Ballooning: thrilling, invigorating, and elemental

As a way to fly, it always sounded too whimsical, even nonsensical. Then early one overcast morning last summer, all my misgivings about hot-air ballooning vanished on the winds above Steamboat Springs.

Thrilling, invigorating, and wonderfully elemental, the sport does not belong in a lump with the many gimmicky ways that recreational man has sought to propel himself into the heavens in recent years. Anything but a brash upstart, ballooning is this year and next celebrating its bicentennial, in recognition of the Montgolfier brothers of France who made their first ascents over a period of months in 1783 and 1784.

But only since 1960 has the sport begun, if you will, to balloon in America. Suddenly one looks up to see whole colonies of the madly colored flying machines filling the sky. There are 2,500 balloons and 5,000 aeronauts operating in the United States, and you can catch a ride - at no small expense (about $100 a person for an hour or two) - anywhere from the Connecticut River to the Napa Valley.

Instead of packing away their beloved ''envelopes'' or ''bags'' for the winter, outfits like Balloon the Rockies, which took me aloft at Steamboat Springs, actually prefer the cold weather for flying.

''In the winter you wouldn't have to get up this early,'' said Mike Bauwens, the owner and chief pilot, as he greeted a small group of passengers at 7 a.m. on a Steamboat meadow. ''We rely on the winds to fly, and the calmest and coolest air from sunup to about 8:30 is the best. After the thermals start up, it gets harder to land a balloon. In the winter we don't take off until 10, and you can fly all day.''

Bauwens, who has since moved his operation nearer to Denver (PO Box 2103, Dillon, Colo. 80435), uses one of the largest balloons on the market, an AX-9 made by Raven Industries of Sioux Falls, S.D., with room for six passengers and a pilot. The shape, design, and height have not changed markedly since the Montgolfiers, who used a 70-foot-high balloon that was colored, according to one account, like a Russian Easter egg.

The Bauwens bag I boarded was made of rip-stop nylon like the stuff of jogging shorts or trendy luggage; it was colored an immodest purple, blue, green , and yellow, and the gondola, or basket, we stood in was of traditional brown wicker - not for any nostalgic reasons, the pilot said, but ''because they've never found a better material.'' Above us the balloon opened like the dome of a capitol building seen from the rotunda, towering to 90 feet (only 20 feet higher than the Montgolfier craft).

As Bauwens pressed an overhead lever sending a gush of hot air into the bag, we lifted off with a whoosh! and began to climb above the Yampa Valley. If I tell you it was an easy and relaxed takeoff, then I would be neglecting the sets of white knuckles clinging to the railings. ''When I first went up,'' said Bauwens, perhaps by way of soothing us, ''I was holding on dearly, too. I'm still afraid of heights.''

Pouring on the gas, Bauwens took us up to 2,000 feet, searching out the thermals on which we would ride, and gradually we began to unwind and peer out. Far below one could see the snaking Yampa River and the sprawling bunches of condos at the Steamboat ski area; straight out were the still-snowy ski slopes. I think we were further eased by the sight of our companion balloon, a slightly smaller AX-8, and its pilot, Curtis Simoney, who hung from the gondola like a playful monkey.

''We're all a little eccentric,'' said Bauwens of his licensed colleagues. From the smile at the corner of his lips, I could see that Bauwens - a mustachioed, drawling Alabaman who has flown all over Alaska, south Texas, and the Dakotas - was about to demonstrate the tricks of his trade.

Letting up on the propane-gas lever, he allowed us to drop lower and lower in the gray, brooding sky until we were at 200 feet, then 50, then 10. We passed just over a tent, rousing its wide-eyed occupant. We crossed the Yampa River and saw the reflection of gondola and balloon in the swirling waters. ''We tried fishing at this level once,'' Bauwens said, ''but didn't have any luck.''

Hot-air ballooning does not approximate the silent flight of an eagle. Over and over you hear the jets of gas being applied. This causes a blast of hot air to massage the back of one's neck - a welcome feeling, Bauwens assured us, in the dead of winter.

Balloon the Rockies, he said, lowers its rates by $10 in winter, and this year will put on shorter flights of 15 minutes for $20 apiece. His fellow balloonist and eccentric, Randy Woods, runs a similar operation out of Aspen. Woods's Unicorn Balloon Company (413 East Cooper Avenue Mall, Aspen, Colo. 81611 ) soars above the Roaring Fork Valley, packing along a flight attendant. At Missoula, Mont., the Mountain Butterfly balloons of Mike Rees may this winter try the skies above Yosemite National Park and Grand Canyon (P.O. Box 7951, Missoula, Mont. 59807).

Landing is the only remotely difficult proposition an aeronaut faces, and Bauwens put us down on the soft green carpet of the Yampa Valley with hardly a bump. We'd been up an hour, but it seemed like 10 minutes. No commercial airline flight, indeed no carnival ride, had ever gone so fast.

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