Balloon Adventure

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is one of the highlights of this area. Every year I try to go at least once. I find it an interesting experience, with each year being at least a little different. This year no one wanted to come with me; their loss, as it turned into an exciting adventure.

Dawn Patrol

Dawn Patrol balloons fire their propane burners against the dark sky.

As usual, my plan is to leave early to beat the traffic. This time it works, and I am just walking in the gate to Balloon Fiesta Field as the Dawn Patrol takes off.  Dawn Patrol is a group of balloons that take off in the dark, just before dawn, for a final check of the winds aloft.  Wind conditions are briefed to the pilots before the mass ascension.  The balloons look very cool as the envelopes light up against the dark sky when the pilots burn propane.

Mass Ascension

Pilots test the propane burner before inflating.

My friend Deborah is on the ground crew for a balloon.  She had invited me to come to their site, so I make my way over to R6 where itsa Touchie Subject was preparing to take off.  They are in the first wave of balloons.  Soon the envelope is spread out, the gondola is attached to the envelope, the fan is started, and cold inflation begins.  A gas-powered fan fills the envelope with air as it lies on the ground.

A gas-powered fan fills the envelope with cold air.

The next step is to light up the propane burner, and heat the air inside.  The heated air rises and lifts the envelope to vertical.  The ground crew are hanging onto the gondola to keep it on the ground.  The “zebras” give the word, and hundreds of balloons take off.

345 balloons launch in one hour!

On Saturday a new world record was set for the number of balloons to take off in one hour: 345.  Today there are slightly fewer, but still an awesome number.

The pilot sets down to refuel.

I am asked to participate in the chase crew.  We pack ourselves like sardines into three vehicles and take off in pursuit of the balloon.  The chase crew is in radio contact with “Fergie”, the pilot.  He is soon down in a field for a change of propane tanks.  Creating the amount of hot air it takes to keep a balloon aloft uses a lot of propane.

Ballooning Over the Rio Grande

Only three instruments: altitude, vertical speed, and envelope temperature.

I am invited to ride in the balloon on the next hop.  How exciting!  I clamber into the gondola, and soon we are rising above the treetops.  I can see the Balloon Fiesta Field where the last wave is just launching.

The Rio Grande and Sandia Mountain combine to form a phenomenon unique to Albuquerque, known as the Albuquerque Box.  When the Box is in effect, winds aloft are blowing in different directions.  By changing altitude, balloons can fly back and forth.  The Box is in effect today, and we change directions several times during the flight.  The box effect dissipates as the sun warms the ground.

Splash 'N' Dash

Below us, a balloon is doing a “splash and dash”, where the pilot descends low enough to dip the gondola in the river.  Fergie does not want to get the balloon wet, but he does descend very near the water.  In fact, we startle a turtle and watch him frantically swimming under water, trying to escape the monster from the sky.

"Mom, look at the balloon!"

We ascend, cross Paseo del Norte, and fly over the ranches on the east side of the river.  People are waving at us and taking photos.  I wave back and take photos.

“Facilitate a Safe Landing”

Fergie is looking for a place to set down.  A large green pasture presents itself, but in and around it is livestock: horses, a llama or alpaca, ostriches.  Animals are often spooked by the sound of the propane burner and the pilot is responsible for any damages, so he elects not to land in the pasture.

Except for the livestock, this pasture would be a good place to land.

The wind takes us back over the bosque.  We are flying at treetop level, ready to take advantage of any open space to land, but none presents itself.  Fergie descends, hoping to catch a change of wind, but it is not enough and we must ascend to get over some trees.

Any landing you can walk away from ...

We are getting low on fuel, and it is becoming important to find a place to land soon.  If we run out of fuel, we could be forced into an uncontrolled landing, and that could be dangerous.  A large sandy area next to the river is coming up; this would be a good place to land.

The chase vehicle tries to get as close to the balloon as possible.

Unfortunately the wind does not cooperate, and we miss the landing zone.  The wind is taking us toward the river.  Rather than taking a chance of a better landing spot, and perhaps running out of fuel in the search, Fergie elects to set us down in the shrubbery on the river bank.  Three bounces and we are down.

The chase crew has to carry the balloon, in pieces, through this willow thicket.

The plan is to keep the envelope inflated, with just enough buoyancy to keep the gondola off the ground.  The passengers would get out and pull the balloon away from the river bank, over the thicket, and to the sandy area.  But the wind picks up and blows the envelope sideways so that the angle is no longer safe to light the burner.  So Fergie deflates the envelope.  We will have to carry all the parts of the balloon out.

