Tag Archives: Sonoma County

Rising in a hot air balloon

This is the longer version of an article that will run on Friday, June 15th in the Press Democrat, and another version of the personal experience I wrote about in the blog article titled Up, Up, and Away.

Back in 1783, the very first passengers to fly in a hot air balloon were rather speechless about the experience. Of course, this was likely due to the fact that these inaugural airborne travelers weren’t human, but were in fact a duck, a sheep, and a rooster whose flight under a linen and paper balloon traveled two miles within 8 minutes, flying to an altitude of 1500 feet. However, in an age when traveling by air was something that only happened in dreams or stories, the adventure would have left most anyone tongue-tied.

While utilizing heat to make things fly has been traced back centuries in history, this primitive form of air travel for humans is attributed to brothers Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier. The idea was manifested years earlier as Joseph watched billowing laundry rise from the heat of the fire it was drying over, and was later mused upon as a military vessel during a tumultuous time of war. After many experiments of capturing heated air within different types of material and testing the theory with symbolically chosen animals, Étienne flew as the first human passenger in a tethered flight, paving the way to a new method of travel.

Once airplanes made an impact in the way of air travel, however, the novelty of hot air balloons began to wear thin. It wasn’t until the last 50 years when advancements reintroduced hot air balloons as a form of sailing through the air, making it one of the safest modes of aviation.

Today, hot air balloons serve as a large part of tourist attractions in areas where the scenery is exceptionally opulent. Sonoma County is one of those regions, cloaked with rows of leafy vineyards, acres of farmland, and a valley embraced by rolling hills and fair weather. As the temperatures escape the icy cold of winter in favor of cool spring mornings, it isn’t uncommon to see the dawn sky peppered with these colorful balloons.

Those wishing to ride up in a hot air balloon should be willing to get up before the sun, the time of day when the wind is at its most calm. Because balloon flights depend on weather conditions, there is always a chance that the flight will be cancelled and need to be rescheduled. Many balloon companies will call their passengers the night before to confirm the flight depending on the expected temperament of the weather, as well as to offer suggestions on how warm to dress.

Up & Away of Windsor holds their meeting place for those venturing a ride at the Sonoma County Airport in north Santa Rosa. The company has four balloons, one of which holds 10-12 people and one that is wheelchair accessible with room for two more passengers. The latter basket is the first of its kind in the United States, complete with a drop-side that doubles as a ramp meant to easily maneuver a wheelchair aboard. The side of the basket holds a see-through panel to reveal a clear view while up in the air.

As vibrant as the flight is itself, the pre-flight preparations are just as dazzling of a vision. The balloon crew brings the baskets out onto the ground, laying out the deflated balloon envelopes across tarps. An inflator fan is placed at the neck of the balloon, blowing in air to help it billow out properly. When it’s halfway filled, the burner is fired up and starts heating the air inside the balloon. This is when it’s apparent how large these balloons are, seeing the massive giants in comparison to their small surroundings, all as the sunrise casts orange rays against the colorful cloth.

Once filled completely, passengers make their way into the basket. At this point the balloon is firmly secured to ensure it won’t start floating away before everyone has found his or her place. But once ready, the lines are untied and the pilot fires up the burner.

The liftoff happens gradually, floating slowly against the ground before gaining momentum. Because the basket is rising into the air with its passengers, there is very little sense of altitude. However, those more sensitive to heights might feel a bit of flip-flopping in their stomach for the first several minutes of flight. Even Up & Away Ballooning’s owner and pilot Mike Kijak admitted to having a fear of heights despite his occupation. His open confession merely attested to the lessened sensation of elevation while rising 3,000 feet into the air.

Once drifting in the air, the view showcases a much wider horizon than anyone would be able to see from the ground. On a clear day in Santa Rosa, the view can extend from Napa to Bodega and Windsor to nearly Petaluma. The balloon travels with the air current, making the wind virtually unnoticeable. Below, fields of green vineyards stretch in perfect rows with large jackrabbits hopping quickly between the columns to escape the large vessel that looms overhead. On this recent journey, one balloon dipped down towards the vineyards, almost touching the leafy vines before floating back up. Another performed a “touch and go” above a large pond, the bottom of the basket skimming the water briefly before it rose again into the air. All four balloons made their way down the valley in a slow-moving race to the finish line.

