Balloon festival weekend wraps up with final flight

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 31, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; As Leon Russell and company played in the background, the last flight of the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race took off from the bluff, high above the river.

The few balloonists left Sunday afternoon put up their balloons right at the fingertips of the crowds, who scattered the grassy knoll to watch the colors fill the sky once more.

The balloons were bumping one another, trying to get up to follow the &uot;hare,&uot; or the lead balloon that let off before the others, off to set out a target for the &uot;hounds&uot; to find.

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After the called off flights in the beginning of the weekend, the winds finally blew right for the balloonists and crews that traveled many miles for this huge weekend. And the pilots were happy to get their flights off.

Pilot Karen Kent, from Port Allen, said she was happy to finally get to fly Saturday afternoon and &uot;just missed the barge&uot; with her beanbag. Sunday afternoon, the wind direction &uot;didn’t cooperate with me,&uot; she said, although she had a &uot;gorgeous&uot; flight.

&uot;Natchez is always a fun race,&uot; Kent said. &uot;If you fly or don’t fly, you have something to do. One of the few races where there is other stuff to do.&uot;

In her fifth year at the races, Kent said she had plenty of fun, loving to fly but also loving to compete. But Sunday evening was the jackpot for Kent, who won the last event and took home the $1,000 prize in the hare and hound event.

This year’s race drew two people from Michigan to help Kent put her balloon in flight.

Mike Rench of Battle Creek, Mich., met Kent at a race there during July 4 week.

It was his first time to be on a balloon crew and now he is hooked, following Kent to many events. He and Travis Hegner trekked 13 1/2 hours across the country to help Kent out.

&uot;They’re wonderful people,&uot; Rench said. &uot;The most wonderful people I’ve met in the sport.&uot;

Kent threw a nervous Rench in the basket on her last flight in Battle Creek but now he, like so many, is hooked.

&uot;Next spring I’ll be flying myself,&uot; Rench said.

And his crew will start with his road trip buddy, Hegner, who has now put up a balloon but has yet to go himself.

Some are content with just staying on the ground through.

Four little blonde heads sat in a row on the grass Sunday afternoon, watching the balloons start off in bags, then to groundcovers, then to huge masses of colors in the air.

&uot;We bring them every year,&uot; Barbara Paulk of Jonesville said of her four great-nieces. &uot;We enjoy it. We can watch up close and personal.

&uot;We enjoy taking the girls to Š things they can enjoy and we can enjoy.&uot;

Lauren and Alexis Pardue, 11 and 8 respectively, and Davis and Madeline Beard, 11 and 9 respectively, do enjoy the balloon races.

&uot;I like the designs,&uot; Madeline said.

Added Lauren: &uot;It’s something you don’t get to see everyday.&uot;

But have any of them ever gone up? No. They just like to watch.

&uot;It’d be cool but it’d be scary too,&uot; Madeline said.

Watching the balloons was not all they enjoyed Sunday. They, like others at Rosalie, did it all and enjoyed their day.

&uot;There’s games and music Š&uot; Madeline said.

But all the girls agreed their absolute favorite was the bungee jump, where they were strapped in a harness that looked like holding the sling of a slingshot straight down. The girls said they bounced and jumped and even did back flips. And if they were not going high enough, &uot;they would pull you down by your legs and let you go,&uot; Madeline said.

These girls did not forget about the food either, sharing a funnel cake between the four of them.

&uot;We ate it in about a minute,&uot; Alexis said.

As the sun set on the day, it also set on the weekend, bringing this year’s race to an end and sending Alexis, Lauren, Davis and Madeline home along with the balloonists, the rides, the bands and the vendors.