QUECHEE, Vt. — Whatever you do around here, don’t mention the wind.
It’s a sore subject. Even a year later.
Last year, after the pandemic had forced the cancellation of Quechee’s annual balloon festival in 2020 and forced moving the 2021 festival from its usual Father’s Day weekend to Labor Day, the locals were pretty pumped to get the 42nd festival back to its regular, festive launch.
But there was nothing regular about the weather last year. Over the course of three days, 20 hot air balloons were poised to ascend over the Ottauquechee River and float over the verdant hills of the Upper Valley. None of them went up, because the wind howled for three straight days. It was only the second time in the festival’s history that weather forced the cancellation of all flights.
“We’re at the mercy of the wind,” said PJ Skehan, who as executive director of the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce is in charge of the festival. “And last year the wind was merciless.”
Basically, the winds have to be less than 10 miles per hour to safely launch hot air balloons. As in previous years, at this year’s festival, June 16 through 18, there are five windows — 6 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings, and 6 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings — to get the balloons up. Last year, every time Bill Whidden, the festival’s balloonmeister, checked the wind, he shook his head.
It was more than disappointing. It meant balloon operators whose flights are sold out every year had to issue tens of thousands of dollars in refunds to disappointed passengers.
At least those on the ground could take solace in the music and crafts and other entertainment on hand. Hoppy, a re-purposed, 1961 Divco milk truck that dispenses Vermont-brewed craft beers, had a steady stream of customers.
“We have 90 vendors, loads of musicians,” Skehan said. “It’s more than just the balloons.”
Perhaps because he grew up in Ireland, Skehan knows better than to think you can control the weather. He came here in 1981 to continue his work as a glassblower for Simon Pearce, who bought an old mill next to the Quechee covered bridge and turned it into a workshop, showroom, and restaurant. Skehan worked as a glassblower for 20 years, then as general manager at Simon Pearce for another 15. Ten years ago, he took over the chamber of commerce.
Mike Yaroshuk, a Boston guy who grew up in Charlestown, bought the Quechee Inn in the late 1970s and was the driving force in getting the balloon festival off the ground. The idea was to get people from all over New England to visit the area. Proceeds from the festival fund local scholarships and the Quechee Gorge visitor center.
“It’s a big deal for the local community,” Skehan said. “It brings up to 10,000 people onto the Quechee green, and they get a feel for the natural beauty and come back.”
Skehan takes comfort in knowing how rare it is for the weather gods to interfere with the festival. But climate change has increased wind speeds, and Skehan said the number of balloon ascensions nationwide has declined dramatically. This is in part because of weather patterns, but also more recently because of a new FAA regulation that requires balloon operators to pass the same medical exam as commercial airline pilots.
“There’s only so many doctors who can do that kind of testing,” he said.
Those erratic, wavy jet streams that have pushed smoke from wildfires in Canada across the Northeast can play havoc with hot air balloons, too.
Like many Vermonters, Skehan is philosophical about the weather.
“There are no guarantees in life,” he said. “You can’t dwell on the negative. This is a great tradition. We’re going to keep it going.”
Vermonters have figured out a way to keep their ski industry going in the face of dwindling snowfalls. The Quechee balloon festival will survive, too, whichever way the wind blows.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe reporter and columnist who roams New England. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.