It’s audibly quieter that high off the ground. Barking dogs, gobbling turkeys, and crooning peacocks echo from the ground in between blasts of hot air from the burner. As he flies, Pilot Kijak fills pockets of silence with stories that range from the history of ballooning to experiences he’s had in the past 20 years of being a balloon pilot. But often, he remains quiet to allow guests the opportunity to view the world unencumbered by interruptions. For many passengers, this will be their first view of Sonoma County, utilizing the experience as just a part of their vacation before traveling many miles back to where they live. In that, they see our county in a way many lifelong locals have never experienced.

An abandoned airstrip in southwest Santa Rosa is the end of the journey. On this trip, Pilot Kijak lowered the balloon expertly, but got caught in what’s called a “box wind”, a current of air that travels in the opposite direction of the air above. As a result, the balloon traveled backwards and away from the airstrip. To compensate, he brought the balloon back up and overshot the strip before lowering the balloon once again. This time the balloon caught hold of the box wind and traveled back to the airstrip where the chase crew was waiting. The landing was wonderfully uneventful, without even the hint of a bump as the crew grabbed hold of the basket and lowered it gently to the ground. They relieved the balloon of all its air before rolling it up and packing the balloon away.

Many of the local balloon companies in Sonoma County finish the adventure with a special brunch before sending their guests on their way. Up & Away serves a delicious homemade brunch made by Mike Kijak’s wife, Patty, of quiche, coffeecake, chocolate covered strawberries, and more, offered alongside mango mimosas on the beautiful grounds of Kendall Jackson Vineyards. The workers shed their tough exteriors to join in on the fun with guests and their coworkers. Many of the staff began working with Up & Away because a family member invited them.

“I just came to see the balloons,” Gaby Vargas, a balloon chaser and pilot told me as he shared the story of his cousin inviting him along for a ride. Ten years later, he is still showing up every day “just to see the balloons”, as well as to fly or chase them.

The adventure ends when the crew lifts their glasses and Pilot Kijak offers a traditional Irish blessing to all the passengers who rode in one of the four balloons that day.

“The winds have welcomed us with softness. The sun has blessed us with its warm hands. We have flown so high and so well that God has set us gently back into the loving arms of mother earth.”

A huge thank you to Up & Away Ballooning in Windsor for giving me this opportunity.

2011 Independence Day Events

We are so lucky to live here in Sonoma County. Celebrating Independence Day, the story of our fortune doesn’t change. There are so many celebrations to choose from, it’s hard to know which to attend. I’ve created a list of all the various parades and fireworks shows going on around Sonoma County that I know of. If I have missed any, please be sure to add them in the comments.

Note: You’ll notice several fireworks shows charge admission for their events. While I understand the desire to beat the crowds or save a bit of money by parking off site and enjoying the show from afar, I want to mention the huge cost that goes into holding these events. Not only that, many of the proceeds from these events go towards supporting local non-profits in our area. If you can, I encourage you to pack up your family and support the show by attending. If you can’t attend but still want to enjoy the show, consider looking into how you can contribute towards your favorite fireworks celebration so they can continue to run every year. Thanks for helping our community!

Santa Rosa

Red, White and BOOM!
Monday, July 4th – Event starts at 4pm, fireworks start at 9:30pm
This event is clearly the biggest of all the Independence Day celebrations. Held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, the gates open at 4pm for a ton of family-centered activities. Food and beverages will be served through various vendors, though picnic lunches are also encouraged. Kids can enjoy a bunch of fun games and activities. Live music will have you on your feet, dancing the evening away. And at 9:30pm the fireworks show begins in a display that can be seen all over Santa Rosa and beyond.  Profits from the 2011 Santa Rosa Red, White and BOOM will benefit the Youth Benevolent Fund
Admission: $7 ages 13 and up, $3 ages 6-12, FREE ages 0-5


Old Time Independence Day Celebration on the Green
Sunday, July 3rd – Event starts at 5pm
Vendors line the streets of Windsor’s Town Green for this packed family pre-fireworks event. Food and drink are aplenty, jump houses are bumping for the kiddos, and the Edwin Brothers will be rocking the Green with some live music from 6-9pm. Many bring blankets and low chairs to watch the fireworks launched from nearby Windsor High School once the show starts.
Admission: FREE

