as a stilt artist to crowds gathered around. Gratton has been performing at the festival since the 1990s.

"I learned juggling from my older brother, and I practiced a lot," he said. "I'm a teacher. Teaching and performing have a lot in common. Performing is a key element in teaching."

Gratton is the principal at the Northeastern Clinton Central High School in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

The festival grounds were changed after Tropical Storm Irene tore through the region in 2011, Alton said.

"The owners brought the land back after Irene, and the grounds are in excellent shape," he said. "But they also added two soccer fields, and we lost parking. We had to resort to a bus system to get people to the festival this year. But we have water and electricity, and I'm glad we're back."

The festival made up for it by including parking in the passes for the festival.

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