Balloon pilot Tom Fisher checks a device with a crew member at last year’s Bluff Balloon Festival. [Photo courtesy Tom Fisher]

The drab days of January get a splash of color this weekend at the 22nd annual Bluff International Balloon Festival.

“It is incredibly beautiful to look up at these things,” said Marcia Hadenfeldt. “I sit on my front porch and they wave to me.”

Hadenfeldt, one of the owners of the Bluff-based guiding company Far Out Expeditions, has helped organize the event since the first year.

“We’ve put together this festival for years because people want it, and because we have fun making it happen,” she said.

The festival kicks off early Friday morning. Twenty-two pilots are scheduled to bring their crafts this year. Along with their crews and early-bird spectators, they’ll gather at the Bluff Community Center at 7:30 a.m. on Jan. 17 for the first launch.

The balloons will drift over the landscape for as long as the weather and fuel supplies permit. That evening at 5 p.m., Bluff Elementary School will host a Navajo Taco dinner as a fundraiser. Students participate in other ways, too: a balloon-drawing contest for young artists has become a festival tradition that’s grown over the years.

“We realized that we had this fabulous art,” Hadenfeldt said. “So now the kids’ art is our artwork for the posters and the T-shirt embroidery.”

The chosen student artists also receive a small cash prize.

On Saturday, Jan. 18, the balloons will again convene at the community center at 7:30 a.m. to prepare for a second launch.

“Of course it’s all weather dependent,” Hadenfeldt said, but added that out of over 20 years of festivals, there have only been two in which all flights had to be canceled.

If you’re at the launch site early enough, you might have the chance to lend a hand with the preparations.

Hadenfledt described the procedure for setting up a balloon. The fabric of the balloon itself, called the envelope, is laid out on the ground and filled with ambient-temperature air using fans. The basket, laid on the ground on its side, is attached. Then the air inside is heated up until the balloon stands upright. The burner system and controls must be tested for correct operation before flight, and the basket must be held or tethered down until the pilot and passengers are ready for liftoff.

“When you land, you do the whole thing in reverse,” Hadenfeldt said. “The basket touches down, the pilot will release the flap at the top which lets the air out fairly quickly and the balloon lays down.”

She compared stowing the balloon to packing a sleeping bag.

“Think of trying to get a gazillion feet of nylon into a stuff sack that’s made for it,” she said. “You roll, squish, roll, squish, roll, squish, fold, roll and squish until you get it into a huge bag.”

Tom and Diana Fisher have brought their balloon to Bluff from their hometown of Albuquerque for the past eight years and will be attending the 2020 festival. They confirmed that the process can be arduous.

“Balloons are kind of heavy, so the more people you have, the more fun it is…and the less work,” said Diana.

The couple loves the welcoming spirit of the town and appreciates the fundraisers supported by the festival. When they’re not flying, they have enjoyed exploring the Bluff area, hiking at places such as Butler Wash, Sand Island Park and Natural Bridges National Monument.

“Pictures from Bluff are all over our office,” said Diana. “That whole area is just amazing!”

Later on Saturday, Jan. 18, local artists and craftspeople will be showcased at an artists’ market held at the Community Center from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the last hour of the artists market until 7 p.m., the Business Owners of Bluff organization sponsors a “Chili and Ice Cream Social.” Proceeds are contributed to community projects, such as a new kitchen at the Community Center, decorative road signs welcoming travelers to Bluff and new internet in town.

On Saturday evening, from 4 to 7 p.m., local artist Neon N8vz will be performing electronic music. During the show, from 5 to 7 p.m., the balloons will be tethered to the ground outside the Community Center and periodically lit up in what the event calls a “glow-in.”

“The evening balloon glow is spectacular,” said Tom.

Tom has been a balloon pilot for 21 years. He got interested in the pursuit 23 years ago, when his teenage son asked him to go “balloon-hunting” one weekend around Albuquerque, New Mexico, home to the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

“I said ‘the balloons are only there around fiesta time,’” Tom recalled. “He said ‘no, they fly every weekend around Albuquerque, let’s go look for them.’”

The pair did find a balloon team preparing to launch and ended up pitching in to help. Tom was hooked.

Becoming a pilot is a serious undertaking.

“It’s all regulated by the FAA,” explained Diana, who acts as crew chief for Tom.

After taking classes, a would-be pilot must pass both a written and a practical test, and then accrue hours flying solo before being tested in flight by an FAA examiner. After a pilot is certified, his or her balloon must be inspected and maintained to FAA standards. Tom has attained commercial balloon pilot status, meaning he can instruct others.

“I actually teach people how to fly,” Tom said. “It’s the next level up.”

The Fishers’ 90,000 cubic-foot balloon is named “Breezy Rider,” an homage to another hobby Tom had considered.

“Way back when I thought about ballooning or buying a motorcycle, it was “Easy Rider” days,” he said, referring to the 1969 movie of that name. “I leaned toward the balloon side of it.”

On Sunday, Jan. 19, the last day of the event, the pilots again gather at the Community Center, this time at 7 a.m., and caravan to a launch site near the Valley of the Gods, a scenic area overseen by the BLM.

“The amazing thing is all the beauty of the area,” said Diana. “We fly for two days from the Bluff area itself, and even there the rock formations are great… And then flying over Valley of the Gods—that’s amazing.”

What: Bluff International Balloon Festival

Where: Community Center, 3rd East Mulberry Street, Bluff Utah

When: 7 a.m. on Jan. 17 through Jan. 19