LISTEN: Anchorage’s hot air balloon history rises again in ‘Curious Alaska’ column

(Wikimedia Commons)

Sometimes Alaskans have questions they don’t know what to do with.

Enter Curious Alaska, a series by the Anchorage Daily News that solicits reader questions about pretty much anything and sets reporters on them.

The ADN’s Michelle Theriault Boots and Morgan Krakow have been writing the column. Theriault Boots described Curious Alaska and, in one story, how she got to the bottom of why Anchorage doesn’t see as many hot air balloons as it used to.

LISTEN:

Casey Grove: I just have two questions. What, and why?

Michelle Theriault-Boots: Good questions. You know, a lot of our reporting obviously is generated from — what do our readers want to know? But this is this kind of a very direct way: There’s this part of our site where you can go on and ask a question. And it’s defined very, very broadly. What are you curious about about Alaska? And we will use our professional reporting muscle to try to answer those questions.

So we got an overwhelming response. We got just incredible questions, and lots of them. They range from questions about the natural history of Alaska to what’s going on with the Fourth Avenue theater to what happened to all the hot air balloons that used to dot the skies of Anchorage. This is a perfect assignment for me because I love going down rabbit holes of all kinds, and this allows me to professionally go down those rabbit holes.

CG: Well, let’s go down that one in particular. What is the deal with hot air balloons? When were they a big deal in Anchorage, and what happened to them?

MTB: So if you lived here in the late 1970s, you’d probably remember around 1976 or ‘77 — sort of pipeline era — hot air ballooning became a thing. And on still summer evenings, it wasn’t uncommon to see half a dozen hot air balloons floating across the sky, in what was then a much less developed city. And in the early ‘80s, it became a pretty big deal. There was a Fur Rendezvous Hot Air Balloon Race —

CG:  Wait, in the winter?

MTB: Yes, yes, in the winter. Anchorage winter weather, when it’s still, is actually, apparently, really great for hot air ballooning. And then it kind of, you know, it hit a peak of popularity and then by the mid to late 1980s, almost overnight, it just kind of went away.

CG: So I think when I first saw the tweet about this, it went something like ‘What happened to hot air ballooning in Anchorage? Was it the cocaine?’ Something like that. So I have to ask — was it the cocaine?

MTB: Yeah, that was sort of part of my lead for the story, you know, insurance and cocaine ruined everything. What I was told was that in the early ‘80s there was there was some partying that went on, maybe not strictly by the regs flying, some bad behavior and that for a time, the public’s opinion of hot air balloonists kind of soured a bit. And cocaine was specifically mentioned as a substance of choice in that era.

It was part of this sort of unregulated lifestyle in Anchorage, where you could do something like, you know, light up your hot air balloon on an empty field off of Lake Otis, float around, maybe touch down in the Brown Jug parking lot, get your free bottle of champagne — which was apparently a thing — and float on without a whole lot of red tape, or interference from any sort of government entity.

But as time went on, that sort of changed. And then there was a point at which insurers stopped selling insurance to hot air balloon operators, or made it prohibitively expensive. And it wasn’t necessarily because of any big disaster — there was no big crash, there was no big incident. It was just something that happened that kind of made it unfeasible, and too expensive, for most people to fly their hot air balloons. And, you know, simultaneously, at the same time, the city — a lot of the open spaces that really lent themselves to that filled in with development, making it much harder to just put your hot air balloon down anywhere.

CG: Well, we should probably ask a lawyer what the statute of limitations on hot air balloon crimes is.

MTB: Right, is that . . . a federal crime?

CG: Could be! So, I was looking at the explainer on ADN.com about what Curious Alaska is, and some of the questions that are mentioned there are like, what’s the deal with the Parks Highway igloo? What is Sarah Palin up to? Why are snow machines called snow machines or snow gos depending on where you’re at? Do you have answers to those questions, or are those in the works?

MTB: Those are questions we’ve gotten multiple times before, but we haven’t specifically tackled any of those yet. I can give you a preview — my Curious Alaska that’s coming out this week is about what’s up with those islands in the Aleutians and the Kodiak Archipelago where there’s cattle on them.

What’s up with those remote islands? And I’m not going to tell you the answer, you’re going to have to read it.

CG: So the cattle . . . There’s a lot of grass there but there’s also volcanoes right?

MTB:  You’re just gonna have to read it. You’re just gonna have to read the column.

CG: I will, I promise you. Thanks for being here.

MTB: Thanks so much for having me, Casey.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.

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