QUECHEE, Vt. — For more than 40 years, the easiest way to know that summer had finally, really arrived here in central Vermont was to glance skyward on Father’s Day weekend and see hot-air balloons floating serenely above the Ottauquechee River and the rolling hills of this picturesque village.
COVID did a number on the annual hot-air balloon festival here, forcing its cancellation two years ago and leading to a more condensed version over the Labor Day weekend last year.
But, in a welcome sign that things are getting back to normal here and elsewhere in New England, the Quechee Hot Air Balloon, Craft & Music Festival is back at full strength and back to the Father’s Day weekend that has been its home for nearly all of its 43-year history.
There are 20 balloons scheduled for the 42nd three-day festival, which runs June 17-19.
“It really does feel like we’re getting back to normal, and it feels great,” says PJ Skehan, executive director of the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce, which runs the festival.
While the festival attracts visitors from all over New England, it’s an important local endeavor. The chamber relies on about 150 volunteers to handle logistics, like parking. The money raised from parking goes to scholarships for local kids.
There’s something for everybody. There’s an area on the village green reserved for kids activities. There are more than 50 craft vendors, including many local artists, and 15 food vendors, most selling locally-sourced food. There’s Hoppy, a re-purposed, 1961 Divco milk truck that dispenses a wide selection of Vermont-brewed craft beers.
There’s music all weekend at the village green, overlooking the Ottauquechee, the nerve center for the festival.
“It’s a great community event, and a lot of people come back year after year,” Skehan said.
The money raised from tickets and other commercial endeavors has a utilitarian purpose: it pays for the operation of the Quechee Gorge visitors center. At $15 for a weekend admission ticket for adults, $5 for kids, and free for kids 5 and under, it’s a bargain.
For $25, you can take a tethered balloon ride up 50 feet. For the more adventurous, an ascension balloon ride can go anywhere between 500 and 5,000 feet high. It will take about two hours all told and set you back $290. Those balloon rides have to be pre-ordered on the festival’s website, quecheeballoonfestival.com. Most people prefer to watch the festivities from the ground, as the cluster of balloons provide a remarkable sight.
The festival generates a lot of revenue for local businesses, from hotels to restaurants.
“It’s very important to the local economy,” Skehan said. “People who come to the festival discover the beauty of the area and come back at other times.”
More than anything, the festival provides breathtaking vistas, with colorful balloons floating magically against a verdant green background, and, if the weather cooperates, deep blue sky. Watching the balloons go up Friday evening, early Saturday morning, and the balloon glow ascensions on both Friday and Saturday nights at dusk provide a varied, stunning experience.
The balloonists are at the mercy of the weather, and particularly the wind. Skehan said perfect weather allows for five separate ascensions, while the typical festival averages about three. When winds are stronger than 10 miles per hour, it’s not safe for the balloons to go up.
Bill Whidden, the Quechee festival’s balloonmeister (the guy who makes sure the pilots and balloons are up to FAA snuff) for the last three decades, said Quechee is one of the longest-running balloon festivals in the nation, and unusual in that most others, like the granddaddy in Albuquerque, take place in flat areas of the country.
“Flying in New England is not difficult, it’s just different,” said Whidden. “The terrain is different, in that you have mountains, flatlands, undeveloped land, trees, the river, the ponds. Of all the events I’ve done over the years, Quechee is one of my favorites. There’s something different about Quechee.”
The village’s iconic covered bridge, next to the Quechee waterfall, for one.
“It’s illegal to fly under the bridge,” Whidden said. “I’m not going to say people haven’t done it.”
Whidden, a Southerner who now lives in Florida, has been flying balloons for half of his 80 years.
“I was in the cattle business,” he said. “An old college friend married a fraternity brother of mine. They were coming for a visit and she said, ‘Do you mind if he brings his balloon?’ I had never seen one before. We went to my cow pasture and took off.”
Whidden was hooked. He got into competitions, then the passenger ride business.
Whidden said many people take their first hot-air balloon ride at Quechee.
“We had a lady one year, very nice lady,” he said. “She, her husband, and their three kids went up. They loved it.”
Turned out to be Jodi Picoult, the author, who lives in nearby Hanover, N.H.
The balloon festival attracts mostly families from the Upper Valley, which straddles the Connecticut River in both Vermont and New Hampshire, and throughout New England. Skehan estimates that about half of the more than 10,000 to 12,000 that attend every year are Vermonters. The pilots and their balloons hail from a half-dozen states, some as far away as Arizona.
Balloons have minds of their own. They go where the breeze takes them.
“When they go up, we don’t know where they’ll come down,” said Skehan.
The chamber typically provides a nice bottle of champagne for landowners on whose property the balloons sometimes land.
Whidden said one year, a friend of his was piloting a balloon that went a lot farther than expected, landing in a remote field.
“About an hour later, he came walking up with his passengers,” Whidden said. “They were all wet from the waist down. They had to hike through the woods near the Appalachian Trail, cross the interstate, and thumb a ride back. That was unusual.”
Balloon rides are usually not nearly as eventful, providing panoramic views of the Upper Valley. Whidden said the altitudes vary from 500 to 5,000 feet, depending on terrain.
“On a clear day,” he said, “you can see the mountain peaks” of Killington, Okemo, and Ascutney. “It’s pretty amazing.”
If you go . . .
Where: Village Green, Quechee, Vt.
When: 3 p.m., Friday, June 17, through final balloon ascension 5:30 p.m. Sunday, June 19. Gates open 6 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Balloon ascensions: Friday, June 17, at 6 p.m.; Saturday, June 18, and Sunday, June 19, at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. All weather and wind dependent.
Admission: $15 for adults (ages 13+); $5 for children (ages 6-12); free, 5 years and under.
Parking: Donation, to benefit local scholarships.
Pets: Service dogs only.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.