Walla Walla Balloon Stampede Returns for 42nd Year

Despite cancellations due to poor weather, the spirit of the event continues on.

Missy Gerlach, Staff Writer

Balloons took to the skies of Walla Walla–albeit briefly–for the 42nd year of the annual Walla Walla Balloon Stampede. While the fun and merrymaking was impacted by heavy rain and wind throughout last weekend, the spirit of the event persevered.

The third oldest hot air balloon event in the country, the Balloon Stampede began in 1974, and has remained a staple of Walla Walla ever since. From the initial four balloons in 1974, the number of participants has grown; this time, thirty pilots and their balloons were invited to participate.

Whitman College holds a key role in the history of the event. In 1972, the college brought in a hot air balloon for a pep rally. When Nat Vale and Bill Lloyd, two local businessmen, saw the balloon, they found inspiration for a balloon show of their own, resulting in the Stampede. Whitman remained closely connected to the event for four decades, as one of its largest and longest running sponsors. 2016 marks the first year that Whitman did not sponsor the event.

This year, the festival was held from the 12th through 16th of October at Tietan Park. Each day has traditionally offered a variety of different events for attendees of all ages. “Billy Blastvalve’s Kids’ Day,” held on the 12th, gave children in Walla Walla the chance to fly in the balloons. In recent years, over 1,000 kids in the community have had the opportunity to take flight. Unfortunately, Friday’s “Night Glow,” a popular event in which the balloons are inflated and remain on the ground, lighting up the park against the dark night sky, was cancelled. Another favorite event called the “Great Launch,” in which all thirty balloons take off within thirty seconds, was also cancelled. Heavy rains made finding viable take-off and landing places difficult, while rough winds above the city made flight too dangerous to attempt.

The festival was produced by Scott and Laurie Spencer, who have a long history with both the event and the Walla Walla community. Their histories with ballooning are even longer–Mr. Spencer has owned balloons since the age of 14, while balloons first sparked Mrs. Spencer interest 26 years ago, when she received a balloon ride as a gift. Although now a longtime pilot, she still feels the same childlike wonder.

“Even though I’ve been flying for so many years, if I see a balloon in the sky, I still look up in awe and wonder,” Mrs. Spencer said.

Starting as pilots, the Spencers eventually became the event producers. Mr. Spencer handles operational logistics, while Mrs. Spencer focuses on the hospitality.

Love for the balloons and the community have driven the Spencers to stay involved, and they have created real relationships with the community.

“When you come back to an event over and over again, you become very close to the people that you meet,” Mrs. Spencer said.

“It’s fun for us to come back and see them every year, see the kids a little older, and we go to graduations and weddings,” Mr. Spencer said. “We come back because we love it and we have friends here.”

The Spencers have made a point of sharing their passion for flying with the community, visiting area schools and encouraging festival attendees to talk to pilots during “Night Glow.”

“Festivals are celebrations of community,” Mr. Spencer said.

Luke Hampton, currently the resident director of Anderson Hall, attended the event last year and had the opportunity to ride in one of the balloons.

“It was amazing doing it right at sunrise and having all the other hot air balloons going up at the same time. You could see the Blues, you could see the whole city, you could see the hills for miles and then hot air balloons just here and there–all around over Walla Walla, which was gorgeous,” Hampton said. “I think it benefits the town and it benefits the people.”

While bad weather plagued the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede this year, delaying or preventing launches, the spirit of the event still lives on and will undoubtedly continue for future years. As a key part of the community, attendees return year in and year out to take part in the Stampede. The event is aimed towards families and people of all ages and works hard to foster relationships between the people at the event. Most importantly, the Balloon Stampede aims to leave people with happy memories of their time at the event.

“We’re pretty lucky,” Mr. Spencer said. “We make memories. You know, that’s our job. We go out and make memories.”