Splash and Dash : Newest Thrill-Sport to Come Along for the Adventurous Is White-Water Ballooning

Times Staff Writer

Ice is on the pond behind the Coloma Country Inn as Alan Ehrgott scrapes frost off the windshield of his van, loads his guests and drives down California 49 past the spot where James Marshall discovered gold 140 years ago this month. A covey of quail seems unintimidated by the early-morning intrusion.

Arriving at the gate to Ed Bacchi’s 20,000-acre cattle ranch, Ehrgott thaws out the frozen padlock with a match, then proceeds to the launching site. On this historic piece of land along the South Fork of the American River, Ehrgott has discovered something, too: white-water ballooning.

Sound like hot air?

That’s what it takes--although less in the winter than the summer, when more propane is required to heat the air inside the 70-foot-tall, 76,000-cubic foot balloon to lift it above the sultry valley of the Gold Country.


But at any time of year, when the light winds are right, it’s possible to lift off and drift down the valley and skim the surface of the river, which is one of the most popular white-water rafting sites in the country. The flights are featured in the Coloma/Lotus Merchants Assn. booth at the Anaheim Sports, Vacation and RV Show opening Saturday.

Ehrgott is the only person, as far as he knows, to combine the two adventures for hire, which is surprising since ballooning--man’s first form of flight--has been going on for more than 200 years. Ehrgott might not have discovered it, either, except for a chance encounter with four adventurous attorneys 3 years ago.

Ehrgott, 36, ran an adventure travel company in Westwood for 10 years, taking tours all over the world. The UCLA Alumni Assn. was particularly demanding.

“They kept asking for different kinds of trips,” Ehrgott said.

He contracted with balloon operators for some trips, then discovered, “It was so successful, I figured they were having all the fun.”

So, in 1979 he learned to fly a balloon, bought his own and took tours to Kenya and Peru, among other places.

“Alan was the first to fly a hot air balloon in Peru,” his wife, Cindi, said. “Maybe the only one.”

But around 1980, he made another discovery.

“As the company grew, I was spending more and more time behind a desk and less and less time outdoors,” Ehrgott said.

He already knew something about white-water rafting, so he moved to Coloma, where he and Cindi bought the 1852 Coloma Country Inn, which they operate as a bed-and-breakfast hotel, offering a combined room-rafting-ballooning package.

Then one day the attorneys arrived to take a balloon ride.

“I had done a lot of flying along the river where the water was calm,” Ehrgott said. “They wanted to go where the rapids were, and one of them asked if we could get down close.

“I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ In ballooning lingo, it’s known as splash and dash.”

The balloon, of course, can go only in whichever direction the wind is blowing, but a skillful operator can change its altitude at will by applying one of the most basic laws of physics: hot air rises.

Allow the air inside the balloon to cool to the outside temperature, and its weight will cause it to descend. Apply the propane burners to heat the air, and it will rise.

It takes some skill, since there is a lag of a few seconds before the “burn” takes effect, but a skillful operator can skim treetops close enough to pick pine cones and mistletoe or, in effect, tiptoe through tulips along the ground.

With the attorneys, however, Ehrgott pushed his skill to the limit.

“As we flew into a set of rapids, the leading edge of the basket became submerged,” he said. “Within seconds we had water up to our knees. The attorneys loved it. They were sitting up on the edge of the basket having a great time. They assumed it was just part of the ‘E-ticket’ ride. I knew we were close to losing the entire balloon.”

Normally, the basket where the passengers ride will hang straight down from the balloon, but as it dragged in the water the breeze pushed the balloon itself ahead and over on its side.

“I knew if the balloon’s fabric made contact with the current, the weight of the water would bring the balloon down,” Ehrgott said. “I imagined four attorneys swimming to shore and wasting no time filing a personal liability suit.”

But as Ehrgott kept blasting hot air into the balloon, it started to rise and pulled the basket free, water pouring from its wicker sides. Later, Ehrgott perfected the practice until, he says, it was virtually risk-free, and today he is indebted to the attorneys.

“They actually came up with the term white - water ballooning, “ he said.

What would the Montgolfier brothers--Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne--think if they could see Ehrgott now?

The two Frenchmen were the first to send a hot air balloon aloft, unmanned, from a plain near Annonay, France, on June 5, 1783.

“At that time, they thought it was the smoke that made it rise,” Ehrgott said. “So they’d get a lot of green brush and stuff for the fire.”

On Sept. 19 of that year, near Versailles, the Montgolfiers risked a sheep, a duck and a rooster in another successful flight, and on Nov. 21 Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent flew over Paris for 23 minutes.

Thus encouraged, physicist J.A.C. Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert flew 15 miles from Paris to a small village, where their balloon was attacked by farmers with pitchforks. One story has it that the unsophisticated farmers were trying to slay the strange monster; another that they simply were angry because the landing had destroyed part of their vineyard.

But, the story goes, the next time the balloonists took no chances, dangling bottles of champagne as they descended--and, unwittingly, inspiring a ballooning tradition that survives to this day: a champagne toast at the end of every flight.

The basics haven’t changed much since the days of the Montgolfiers. There are about 1,000 licensed balloonists in France and 3,000 in the U.S., but virtually all still ride in wicker baskets, trusting themselves to a bag of hot air.

The most significant advances have been the abilities to control altitude with propane burners and direction of flight by finding the correct inversion layer of breeze that says, “Going my way?”

Around Coloma, the breeze is seldom too strong to fly because the rolling hills break it up. Ehrgott prefers it below 5 knots, and on most days it will take a balloon right along the river.

Before launching on this chilly day, he sent a small, helium-filled toy balloon aloft from the pasture to check the inversion directions, then unloaded the basket from the back of the van and removed the deflated balloon from the basket, spreading it out full length. Then he inflated the balloon with a large electric fan, went inside to inspect it and adjust some controls, came out and ignited the burner, which was tipped on its side.

The 14-foot flame pumped 12,000 BTUs of life into the red, white and blue nylon envelope, which slowly rose until vertical. Ehrgott and his four passengers climbed over the sides, and a few long blasts of heat later they were aloft.

Except for a slight nudge, with one’s eyes closed it’s difficult to feel when you have left the ground. There is little sensation of movement at any time--certainly far less than going up and down in an elevator--and you can’t feel the wind because you and the wind are one.

“One of the misconceptions people have is that the basket swings a lot,” Ehrgott said. “They ask if they should bring their seasickness pills along.

“I’ve had acrophobiacs (people who fear heights) in the balloon who tense up for the first 5 minutes, then they relax.”

That first white-water flight with the attorneys was Ehrgott’s nearest brush with disaster. With a responsible balloonist, he said, “It’s one of the safest sports there is.

“Typically, when somebody gets into trouble, what happens is he’s where he isn’t supposed to be and hits some power lines.”

From a few hundred feet, groups of deer can be seen scampering away from this strange, silent airship, although Ehrgott said, “The deer are getting used to me. I can fly within 30 or 40 feet of them now.”

On other days he has seen fox, coyote, wild turkey, quail and red-tail hawks--once, even a mountain lion.

After about an hour’s flight, Ehrgott picked out a spot to land. Near the ground, he pulled a line to the “rip panel” in one side to release air and, after a few skips and a hop, the basket came to rest.

The balloon went limp, the chase van arrived, and everybody pitched in to pack up. Then Ehrgott popped the champagne and toasted another successful flight, as if there ever was any other kind.