Near-empty propane tanks are carried out separately to reduce the weight of the gondola.

Fergie places a call to the Fiesta office and help is dispatched.  We are in an inaccessible area, so gates to the Paseo de Bosque bike path have to be opened to allow the chase vehicles to come closer.  We meet a policeman patrolling the bike path and he helps us make the arrangements.

The envelope is gathered off the willows. There are no tears in the fabric.

Eventually the chase crew arrives and with lots of hands the envelope, gondola, and propane tanks are separately carried through the willow thicket, across the sandy area, and through the tree line to where the chase vehicle, a 4WD Bronco, is able to drive.  All parts are loaded into the trailer and the truck with trailer climbs the slope up to the bike path.

The gondola is disassembled.

Meanwhile the FAA shows up to investigate the “incident”.  There is no damage to the balloon, there are no injuries to any persons, and the landing is in an undeveloped area.  The pilot has “facilitated a safe landing”, so the FAA concludes there is no incident to report.

Back on the field, we have a tailgate party and the two “newbies” on the flight go through an initiation ceremony.  I am now no longer a “virgin” balloonist.

Balloon Glow

Fergie fires the burner to make his balloon glow at night.

The evening program is a balloon glow followed by fireworks. A balloon glow is held after sunset. Pilots inflate their balloons and their ground crews hold the balloons down so they do not lift off. Following instructions delivered by radio, pilots light their burners in synchronized patterns. I watch our balloon inflate and glow for a while, then wander off a short way to take pictures of other balloons glowing.

Tech Notes

For this adventure I elected not to bring my Pentax K20D DSLR.  I have many pictures of balloons and did not feel a need for more high quality photos.  I took the new Panasonic DMC-ZS10 instead.  This smaller camera can hang on my belt and not interfere with activities, yet still be available when needed.  I also elected to leave the Garmin at home, relying on the built-in GPS in the ZS10 to geotag the photos.

iPhone and Apps

Of course, I had my iPhone 4 with me.  I used it to post the adventure in real time to both Facebook and Twitter.  For these type of immediate updates I usually only use Twitter, as in my opinion it is more suited to these types of ephemeral posts.  But more of my friends are on Facebook than Twitter, so I used both this time.

The app I use is TweetDeck.  It’s pretty basic: take a photo, write a short post, and send.  TweetDeck posts to both Facebook and Twitter.  I like that because I don’t have to post items twice, once to each service.  When I want to real-time post a photo, I take it with the iPhone camera so it is immediately available to TweetDeck.

Still Photos

Most of the other photos were taken with the ZS10.  I am getting more used to this camera.  It takes pretty good pictures, and I like the 16x zoom.  I still do not like the lack of a viewfinder.  The auto-focus is slow, as is the zoom; between those two features, by the time I find the subject in the LED display, the action is often finished.

I took all the photos in the intelligent Auto mode.  I wasn’t really interested in making art, just documenting my adventure.  iA mode works pretty well in most cases.

The ZS10 has a setting called hand held night shot.  Since all my shots are hand held, I turned this setting on when I first set up the camera.  Today I found out what it does.  This setting is actually an HDR (high dynamic range) mode.  When iA mode detects a need, the camera will take multiple images at different exposures and combine them into one photo.  How cool is that!  What’s more, the camera appears to apply anti-shake and auto-focus tracking at the same time.

I was taking pictures of the Dawn Patrol.  The sky is dark, but there are lights illuminating the ground.  The balloons would light off their propane burners, making their envelope glow.  As I pressed the shutter button, the camera indicated it was going to take multiple exposures and to hold it still.  I did, but the balloon was moving through the frame.  I expected nothing but a blur, but the camera compensated and created a pretty good image.


When I import images from the K20D, I first copy them to the hard drive, then geotag them with data from the Garmin before importing to iPhoto.  The ZS10 has already geotagged the images, so I imported directly to iPhoto.  At the end of the import process there is an option to delete the images from the camera, and I accepted that option.

To my consternation, iPhoto imported only the first frame of videos.  The entire video was nowhere to be found, not even on the SD card as I had deleted the images after importing.  (However, the 16GB SD card still had 2 GB used.)  This led to some furious googling and I learned two things.

