Justin Sellers | The Natchez Democrat—Mernie Hill, left, and Sam Hill, right, talk while setting up their campsite with friends and family members at Natchez State Park Thursday. This is the seventh year the group has come together for the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race.
Justin Sellers | The Natchez Democrat—Mernie Hill, left, and Sam Hill, right, talk while setting up their campsite with friends and family members at Natchez State Park Thursday. This is the seventh year the group has come together for the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race.

Bonding over balloons: Family, friends gather for race

Published 12:01am Friday, October 18, 2013

Four generations of family and friends will venture to Natchez this weekend for the seventh year in a row to watch colorful orbs dance across the Miss-Lou skyline.

The group consists of residents from Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia and sometimes Texas who began traveling to Natchez in 2005 shortly after Hurricane Katrina.

Martha Lemoine of Ponchatoula, La., was among the first group to visit Natchez in 2005 for a much-needed camping trip.

Justin Sellers | The Natchez Democrat—Martha Broussard and Idelle Simms talk to family.
Justin Sellers | The Natchez Democrat—Martha Broussard and Idelle Simms talk to family.

“After Katrina, there were a lot of state parks closed down because FEMA was using them,” Lemoine said. “We found that Natchez was one that was not closed down, so we decided to go there for a Halloween weekend, and while we were there, we found out about the balloon race and decided to come back for that the following year.

“Over the years, it has just grown.”

This year, nearly 61 people ranging in ages from 20 months to 90 years old are slated to travel to Natchez for the annual Great Mississippi River Balloon Race.

“We have lifelong friends since childbirth and new great friends,” Lemoine said. “With the changing of the season, this is our favorite time of the year to get together and just enjoy the fellowship.

“We all agree that there’s no better place to do this then Natchez.”

The group, Lemoine said, spends a majority of the time at their campsite cooking a variety of foods.

“At any given time, you can ride through the campground and find us cooking eggs, grits, bacon, sausage and biscuits or you could find gumbo, jambalaya, boudin and stuffed jalapeno peppers on the grill,” Lemoine said. “At night, you can find us by the campfire telling stories, while drinking hot chocolate and roasting marsh mellows.

“It’s what I like to call ‘good food and good fellowship’ and it just doesn’t get any better.”

Mernie Hill of Moselle is another member who has been traveling with the group for several years.

“We try and do a little bit of everything that weekend, but it’s mainly just enjoying the fellowship of all our family and friends,” Hill said. “We get to see everybody, enjoy the town and enjoy the balloons.”

Hill said she is especially looking forward to this year’s event, as it could be the first time her three children visit the group together.

“Camping was always our recreation activity when the kids were little, but they’ve since grown and gotten married,” Hill said. “This year, they should all be able to make the balloon race, so that will be exciting.”

The group, Lemoine said, has several traditions that revolve around the balloon race, some of which include attending the balloon glow Friday evening and even helping crew for Arkansas pilot Mike Hickey.

“For those that don’t want to get up early, they enjoy hanging out around the campground,” Lemoine said. “Some go play golf and some will do the tours of the plantation homes around Natchez.”

The most important thing of the weekend, however, doesn’t revolve around the balloons, Lemoine said.

“What makes the balloon race so special to our large group is not only do the balloons fill the sky, but our hearts are filled with joy and excitement as we all come together in such a wonderful place that puts on a first-class event,” Lemoine said. “The memories that have been created for each one of us, our children and grandchildren will forever be cherished and it’s all compliments of a such a great host city like Natchez.”