Despite weather snags, Festival of Balloons delights visitors in Tigard's Cook Park

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Festivalgoers enjoy balloons lit up agaist an evening sky during the Night Glow of Tigard's Festival of Balloons.Cason Pierce stepped out of the wooden basket of a hot air balloon with a grin and a skip.

"That was awesome!" the 8-year-old from Vancouver, Washington, exclaimed early Friday morning, June 21.

Friday marked the first time Cason, his younger brother and dad experienced an ascent in a hot air balloon. It also marked opening day of the Tigard Balloon Festival.

"Even though we were only half way up, it felt hot," Cason noted, referring to the gas flame that fueled the balloon during his tethered ride.

The annual weekend fest sees giant balloons fill the sky at dawn, then light up the field at Tigard's Cook Park at dusk. TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Gary Moore of Owlbert Eyenstein shoots off fire during the Night Glow of Tigard's Festival of Balloons.

Only tethered rides were offered Friday, due to weather conditions, with full launches happening Saturday.

"It's our first time," Pierce's mother, Hillary Pierce, said as she waited in line with her husband and children to be the first family loaded in for a free tethered ride, courtesy of Chris Whitfield of Albany.

Whitfield has been flying balloons for 12 years now.

"Your first flight is free. Your second will cost you $15,000," he jokes, about the journey and costs of the hobby. "I got one free ride at an event in 2007, and that was it, I was hooked."

Whitfield soon bought his own balloon that he now routinely brings to the Tigard festival.

Despite the costs and logistics of transporting and inflating the balloon, the hobby has proven to be a labor of love, literally, for Whitfield and his wife, Jennifer.

"On my very first flight, I took Jennifer up and proposed to her," he recalled. Amid a field of behemoth inflated balloons, each with its own name, the Whitfields and other volunteers helped hoist children and families into "Heaven Bound," one by one.

Nearby, Linda Lyon used the early morning hours to finish arranging lighted, multi-color lanterns in her vendor booth.

"This is so much fun, venturing out now," Lyon, of Puyallup, Washington, said of making the trek to the annual festival to sell her hand-assembled wares.

Across the field, carnival rides sat empty under an overcast sky, marking the calm before the storm.

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Festival attendees swing through the air at the Tigard Festival of Balloons carnival.Later that day, carnival gates opened and live music closed out the evening.

At an adjacent field, winds left pilots grounded, but balloons were inflated for the sheer visual spectacle.

David Dunrud of Geyersville, California, sat in "Rocket the Flying Squirrel," a crowd favorite.PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - David Dunrud fires up 'Rocket the Flying Squirrel,' a hot air balloon he piloted at the Festival of Balloons.

"I've been flying since I was 14," Dunrud said, recounting his journey into hot air ballooning. "I really enjoy ballooning. This area's really beautiful to fly in."

For Dunrud, much of the reward from the hobby comes from bringing joy to others.

"They'll never forget," he said. "Fifty years from now, they're still going to remember the hot air balloon ride they took."

TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Gigi Wiggins performs during an Aretha Franklin tribute set at Tigard's Festival of Balloons.An estimated 15,000 people attend the festival each year, according to organizers.

"It was a beautiful weekend, a lot of people came out and had a good time," Kristin Romelhardt, program director for the festival, said. "Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate like we wanted."

A night glow event, which sees balloons inflated during evening hours, had to be modified Saturday evening, also due to weather.

"The downside, which was also kind of an upside, is that the crowds get to come up, sit in the baskets and have that one-on-one experience with the pilots, which we would not get to do with the night glow," Romelhardt said.

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