  1. By default, ZS10 records video in AVCHD format which iPhoto does not recognize.  There is a setting to record in MOV format which iPhoto does recognize, by  setting the REC MODE to Motion JPEG.  I immediately set the camera to this mode, but of course it does not help videos that are already recorded.
  2. iMovie recognizes and imports AVCHD format.  I immediately fired up iMovie 11 and sure enough, it found and recognized the video clips on the SD card.  They were hiding in a folder called Private.

iMovie is a little intimidating at first, but after some time I gained some proficiency in the tasks that I needed to do, which is simply trimming clips, splicing them together, and adding a sound track. It’s amazing what a soundtrack will do for a video clip! You can see the fruit of my labor in this blog.

I used YouTube to share the videos. I had to create an account and a ‘channel’. I exported the video from iMovie to a file, then imported the file to YouTube. iMovie has an export option to directly upload to YouTube. I tried it, and although all indications were that the upload was successful, the video never showed up in YouTube.

The Great Rio Grande Canoe Hike

The weather is turning warmer.  Nights are still cool, but daytime temps reach 70 many days.  The snow is melting in the mountains, which means there is more water in the Rio Grande than there will be later in the summer.  It was time for an adventure canoeing down the Rio Grande.  There are no pictures of this adventure, the reason will become apparent as you read on.

This adventure was full of perils and excitement.  I’ve organized this post by the ordeals we had to overcome on this odyssey.  Ulysses had nothing on us!


I invited my friend Gregory to come along on the short and easy float down the river.  Richard and I loaded up the canoe, met Gregory, and drove down to Tingley beach, south of Albuquerque, where we left Gregory’s pickup truck for the return trip.  I scouted to make sure there was a clear path to the river.  As we were leaving, we noted that Tingley Beach closes at sunset, which would give us about four hours for the float.

Back at the parking area off Alameda Boulevard, we put the canoe into the water and immediately grounded.  There was indeed more water in the river than on last year’s adventure in June, but we had three people in the canoe instead of two, so the boat had a deeper draft.  No amount of pushing or jiggling would free us, so I got out into about 4 inches of water and pulled the canoe to a deeper channel.

The water may have been 4 inches deep, but the river bottom near the shore was covered with a fine sand, into which my feet would sink with every step.  It was quicksand, and when I stopped after guiding the canoe to deeper water, I quickly sank up to my knees in sand.  Fortunately, because the sand was under water, it wasn’t too difficult to extricate myself, though it did take a lot of effort and care to ensure my sandals did not remain at the bottom of the river.


Last summer we had to portage around the diversion dam.  The water pumping facility has a channel (for use by the endangered silvery minnow) that could be used to go around the dam, but it was dry last June.  Today it had plenty of water in it.  We exited the channel below the dam, but there was another waterfall!  I got the canoe pointed straight downstream, but as we went over the lip, the canoe bottomed out.  It started to turn broadside to the current, and water began pouring over the gunwale.  I thought we might be going in, but then the boat broke free and we escaped with only a few inches of water in the bottom of the canoe.

River Monster!

As we floated close to the eastern bank, something made a huge splash.  We could see the wake as it streaked toward the center of the river.  Was it a catfish?  A carp?  A muskrat?  Let’s just call it a river monster!

Attacked by Wildlife!

There were geese and ducks all along the river, which is covered by sandbars and dotted with small islands.  The ducks would fly away as we approached, but the Canada Geese would set up a loud honking.  As we passed one of the tiny islands, a goose came running down into the water, wings spread, neck outstretched, and bill open!  Possibly there was a nest on that island, though we did not see it.

The three of us probably would have been able to beat off an attack by a large waterfowl, but we were glad he did not press the attack as we drifted further away from his home.  Later, we did see a goose sitting on her nest on an island just like this one.  Her mate must have been away as there was no attack.

Later on, we saw a single downy, yellow gosling swimming next to the western bank.  Poor fellow looked lost.

By the way, though these are Canada Geese, they are not Canadian.  Living in the southwest USA, they are obviously American Canada Geese!

Walking on Water!

Despite there being more water in the Rio Grande, there are still many areas where the canoe bottomed out and someone had to get out and pull it.  After many episodes of getting in and out, we finally got out and walked on the stretch just north of the I-40 bridge.  It felt like we walked further than we floated, though I’m sure that is an illusion.  Walking on water has its perils, though.  One moment you are ankle deep, and with the next step you’re up to your knees, or even waist.


All that walking on water leaves one tired.  It involves a lot of getting out of and into the canoe.  It’s easy enough to step out of the cane into ankle deep water, but the getting in part is done in deeper water.  One time Richard was attempting to get in, lost his balance, and over we went – capsized!

