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Flying Over Buffalo National River
In a Hot Air Balloon Is Breathtaking Experience

By Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

PONCA, AR -- Usually my knees knock and my stomach churns like a washing machine when embarking on an exciting, yet scary adventure. But this morning as I watch the canvas of the hot air balloon that will take me for a ride being unrolled, long and flat on the grass, I feel calm. Perhaps it's my surroundings, a foggy early morning in the valley of the Buffalo National River. A cool breeze rustles my hair and the dew is still heavy on the grass.

My pilot is Mike Mills, owner/operator of the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca. He has been an aeronaut for 15 years.

First filling the balloon opening using a large fan, Mills then begins to release hot air from a burner to make it stand upright.

Psshhhht. Psshhhht.

At its fullest, it is 77 feet tall by 33 feet across or seven stories tall by three stories wide. It is a medium size balloon of 77,000 cubic feet and made of rip-stop nylon, like many tents.

Green, yellow and white, the balloon is imprinted with the words "Arkansas is a Natural." This is Mills' third "Miss Arkansas" balloon. Mills used to fly larger balloons with bigger baskets, but now prefers the closeness his current "Miss Arkansas" provides.

She's standing tall and proud when Mills invites my husband Mike and me to climb aboard the approximately four by three foot basket.

Psshhhht. Psshhhht. Pssshhhht. Psssssshhhht.

So enamoured am I with this marvelous contraption and its workings, I don't even realize we are levitating at least six feet above the ground. Jim McCammon, of Mills' chase crew, untethers the balloon and there is no turning back.

Unease taunts me, but quickly fades as a shroud of fog envelops us about 100 feet off the ground. I'm a child again, wide-eyed with wonderment. Blue skies beckon beyond the white veil. Suddenly, the balloon pops out of the gauze and the world spreads below us, warm and vast. I have never seen a more beautiful morning. Perhaps because today I am part of the sky, waking with the morning rays of the sun splayed through the cloud formations.

I look at my fellow adventurers. We are all grinning from ear to ear, even Mills.

Psshhht.

The balloon simply drifts, like a mind without the cumbersome body to drag it down. The sensation is heady and peaceful. The basket lends security and, therefore, freedom.

"They call them the gentle giants," says Mills of his flying apparatus. He adds, "My balloon ride is more than a balloon ride experience because it is taken over the Buffalo National River."

Indeed, the view is a dream that can only be conveyed to the dreamer. To use Mills' favorite word, the experience causes a feeling of "intimacy" with nature. As I gaze down, the 150-foot cliffs of the Buffalo National River look monstrous even from this vantage point. The fog lays like a blanket in the valleys of the rolling Ozark Mountains, which we float above at well over 2,000 feet about mean sea level.

Pssshhhtt. Pssht.

"It's the closes thing to being a bird as being a bird," says Mills. "When you have this type of experience the world gets smaller and a little bit closer."

The wind takes us due North this morning. Eventually, Mills lets the balloon sink lower toward the ground in an area he refers to as Sneeds Creek. We hover in the treetops, and I do mean in the treetops, and he asks, "have you ever seen a tree upside down?" He grabs hickory nuts from a nearby tree and my husband and I reach out and touch the leaves.

I take a picture no one else on earth can possibly have or ever duplicate. Those treetops stand out in the foreground, more trees riding a wave of Ozark hills stretch out in the background highlighted by the soft morning glow.

Psshhht. Psshhhtt. Pssshhhttt.

When we're back in the wind current and cruising north again, Mills spots a large dead tree. We have a bombardier contest to see who can come closest to hitting it. We spot a deer running in an opening among the trees and see a camper eating breakfast at his campsite.

But eventually, what goes up must come down. So after an hour, Mills lands the balloon in a postage stamp section of a field dotted with trees. Somehow McCammon is there to meet us.

"We've been doing this so long together that we literally dance," explains Mills of McCammon's ability to meet him as he touches down in any landing spot.

Surprisingly, it takes very little time to pack the balloon and basket in the trailer. We head back to the Buffalo Outdoor Center where Mills serves champagne and orange juice and gives us the history of ballooning and why champagne goes hand in hand with it.

Most folks are just a few hours into their workday and I feel I've already lived a lifetime. Mills says with a laugh, "I always tell people, 'About four o'clock this afternoon you'll land and the rest of the day is down hill.'"

Our balloon flight took place in June. Mills flies June through December. "November is my favorite month because all the leaves are off," he explains. He can see more wildlife and more of Mother Nature's details then.

Mills offers one flight per day with two people and flights can be booked two days in advance. Flights are always dependent upon weather and last anywhere from one to two hours.

 
Links & Resources
  Recommended Float levels
  USGS Water Levels
  Geologic Mapping Studies USGS
  http://www.ozarkmtns.com/buffalo/bfg.html
 

   
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