Look to the east Saturday and next Sunday mornings and you'll find Nemo hovering over Hudson, Wis. There will be a large football drifting across the horizon, too.
Skies over the St. Croix River Valley will be awash with color when about 30 hot air balloons in the shape of everything from the Wells Fargo stagecoach to teddy bears and cartoon characters lifts off at 7:30 a.m. both days from the E.P. Rock Elementary school for a short competitive flight.
The flights, weather permitting, are the main attraction of the highly anticipated Hot Air Affair, a three-day fete that also will feature many other events, some a bit wacky.
The Hot Air Affair was started 22 years ago by volunteers and the Hudson Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism Bureau to give the local lodging and hospitality industry a boost and chase away the winter blahs. Today, it has established itself as one of the premier cold-weather hot air balloon festivals in the nation, said Glen Moyer, editor of "Ballooning," the official publication of the Iowa-based Ballooning Federation of America.
"Any festival that has been around for 20-plus years is doing very well," said Moyer. "Wisconsin is a great state to fly in. Hudson has kept people happy, and they keep drawing in pilots."
Over the years, the Hot Air Affair has attracted balloonists from as far away as New Mexico, Alabama, California and Pennsylvania. Scott McClinton, the pilot of this year's "Touchdown" balloon, hails from Kentucky. The event also has attracted scores of local balloonists such as Wynn Gustafson of Shoreview. He and his six-colored "Crayola Lite" have been a part of the past 21 festivals.
Gustafson got into hot air ballooning 30 years ago when a former neighbor recruited him to be part of his crew. Though he had a fear of heights and never intended to become a pilot, he eventually went for a ride and got hooked on the sport.
"It can become addicting," said Gustafson, who has flown in the famed Albuquerque Balloon Festival and the Calgary Winter Olympics. "It's probably the closest feeling of defying gravity and being lighter than air. It never gets boring."
While hot air balloons continue to have that magical appeal and often draw large crowds, there are fewer opportunities to watch them these days. There are still about 200 balloon festivals around the country, but the number of pilots has steadily declined since the sport hit its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That's because many of them, like Gustafson, who is 61, are aging and retiring, and fewer young people are taking up the pastime, Moyer said.
Gustafson said he hopes that this weekend's Hot Air Affair will entice younger people to get into flying.
"That is the hope," said Gustafson, who participates in about 10 events a year, including last weekend's Winterfest in Chisago County. "It doesn't matter if it's race cars or riding snowmobiles, you like promoting what you do if you like doing it. We are always willing to answer questions and talk about our sport."
Longtime Hudson Air Affair participant Scott Aamodt of Aamodt's Balloons in Stillwater said he hopes the event will keep hot air balloons fresh in people's minds.
"With the difficult times that our world has gone through in recent years, there is always the fear that activities such as ballooning will eventually go away if people are not exposed to it," he said.
Spectators will have the opportunity to chat with balloonists during Saturday night's Moon Glow, which is one of the weekend's most-attended events, said Carla Timmerman, one of the festival's coordinators. With their aerostats tethered to the ground, pilots will fire up their burners, allowing them to glow in the darkness.
Some of the hot air balloons will be featured in Friday's Torchlight parade, which also features the Best Kazoo Marching Band. Fireworks over the St. Croix River will follow.
On Saturday, festivities will include geocaching, a kite fly, a concert and the World Smooshboarding Championships, an event in which teams of four people, often in costume, are strapped to skis and attempt to navigate an obstacle course.
"It's just crazy," said Kim Heinemann, chamber president. "But that is the whole point. If you live here, you might as well get out and enjoy the season. We do want people to come and see the beautiful balloons."
Tim Harlow • 651-735-1824UP, UP AND AWAY IN HUDSON