This was the nadir of the adventure.  We were trying to stay close to the left bank, since that is where the deepest channel is reputed to be located.  A slight miscalculation led to becoming entangled in a thorn tree.  That probably led to impatience, tiredness and lapse in judgement leading to the overturned canoe.  The worst part was that the dunking caused our phones to get wet.  Richard’s phone survived; my iPhone did not.  I was using my iPhone to take pictures of the adventure, which is why there are no pictures.


By this time we were worried that too much time had gone by.  We needed to be at Tingley Beach by sunset to avoid being locked into the parking lot.  We are scanning the horizon for the next bridge.  It must be just around the next bend … perhaps the bend after that!  Finally, there is the bridge.  We are parked about a half mile south of the Central Street bridge.  Almost there!

By the time we pass under the bridge the sun has disappeared below the western horizon.  It’s still dusk so we hope the gate will not be locked yet.  However, the docking area (just a clear patch in the woods) does not appear.  Finally I get out on the shore to scout the land as Richard and Gregory continue down the river.  The canoe floats easier with less weight in it.

I find a path and meet up with the others at the river’s edge.  Richard and I carry the canoe through the brush and up onto a levee.  That fiberglass canoe is heavy after a day of paddling!    Nothing looks familiar.  We are on an irrigation ditch bank road, not the expected bike path.  Gregory and I decide to head south to try to rescue the truck.  Richard elects to stay with the canoe.

Suddenly it occurs to me that I have a GPS unit with me.  Did it survive the dunking?  Garmin builds their outdoor units to take abuse, and it was indeed functional.  I study the map, trying to overcome cognitive dissonance.  The GPS indicates we are not even close to the parking lot.  What has happened?  Then understanding dawns .. we are a bridge too short!  The bridge we had eagerly looked for and found was the I-40 bridge, but the Central Street bridge is over a mile to the south.  I return to Richard and explain.  We don’t want to carry that heavy canoe a mile or more.  We also do not want to be on the river after dark.  Richard will stay with the canoe, with his working cell phone.  I will catch up to Gregory and we’ll try to find a way to drive back to pick up the canoe.

Police!  Security!

After a mile hike on the ditch bank road, Gregory and I reach Central Avenue.  By good fortune, a police car had just turned onto Tingley Drive, on the other side of Central, where the officer made a U-turn.  Gregory and I waved, whistled, yelled and jumped up and down to get his attention.  He came over and I explained our dilemma.  The officer was doubtful anyone could be reached at this hour, but he put in a call to his dispatcher anyway.

I have to put in a good word for all the people that helped us in the Albuquerque Police (APD), Recreation, and Open Space departments.  Everyone was uniformly courteous and eager to help.  Like your mother told you, the policman is your friend.  That was certainly true this night.

The APD dispatcher arranged for Albuquerque Municipal Security to meet us at the Tingley Beach parking lot and unlock the gate.  The APD officer gave us a ride there, where we met Security Sergeant Angela Graham.  Sergeant Graham had arranged to have someone from Open Space division to come with a key.  Gregory retrieved his truck, and then Sergeant Graham called another person to come with the key to the gate to the ditch bank road where Richard was waiting with the canoe.  Then we were on our way to rescue Richard.

One more piece of excitement remained.  We found the canoe, but Richard was not there!  The security people went up the road looking for him while Gregory and I loaded the canoe onto the truck.  By the time we finished, they were on the way back with Richard.  Richard had gotten cold during the wait, had called his mother, and was on his way to meet her.

The rest of the adventure was unremarkable.  Sergeant Angela Graham actually thanked us for making Security’s night not as boring as usual!  The parking lot back on Alameda Boulevard was not locked, so we had no trouble retrieving my Trailblazer.  Then is was back home for hot chocolate, hot showers, and rest.

Adventure Map


Rio Grande Canoe Float

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Canoeing Down the Rio Grande

We put the canoe into the Rio Grande at Alameda Boulevard. In the background is the old 2-lane bridge. It has been replaced by a newer 4-lane bridge and is now used as a pedestrian path.

Most of the year, the Rio Grande does not have a lot of water in it, but during the spring snow melt, the water is high enough for a pleasant canoe float.  One can check the flow in the river at the Corps of Engineers web site, but I did not check it for this trip.  A colleague at work told me that the flow was already dropping, and I wanted to do a float before it turned into a hike!

The city of Albuquerque put in a diversion dam to bring water to a pumping station on shore. Posted signs said to portage around the dam, so we did. The dam can be raised or lowered depending on conditions. Photo shows the dam from downstream.

