There's a lot more to hot-air ballooning than just "up, up and away."
Few vacationers, I suspect, eagerly greet a 6 a.m. appointment. But lured by fresh coffee and clear skies, I made my way down a hallway to the meeting place, the dining room of the Coloma Country Inn.
This 1852 country-style B&B; is owned and managed by Alan and Cindi Ehrgott. Their recreational package of hot-air ballooning, white-water rafting and an evening's lodging had brought us five bleary-eyed adventurers together. Luckily, Alan, our balloon pilot as well as host, was wide awake.
A short drive took us to the flight departure point on a ranch. The main concern is safety, and the ranch has no power lines or public roads. This and the usually gentle winds of the American River Valley northeast of Sacramento make the ranch a good place for ballooning.
(Passengers the next day experienced a sudden shift of wind and were carried off the ranch. They landed in a less-than-ideal but adventurous manner, amid cattails and a marshy stream.)
Testing the Wind
Alan uses a proven formula to test the wind direction--standing on the van's hood and releasing torn bits of tissue. Then out from the rear doors come a waist-high wicker basket, 1,000 square yards of rip-stop nylon, propane tanks, hoses, safety helmets, burner plate, large fan and five passengers.
Getting ready requires a lot of space, cleared of sharp rocks and brambles that could tear the nylon.
The voluminous fabric had been packed away by gathering the convoluted folds into a tube shape and coiling it into the basket. Now it is uncoiled and stretched out upon the ground. The load tape is cleaned, the rip panel and other operating features inspected, and the inflation begins.
Our cameras clicked while fan-forced air surged into the balloon neck. The horizontal folds of fabric on the ground began to billow. As the multicolored giant took shape, Alan invited us to step inside. Entering this kaleidoscopic wind tunnel we trod carefully, to avoid damaging the nylon.
Straining to Soar
Stepping outside from that colorful world, the morning seemed especially bright. With a blast of heated air from the burner plate, the 6 1/2-story goliath rose to its full height, straining to soar. Time had come for us to board the balloon, the Mariposa.
Climbing into the basket wasn't easy for me. Declining an offer of a boost, I searched the woven wicker basket for a toehold. Fellow passengers and an overhead wire assisted my "up and over."
With the release of the restraining anchor ropes, the enclosed hot air lifted us gently yet swiftly. Reaching a breezy air current, we glided easily above the hills.
I had expected the basket to sway, but the movement is so smooth that it felt as if we were stationary and it's the ground below that's whizzing along.
Flora and Fauna
The tightly woven base in the sky reveals little of the shadowy contours below. Gripping the suede-covered rim, peering over the edge, we felt supported and safe. Only the California live oaks punctuated the closely cropped golden hills. We scanned the hills for deer, fox, coyote and wild turkey.
"On one flight," Alan says, "the balloon came within 50 feet of a very startled mountain lion."
Lightly holding the stainless- steel cables that connect nylon to wicker, I reached once again for my camera. Alan reached too--for the blast valve handle--and within seconds the additional hot air took effect. The horizon expanded.
Now we had a clear view of the foothills below us as they join nearby Mt. Murphy in a march toward the Sierra. The tree-lined bank of the American River allowed only glimpses of the South Fork snaking its way west through the valley floor.
Southern Maidu Indians, who first occupied this area, called it Cul-luh-mah, the beautiful vale. Searching out a location for a sawmill, James Marshall came upon this wooded valley as he followed the river's course. He signed a contract with John Sutter, settled in with a small work force and, adapting the Maidu description, named the valley Coloma.
One crisp, January morning nearly 140 years ago, Marshall examined the sawmill's muddy tailrace. Noticing an unmistakable gleam, he declared, "Boys, I believe I have found a gold mine."
Coloma's--and California's--place in history was sealed.
As we drifted in the Mariposa above Coloma's foothills, I tried to picture the state's first gold rush.
Ten thousand hopefuls scoured the river banks searching for nuggets. The flakes of gold were so plentiful that some miners didn't even bother to save them. Prices soared. Bread sold for $1 a slice.
Then, as the gold gave out, the miners moved on to other promising "diggin's." Prices crashed. Eager to leave, miners sold their land for $1 an acre. The ranch land below us had been acquired during those times.
When asked about the Mariposa's insignia, PAC, Alan said that he had been director of Pacific Adventures, which specialized in action vacations.
For nearly 10 years he took UCLA alumni and other groups on activities such as white-water rafting through the lower Grand Canyon and sailing up the Nile River, ballooning over the Temples of Luxor.
