COLOMA, Calif. — There's a lot more to hot-air ballooning than just "up, up and away."
Few vacationers, I suspect, eagerly greet a 6 a.m. appointment. But lured by fresh coffee and clear skies, I made my way down a hallway to the meeting place, the dining room of the Coloma Country Inn.
This 1852 country-style B&B is owned and managed by Alan and Cindi Ehrgott. Their recreational package of hot-air ballooning, white-water rafting and an evening's lodging had brought us five bleary-eyed adventurers together. Luckily, Alan, our balloon pilot as well as host, was wide awake.
A short drive took us to the flight departure point on a ranch. The main concern is safety, and the ranch has no power lines or public roads. This and the usually gentle winds of the American River Valley northeast of Sacramento make the ranch a good place for ballooning.
(Passengers the next day experienced a sudden shift of wind and were carried off the ranch. They landed in a less-than-ideal but adventurous manner, amid cattails and a marshy stream.)
Testing the Wind
Alan uses a proven formula to test the wind direction--standing on the van's hood and releasing torn bits of tissue. Then out from the rear doors come a waist-high wicker basket, 1,000 square yards of rip-stop nylon, propane tanks, hoses, safety helmets, burner plate, large fan and five passengers.
Getting ready requires a lot of space, cleared of sharp rocks and brambles that could tear the nylon.
The voluminous fabric had been packed away by gathering the convoluted folds into a tube shape and coiling it into the basket. Now it is uncoiled and stretched out upon the ground. The load tape is cleaned, the rip panel and other operating features inspected, and the inflation begins.
Our cameras clicked while fan-forced air surged into the balloon neck. The horizontal folds of fabric on the ground began to billow. As the multicolored giant took shape, Alan invited us to step inside. Entering this kaleidoscopic wind tunnel we trod carefully, to avoid damaging the nylon.
Straining to Soar
Stepping outside from that colorful world, the morning seemed especially bright. With a blast of heated air from the burner plate, the 6 1/2-story goliath rose to its full height, straining to soar. Time had come for us to board the balloon, the Mariposa.
Climbing into the basket wasn't easy for me. Declining an offer of a boost, I searched the woven wicker basket for a toehold. Fellow passengers and an overhead wire assisted my "up and over."
With the release of the restraining anchor ropes, the enclosed hot air lifted us gently yet swiftly. Reaching a breezy air current, we glided easily above the hills.
I had expected the basket to sway, but the movement is so smooth that it felt as if we were stationary and it's the ground below that's whizzing along.
Flora and Fauna
The tightly woven base in the sky reveals little of the shadowy contours below. Gripping the suede-covered rim, peering over the edge, we felt supported and safe. Only the California live oaks punctuated the closely cropped golden hills. We scanned the hills for deer, fox, coyote and wild turkey.
"On one flight," Alan says, "the balloon came within 50 feet of a very startled mountain lion."
Lightly holding the stainless- steel cables that connect nylon to wicker, I reached once again for my camera. Alan reached too--for the blast valve handle--and within seconds the additional hot air took effect. The horizon expanded.
Now we had a clear view of the foothills below us as they join nearby Mt. Murphy in a march toward the Sierra. The tree-lined bank of the American River allowed only glimpses of the South Fork snaking its way west through the valley floor.
Southern Maidu Indians, who first occupied this area, called it Cul-luh-mah, the beautiful vale. Searching out a location for a sawmill, James Marshall came upon this wooded valley as he followed the river's course. He signed a contract with John Sutter, settled in with a small work force and, adapting the Maidu description, named the valley Coloma.
One crisp, January morning nearly 140 years ago, Marshall examined the sawmill's muddy tailrace. Noticing an unmistakable gleam, he declared, "Boys, I believe I have found a gold mine."
Coloma's--and California's--place in history was sealed.
As we drifted in the Mariposa above Coloma's foothills, I tried to picture the state's first gold rush.
Ten thousand hopefuls scoured the river banks searching for nuggets. The flakes of gold were so plentiful that some miners didn't even bother to save them. Prices soared. Bread sold for $1 a slice.
Then, as the gold gave out, the miners moved on to other promising "diggin's." Prices crashed. Eager to leave, miners sold their land for $1 an acre. The ranch land below us had been acquired during those times.
When asked about the Mariposa's insignia, PAC, Alan said that he had been director of Pacific Adventures, which specialized in action vacations.