I should have checked the weather forecast! Who would have thought there could be any trouble on a nice, sunny day with a cool breeze blowing? Yes, it was a stiff breeze blowing upstream, but we were floating down the river, and expected the current to take us where we were going regardless of the breeze. After all, this was not a lake where you could get swamped with good-sized waves. If I had looked up the forecast I would have seen that the Weather Service had put out a wind advisory for the afternoon.

The wind blew off Richard's hat, and while we were trying to retrieve it, the wind blew us into the bank and under a thorny tree.

The plan was to put in at Alameda Boulevard and float down to Tingley Beach just south of Central Avenue. From my friend Marshall I expected one area of sandbars where we may have to portage, but the water was expected to be high enough not to cause problems. “Stay close to the east bank”, Marshall advised. “That’s where the deeper channels are.”

I was busy taking pictures and laughing at Rich's predicament, and ended up losing my paddle! There it goes downstream. Fortunately we were able to retrieve it.

Richard and I were to float down the river, and Abigail would pick us up at the end.  I got onto Google Earth and used the satellite photos to find the pickup spot.  I copied down the Latitude and Longitude and keyed them into the GPS units.  Richard and I would have one in the canoe so we’d know where to get out, and Abigail would have a GPS unit in the car to find the pickup spot.

There was still enough water in the Rio Grande for a canoe float, but not as much as a week earlier. The Corps of Engineers was not letting as much water out of Cochiti Lake now that the peak snow melt was past.

We loaded up the canoe and went to the Alameda Open Space parking lot on the south side of Alameda Boulevard.  Of course this was the wrong place, as the North Diversion Channel was between the parking lot and the river.  It would have been a long ways to carry the canoe to the river.  No problem — there is an access point on the west side of the river and north of Alameda, at the trail head for the Corrales Bosque Trail.  Once there we met some folks just loading up their canoe.  They had put in at North Corrales Beach and were getting out of the river where we planned to get in.  “The wind is pretty strong”, they warned.

On one section of the river it was actually easier to get out and walk on the sandbar.

Rich and I carried the canoe down to the west bank of the river.  We crossed under the Alameda bridge, and tried to paddle across to the east bank.  That was not going to happen easily! With no obstructions along the river, the wind was blowing so strongly that we were afraid of being blown upstream!  Worse, if we did not keep the canoe pointed into the wind, we would lose control of where the canoe would go.  Crossing the river, with our beam to the wind, was a real challenge. Soon after reaching the east bank, we portaged around the diversion dam.

Jetty jacks were placed along the riverbank to trap debris floating down the river and keep it from eroding the river bank and flood control levee. With flood control dams now in place, the jacks are being removed in many places to return the river to a more natural condition.

We got about to the Paseo del Norte bridge when Abigail called.  The GPS was taking her over the mountain, and was that the right way to go?  I checked my GPS, and sure enough the destination waypoint was east of the Sandias.  I must have transposed a digit when copying the coordinates from Google Earth.  Rich is holding on to a tree branch steadying the canoe while I am scrolling the 2-inch screen on my GPS trying to locate the destination.  (We could not be floating down the river because it took two people to control the canoe in the wind.)  Finally, success.  I gave Abby the coordinates to key into her GPS and we were again on our way.

There are channels under the Montaño bridge that reduce the distance the canoe has to be carried up to the road. Note the graffiti on the support beam.

This wind was so strong that if we held our paddles up as sails we probably would be blown upstream.  So it actually required paddling to make slow progress downstream.  Every once in a while we would hit a sandbar and have to rock the boat off into deeper water.  “It would be faster to walk!”, Rich exclaimed at on particularly shallow stretch.  So we got out and pulled the canoe behind us.  I was busy taking pictures in ankle deep water, when I took one step and was in up to my waist.  Fortunately the camera did not get wet.

This road provides access to the bosque for firefighters. There is a locked gate preventing access to the bosque, but just enough room before the gate to pull off busy Montaño Boulevard and load the canoe.

Progress was much slower than expected, so I decided to cut the trip short and get out at Montaño.  I had not scouted this area and did not know where the access was, though Marshall had told me this is where he got out.  I called Abigail and told her to meet us at the Montaño bridge.  We selected the east side of the river to exit.  Fortunately there was a fire access road that provided enough space to pull off Montaño, which is a limited access thoroughfare.

I looked up the weather report after getting home.  Wind advisory was in effect.  Wind speed was 22 mph in Corrales, and I bet it was faster on the river.  I don’t think we were ever in danger, but the peaceful river float had turned into an adventure.

More pictures are available at
Rio Grande Float at EveryTrail

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