I've managed to avoid the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta each of the four years since moving to Albuquerque. A corporate day-job, trips to Mexico and Oregon seemed to pull me in different directions each October. Tales of death, power outages and traffic jams didn't sound like too much fun. But, much as I learned to enjoy a good Green Chili Cheeseburger, I've come to appreciate Albuquerque's world-famous Balloon Fiesta!
For some time, Mike Hayes (Quiet Waters Paddling Adventures) and I have talked about leading guided canoe and kayak trips down the Rio Grande during the Balloon Fiesta. Why not? If conditions are right to fly, surely they're good enough to kayak, right?
The balloons often fly North and West over Corrales, so the Coronado Campground seemed like a good place to start. The burning question was - is there enough water to float down to Corrales, Romero Road, or even Alameda? For those not familiar with the area, Algadones to Bernalillo is pretty reliable, and can be paddled year-around. Bernalillo to Corrales (River's Edge III) or Romero Road is also pretty reliable. A few low spots exist around 400cfs, but nothing that requires portaging. From Corrales to Alameda is virtually impossible at these levels. The river channel is much wider, and shallower. 700-800cfs is needed...and then, there's no guarantee you can make it through cleanly.
Mike and I added the event to the Albuquerque Kayak Meetup (a group I started for my former students), and within a few days, almost a dozen people signed up. Before leading any trip, I like to do a recon-mission a few days in advance, to evaluate conditions, changes in the river, downed trees, etc. that could be a potential risk to my groups. In this case, I just wanted to know if there was enough water to float down to Romero Road!
I needed a volunteer, and my good friend Olivia stepped up to the challenge. It's not easy convincing someone to get up at 5:30am on their day off, let alone to go kayaking in sub 40-degree weather early on a Friday morning when the whole purpose was to see if we'd get stuck in the mud or not! She's jokingly a self-proclaimed 'chicken' - but anyone who knows her gets the irony; she's actually one of the most adventurous people I've ever met! No surprise that she readily agreed.
Olivia is starting an after-school adventure program at Rio Rancho Public Schools, and kayaking is one of the many activities she will include. This would be a great opportunity for her to hone in her kayaking skills and learn the river where they'll be taking their trips. Hopefully this time next year, we'll be leading a group of her middle-school kids down the Rio Grande during Balloon Fiesta!
We met at the designated take-out spot at 6:30, and left her vehicle at River's Edge III, and drove back to the Coronado Campground. Our goal was to be on the water by 7:30. We missed it by a few minutes, but we could see balloons launching from Balloon Fiesta Park, and knew they'd soon be headed our way.
We paddled most of the way down. A few balloons passed over us, but most were further south. So we found a great sand-bar near River's Edge II, and waited. At one point, there were probably a dozen balloons within a few hundred yards of us. The 'Special Shapes' balloons came first, then the remainder of the balloons. One passed directly overhead, maybe a hundred feet above us.
I've never been so close to the balloons. Watching them float by was amazing. The burners sounded like big animals, taking deep breaths. We joked about Darth Vader's heavy breathing, "Luke! <breath> I am your father!" and "Today will be a day long remembered....<for the balloons>." A few minutes later, you guessed it, the Darth Vader balloon passed over us!
In all, we had an awesome day. It was clear and sunny, very little wind, we dressed appropriately, and within a few minutes of being on the water, we were nice and warm.
Sunday came around, and as you all know, the Farewell Mass Ascension was canceled due to the wind. Still, the majority of the Meetup members had arrived and unloaded their boats, and were ready to launch at 7:30. I'm pretty certain this group would have paddled in a hurricane. Two drove from Santa Fe, one from Los Alamos and others from the East Mountains. Byron Olson paddled his hand-made, production-ready Stand Up Paddleboard, Officer Steve Verchinski paddled his new touring boat, Alex in his new Remix XP-9, Mike in his canoe, and the rest of us in our whitewater boats.
Sunday's crew included: April Evans, Susan Parkins, Susan Brockway, Lisa Spiller, Josh Gerstner, Steve Verchinski, Alex Himes, Byron Olson, Kelly Maeckel, Michael Hayes and myself, Kelly Gossett.
Both days were truly awesome! The Rio Grande through Bernalillo and down through Albuquerque is really an awesome resource. Paddling among the balloons would have been an unique experience, but the most memorable trips are always when I'm paddling with great people.
See you on the river,