Independence Day Fireworks Spectacular
Sunday, July 3rd – Events starts at 4pm, fireworks start at 9:30pm
Remember Ashkon, the YouTube sensation that created the Giant’s “Don’t Stop Believing” Anthem that went viral? He’ll be entertaining the masses at this year’s event at Keiser Park in Windsor. Along with him will be local favorites Pride & Joy, as well as JD Bauman & the Old Boot Band. Dance to the live music, enjoy food and drink, and take part in tons of family activities. In fact, Sonoma County Fair is featuring the “Traveling Fair” to celebrate the fair’s 75th anniversary! The party starts at 4pm in the newly renovated park, though no parking is available at Keiser Park. Those who will be driving to the event are encouraged to use the parking lot at Windsor High School (8695 Windsor Rd).
Admission: $3 donation, kids 12 and under FREE


For the parents:
Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves Zindependence Weekend Event
Saturday July 2nd to Sunday, July 3rd – 11:00a to 4:30p both days
Sip the day away in this pre-4th celebration in the only way Wine Country folk can – with some fantastic Zinfandels to pair scrumptious morsels with (or savor on its own). Bella Vineyards (9711 West Dry Creek Road) is celebrating the almighty Zin, deemed “America’s Grape”, at their annual celebration. Picnic on their lawn, explore Bella’s barn and wine caves, and savor the melded flavors at five tasting stations – including a chocolate pairing for all you cocoa addicts! No reservations required.
Admission: $15, or FREE for Bella Wine Club members and four of their guests

And for the family:
21st Annual American Legion Fireworks Show
Monday, July 4th – fireworks start at approx 9:30pm
The local veterans of the American Legion – Sotoyome Post 111 are sponsoring the Healdsburg fireworks show for the 21st year in a row. Cuddle up with the kids on low chairs or a blanket at the athletic field of Healdsburg High School (1024 Prince Ave) to watch the spectacular 40 minute show, or avoid the crowd on one of the numerous side roads (you’ll want to stake out your place early).
Admission: FREE, but donation is gladly welcomed (send check to American Legion Veterans, P.O. Box 208, Healdsburg, CA 95448)


Cloverdale Lion’s “Pyrospectacular
Monday, July 4th – Fireworks start at 9pm
Bundle up the kids, grab the picnic blankets, and head out to the annual fireworks show at the football field of Cloverdale High (509 N. Cloverdale Blvd). The event is hosted by the Lion’s Club, funded by the TNT fireworks sales in the weeks before the event.
Admission: Donation, though no one will be turned away for lack of funds.


4th of July Fireworks Festival
Monday, July 4th – Events starts at 4pm, fireworks start at dusk (9-ish)
Get to the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds (175 Fairgrounds Dr) early to take part in Petaluma’s zesty event. The grounds will be teeming with food and drink from local merchants, as well as some sugary sweet morsels for dessert. Groove to live music by Clean Slate and Rock Skool, and let the kids enjoy entertainment like face painting and balloons. At dusk, camp out on the grounds with your blankets and low chairs to enjoy the show in the sky!
Admission: $2, kid under 6 FREE


Rancho Adobe Firefighters Association Pancake Breakfast
Saturday June 2nd – breakfast will be served from 7-11am
Grab the family and support your local firemen with a hearty breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and sausage. Held at the Rancho Adobe Fire Dept #2 on the corner of Old Redwood Hwy and Main Street (11000 Main St), the breakfast is one of their biggest fundraisers. Call (707) 795-6011 for more information.
Breakfast: $7 adults, $5 kids 12 & under.

Penngrove Parade and BBQ
Sunday, July 3rd – Parade starts at 11am, followed by BBQ and festivities
Head out to Penngrove Park for some good old-fashioned BBQ as well as the town’s traditional parade! Touted the “Biggest Little Parade”, Main Street is filled with those who come back year after year to enjoy the annual parade that highlights the community’s youth, local programs, and, of course, all things patriotic. For a peek at what’s in store, you’ll want to check out P360’s blog Above the Brim for their take on last year’s parade. This will be the parade’s 36th year. After the parade, enjoy the fantastic BBQ at Penngrove Park. Pit beef, chicken or combo plate $12, BBQ beef sandwich $6, hot dogs, oysters. Bring an apple pie to the park for their Old Fashion American Apple Pie Contest, dance to live music performed by Charlie Baker, and have at the many craft booths and games. Proceeds benefit the Penngrove Social Firemen’s Community Clubhouse and the park. No dogs or coolers.
Admission: FREE


Sonoma’s 4th of July Parade and Plaza Celebration
Monday, July 4th – 9am – 5pm, parade starts at 10am
A tradition among Sonoma families, this is an event that is looked forward to all year long. This year’s theme is “Our Local Heroes” with floats that honor past and present locals of Sonoma who have inspired and led others in their life. Food and carnival games will be in the Plaza, surrounded by the tunes of live music by the Bautista Band and The Joe Chaplain Band. For more info, visit the article in the Sonoma Towns section.
Admission: FREE


