If there was ever a justification for setting a 5 a.m. alarm and driving to Wisconsin on a bitterly cold February morning, the Hudson Hot Air Affair is it.
The three-day, family-friendly event began as a way to lure people to its namesake town in the doldrums of winter. Now in its 31st year, the Affair typically attracts thousands of gawkers, not to mention hot air balloon pilots from as far away as Tennessee and Texas. Organizers say it’s the largest winter balloon festival in the country.
Set for February 5-7, the 2021 running of the Hot Air Affair will be different than previous years because of COVID-19. A hybrid event will feature pop-up launches, with live video coverage, and a drive-by “Moon Glow,” without field access this year. Spectators are encouraged to visit the event website to find locations for balloon spotting.
Last year, by the time we arrived in Hudson, a half hour before sunrise, there were already hundreds of spectators milling about on the snow-covered fields outside E.P. Rock elementary school. Folks were bundled up like Randy Parker in A Christmas Story, with camouflage parkas, fuzzy earflap hats, and long johns underneath their jammies.
The first launch of the day was scheduled for 7:35 a.m., with a mass ascension of 30-plus balloons. (2021 will see about half as many.) With takeoff behind schedule, we sought refuge inside the school. The adjoining cafeteria and gymnasium were packed with early risers cupping $2 hot chocolates and eating cinnamon rolls. We killed time at the indoor marketplace and craft fair, browsing wacky winter hats and wind chimes made of vintage silverware, and resisted the urge to sit for a caricature artist.
As soon as word spread that the balloonists were ready, people poured onto the fields outside. Balloon flights are always weather-dependent, but these skies were sunny and blue, with a mild breeze. The ideal flying conditions are 4 to 6 mph winds with visibility of one to three miles.
As burners hissed and plumes of fire roared into the sky, telephoto lenses click-click-clicked and kids ran squealing from balloon to balloon, giddy with excitement. We won’t lie: It was pretty exciting! Watching teams transform a puddle of ripstop nylon or Dacron—known as the “envelope”—into a supersized balloon was impressive. Plus, the closer you stood to a basket, the more likely you were to get invigorated by a wave of delightfully hot air.
The most popular balloons were specially shaped—like the 80-foot-tall “Fred G. Monster” or cheerful yellow “Rubber Ducky.” But we liked the classics, too, like “Big Daddy,” a rainbow-colored aerostat piloted by Steve Jacobs of Lakeland, and “Jacks UpSky,” a racer-style Lindstrand 60X driven by Ken Walter of Waukesha, Wisconsin. Its unique cylindrical shape means it can ascend and descend at a higher rate than more traditional balloons—“kind of like a sports car versus the family sedan,” says Walter, who has been in the balloon scene since 1988. “I was hooked after the first day crewing,” he admits.
Walter received his student license in 1992 and purchased his first balloon that same year. He founded WindDancer Balloon Promotions in 1994, but didn’t make it his full-time job until 20 years later. Walter has since logged more than 1,800 piloting hours. He oversees three RE/MAX hot air balloon teams in Minnesota and Wisconsin and serves as the pilot spokesman and balloon operations director for the Hudson Hot Air Affair.
“Hot air ballooning is not only my passion and my job, it’s my lifestyle,” says Walter. “Pretty much everything about me revolves around ballooning.” That includes family. Walter’s wife, Kay, is his crew chief, while his three sons (ages 10, 13, and 15) “enjoy ballooning as much as football and baseball.”
Walter is hard-pressed to pinpoint a career highlight, because there are just too many of them. Maybe it was serving as one of four pilots on the NFL balloon team at the Dallas Metroplex the last time the Green Bay Packers played in the Super Bowl. Or maybe it was the surreal experience of flying over North Hudson and seeing bald eagles soar past his basket. “It still gives me goosebumps,” he says.
After the morning launch, we hurried back to our vehicle with faces beet-red from the cold and cranked up the heat. Once the feeling came back in our fingers, we drove five minutes west to St. Croix Lodge No. 56, where the Masons were hosting their long-running Hudson Hot Air Affair pancake breakfast. This was before the pandemic, so we sat elbow to elbow at long communal tables, tucking into $8 plates of pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage, fruit cups, and biscuits with gravy. Kids in snow bibs lolled restlessly on busted vinyl couches, while the grown-ups recapped their previous weekend’s hunting and snowmobiling adventures.