Apparently Alan and the Mariposa have been together for some time. But the roving days were sidetracked when he and Cindi chose Coloma as the place to raise their daughter, Jenny.
Coloma, at the peak of its Gold Rush days, served 10,000 people and had many thriving businesses. Closer to 200 now call it home.
Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park encompasses 70% of the old town. Fires and time have taken their toll, but foundations, replicas and exhibits tell the story.
The first stop should be to the museum and visitor's center on Main Street, which is also California 49. The $3 fee includes a pamphlet and a map of four walking tours. Two routes are easy walking and are wheelchair-accessible, though a bit gravelly.
Site of First Sight
The one-third mile "discovery" path takes you past old mining equipment, the sawmill replica and its original site. At the gold discovery site, about 50 yards downstream, you can see the hand-dug narrow lagoon, a portion of the old sawmill tailrace.
The adventurous Forty-Niner spirit may still be alive. Standing along the river bank, I watched as visitors wiggled their fingers in the swiftly flowing water. Others produced gold pans and knelt to begin the oblong swirling motion that separates heavy gold flakes from lighter material.
Nine-year-old Annie, from Novato, Calif., came with her father to test the technique.
"My father showed me how to do this. My brother didn't want to come 'cause it's the last day of school, but I did." And like a true Forty-Niner, Annie continued panning while she talked.
The other tour routes are to town buildings or sites, to the Marshall monument on the hill above the park and to Pioneer Cemetery. Save one day to savor the park, and wear walking shoes.
While some of Coloma's visitors come here for the history, others come for the ballooning and rafting.
Names Are Thrilling
Twisting and coiling, this stretch of the South Fork produces white-water rapids for Class III rafting. The names of the rapids can give you a thrill--Troublemaker, Satan's Cesspool, Meatgrinder and Hospital Bar.
Valerie and Michael Fontaine had been white-water rafting the day before. Experienced river runners, they had come to tackle the South Fork. Wedging brief vacations into their work schedules and raising two daughters, they said they want to spend as much time as possible at the "scene of the action."
Taking a flight from Los Angeles to Sacramento, then a rental car to Coloma, they were here within 2 1/2 hours.
Rafting novices Wally Sharp and Karen Walker were eager for their turn to tackle the river later that day. The water level was low but the water moved swiftly, and feeling every dip and curve added to the excitement.
Bay Area residents Karen and Wally had also come for an adventurous two-day respite from the daily grind.
Action on Dry Land
This was the first ballooning voyage for each of us. We soon discovered that the ground crew's balloon chase affords plenty of action, too.
The pilot doesn't use radio communication so Lance--the chase "crew"--must keep the balloon in sight, following it in the van. "That's easy enough," I thought, until I went along for the ride.
While Lance drove the twisting, bumpy roads, I helped track the swiftly moving balloon. When the winds are strong the pilot can slow the rate of travel by hugging the hills. This makes the Mariposa harder to find.
Believe it or not, it's really possible to lose sight of a six-story, rainbow-colored behemoth. Once off the private ranch, we in the chase truck navigated country lanes and passed a few vehicles.
Sometimes Lance hopped out, asked directions from a farmer and for permission to use his private roads. Most were accommodating and eager to share their own ballooning stories--but there was no time to spare.
On one rare occasion the balloon landed on a hilltop where there were no roads. Alan and his passengers had to hike out and get a ride back to town. But even these out-of-the-ordinary landings add to the adventure, and passengers often return for another ride.
-- -- --
For information about town events, write to the Coloma-Lotus Merchants Assn., P.O. Box 201, Coloma, Calif. 95613. State Park information is available from P.O. Box 265, Coloma, Calif. 95613, or call (916) 622-3470.
The park museum and visitor's center is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in summer and 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the winter; park grounds are open 8 a.m. to sunset daily; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
The park's two historic churches are available for weddings. Park day-use fee is $3 per car, $2 for seniors.
Coloma Country Inn, P.O. Box 502, Coloma 95613; phone (916) 622-6919. Rates are $68 (double) bed and breakfast; B&B; plus ballooning is $165 per person; B&B;, ballooning and one-day rafting (two days, one night) is $225 per person.
Rafting packages for the Middle Fork and North Fork of the American River also can be arranged.
Lodging and dining also are available at Vineyard House B&B;, P.O. Box 176, Coloma, Calif. 95613, phone (916) 622-2217, and Sierra Nevada House, 835 Lotus Road, Coloma, Calif. 95613, phone (916) 622-0777.