Doggie Festival and Pawtriotic Day
Saturday July 2nd – 9am
Kunde Family Estates is inviting the whole family in their annual Doggie Festival at their winery (9825 Sonoma Hwy, Kenwood). And of course, your furry friends are invited. Bring the dogs for a short hike, a doggy parade, doggy portraits, vendors, art, and more. Plus, take part in some of the finest BBQ as well as an Eco-Tour and Wine Tasting. Pre-registration is required at www.kunde.com. Call (707) 282-1534 for more information.
Admission: $35/person

Kenwood’s July 4th Hometown Parade
Monday July 4th
Eat – 7:00 am, Pancake Breakfast at Kenwood Community Church (9637 Channing Row, Kenwood)
Run – 7:30 am, 3k-10k Kenwood Footrace, http://www.empirerunners.org
Watch – 10:00 am, Kenwood Hometown Parade Plaza Park
Wake up early and join your neighbors for a Pancake Breakfast provided by Kenwood Community Church. Better fuel up good, too, because the Kenwood Footrace starts at 7:30am, winding through the backroads of Kenwood. Of course, if you haven’t registered for the race by June 30th, watching this fun event is just as fun. Stick around after the race and you’ll catch this year’s Kenwood Parade, themed “Old Fashioned Kenwood 4th of July”, made up of animals and kids, bikes and vintage cars, music, Uncle Sam, and more. 


Sebastopol Kiwanis July 3 Fireworks and Music Extravaganza!
Sunday July 3rd – event starts at 5:30pm, fireworks start at dusk
Some of the most delicious food venues will be setting up camp at Analy High School (6950 Analy Ave, Sebastopol) this July 3rd for the Sebastopol’s Independence Day celebration. Screamin’ Mimi’s, Martha’s Mexico, Mary’s Pizza….and more! The Analy Choir will perform songs as well as a Flag Ceremony. And you will enjoy live music by the Bija Children’s Choir, Harvest Band, and Blue Moon. No pets, alcohol, or personal fireworks will be allowed. Blankets and low chairs are recommended, though bleacher seating is available.
Admission: Adults $8, Youth 6-11 $4, 5 & under FREE

4th of July Concert – Ives Park Sebastopol
Monday, July 4th – event starts at 11am
Start the 4th of July out right with a free outdoor concert performed by the Sebastopol Community Band in Ives Park (S High St & Willow St, Sebastopol). Patriotic favorites will be performed under the direction of Nathan Riebli. For more information, contact (707) 889-0515
Admission: FREE

West County

Monte Rio Events
Saturday July 2nd, all day events
Big Rocky Games will be from 11am-4pm on both July 2nd and July 3rd, different events each day! There will be inner tube races, rock skipping, a swim race, an ice cream eating contest, and more. FREE for everyone! The Monte Rio Volunteer Fireman’s Association BBQ will run from noon – 5pm on Saturday at the firehouse (corner of Main St & Starrett Hill Rd. And the Water Carnival boat parade and Water Curtain start at dusk, followed by fireworks!

Guerneville Events
Sunday July 3rd, all day events
Come to the Plaza (Main St, just as you enter Guerneville) 10am-6pm for their annual Downtown Crafts Fair. At nearby Larks Drugs (16251 Main St, Guerneville), the Russian River Rotary will be holding their BBQ from 12-7pm, complete with live music and activities for kids. Wrap up the block party with the Fireworks on the River, starting at dusk.

Bodega Bay Events
Saturday July 2nd, all day events
The Bodega Bay Fireman’s Pancake Breakfast will be held at the Bodega Bay Grange (1370 Bodega Ave, across from Candy & Kites) from 7:30-11:30am. I even heard a solid rumor that along with the usual favorites, they’ll also be serving mimosas! Adults are $8, kids are $5. After breakfast, stick around for the Flea Market at the Grange, starting at noon and going till 8pm. And at 9:30pm, enjoy a spectacular show of Fireworks over Bodega Bay. They can be seen from a lot of places near the coast (around the Tides Wharf area is best) or you can join the party going on over at Westside Regional Park (2400 Westshore Rd). Be sure to dress warm! And throughout the whole day, take part in the raffle contest. Visit participating stores (list can be seen at bodegabayca.org), receive at least 5 stamps, and enter to win a gift package of more than $1000 treats from local businesses.