Events like this were stacked throughout the weekend. There was a 5k race, bingo fundraiser, cornhole tournament, ice carving, karaoke, chili cook-off, fireworks, a kids’ ice fishing derby, hammerschlagen and hot beef sandwiches at Madison Avenue Wine & Spirits, and a torchlight parade with prizes for the best kazoo marching band. Our favorite diversion, however, was the first-ever mystery hotdish tasting at kitchen supply store Grand Fête and neighboring JZ Wold Design Center. By the time we showed up, more than 100 festival goers had already weighed in on the contenders. Our favorites: “Drop It Like It’s ‘Tot,’” made with two bottles of Frank’s RedHot, and a classic tuna hotdish made with Goldfish crackers.
Back at E.P. Rock, the activities continued apace with martial arts demos, dance performances, and stunt flying with the Minnesota Kite Society. At 1 p.m., a smoosh board competition drew a large circle of cheering fans. Teams dressed as zany grannies and disgruntled reindeer clomped their way through a twisty obstacle course, their feet bound together on wooden planks. The winning teams had a strategy in place, with a designated coxswain shouting commands (“Right! Left! Right!”); groups that bungled the race usually collapsed in laughter.
A second balloon launch was scheduled for 3 p.m., but as the winds picked up, the prospects dimmed. “Winter flying can be challenging,” explains Walter. “Either the weather is awesome or terrible; there is very little in between.” Latecomers who’d missed the morning ascension were disappointed. But that’s the touch-and-go nature of guiding a giant nylon gasbag above the treetops—you gotta count your blessings when you’re lucky enough to do it.
The pilots took it in stride, of course, telling grumbly spectators to return in 3.5 hours for the “Moon Glow.” As the name suggests, the popular event invites balloonists to illuminate their envelopes after dark. It’s a grand spectacle, with balloons fired up like larger-than-life lanterns. But if the weather doesn’t cooperate, the “Moon Glow” becomes a “Field of Fire,” with controlled blazes roaring like giant torches against an inky black sky. The baskets never leave the ground, but onlookers still gasp in amazement because ballooning in any form, but especially in the dead of winter, is mesmerizing.
Find full details of Hot Air Affair 2021, scheduled for February 5-7, at hudsonhotairaffair.com
Eat, Play, Stay in Hudson
Cross the St. Croix River and head 10 minutes north to Manger Restaurant + Wine Bar in Bayport, a classy boîte from husband-and-wife team Mike and Nicole Willenbring. It’s a lovely spot to cozy up with a wood-fired pizza and a good bottle of wine. For a heartier meal, German restaurant Winzer Stube in Hudson always delivers. Smoked pork chops, buttery spaetzle with crispy onions, Hungarian goulash—this food sticks to your ribs when you need it most.
In winter, the north side of the 2,800-acre Willow River State Park reserves two miles of hard-packed trails for hiking, snowshoeing, and dog sledding. Nine miles of groomed trails on the south side, meanwhile, are set aside for cross-country skiers. Badlands Sno-Park in Hudson boasts seven tubing slopes and five tow ropes, including courses lit up for night sledding. There’s something for everyone here: a bunny hill, a double-humped camel back, and an adrenaline-pumping turbo slide. At 1,300 feet, the park says is the longest and steepest tubing run in the Midwest. For a more sedate activity, tour Hudson’s Octagon House Museum, an eight-sided Victorian dwelling maintained by the St. Croix County Historical Society. The space is usually closed in winter but hosts special tours in conjunction with the Hudson Hot Air Affair.
Lora Hotel in Stillwater is a 40-room boutique hotel with views of the St. Croix River and a New American restaurant (Feller), elegant cocktail bar (Long Goodbye), and an airy coffee shop (MADE) on the ground floor. It’s within walking distance of everything in downtown Stillwater and pet-friendly.
Ashlea Halpern and Andrew Parks are the co-founders of Minnevangelist, a website devoted to spreading the gospel of Minnesota’s greatness. Follow their adventures on Instagram at @minnevangelist and visit minnevangelist.com to learn more.