We dined on a simple continental breakfast at the Grist Iron Brewery before leaving for a daytime adventure in Ithaca. We planned to visit Buttermilk Falls, stop at a brewery for lunch, and then drive to our meeting location for our balloon ride. The thirty-minute drive from Burdett on Seneca Lake carried us up and down winding and scenic hills.
This was our first visit to Buttermilk Falls. Bhavna and I perused the park map at the park office, deciding which hiking trail we wanted to try. We chose the Gorge Trail to Upper Buttermilk Falls and started up the steep treelined hiking trail. I wasn't huffing or puffing, but I did feel the burn in my legs. We heard rushing water splashing against rocks and the pathways made by centuries of flowing water. The hike took just over one hour, mainly because we stopped to take photos. Many hikers were going in both directions, including a family with a blind dog who seemed to navigate the rocky steps much better than I.
Liquid State Brewing
After our long, tiring hike up Buttermilk Falls, we were hungry. After a quick Foursquare and Yelp search, we settled on Liquid State Brewing in downtown Ithaca. We dined on cheese, crackers, and pretzels while sampling a few of the ales on tap including Fluky Times, SONIC! IPA, La Trapeze, Yard Lion Hefe, Surf Guitar, Cherry Surf Guitar, Local Vibe and Liquid Crush.
Both of us agreed that Liquid Crush was quite good. We bought a few growlers to share with our friends and family back in New Jersey. We were pressed for time, so soon, we were on our way to Letchworth State Park to meet at the starting location for our balloon ride.
Ballooning over Letchworth State Park and Genesee Falls
We had a long two-hour drive to Letchworth State Park along a mostly boring highway and small non-descript towns. We arrived at the balloon launch site about thirty minutes before the scheduled rendezvous with the Balloon Over Letchworth Company, the only hot air balloon company to launch from within the south end of Letchworth State Park. Bhavna and I explored the park for a bit. There were several large groups having picnics.
According to Wikipedia:
Letchworth State Park is a 14,427-acre New York State Park located in Livingston County and Wyoming County in the northwestern part of New York. The park is roughly 17 miles long, following the course of the Genesee River as it flows north through a deep gorge and over several large waterfalls.
When our balloon captain, Captain Sean Quiqley, arrived, he explained the rules of the flight, how he expected the ride to go, and what we might see. It is all dependent on the weather, mostly the direction and velocity of the wind. Bhavana and I were assured that the ride would be nothing like being on a plane. We could expect no sudden bumps. In the summer of 2017, Captain Quigley celebrated his 30th Anniversary as a balloon pilot and owner of Balloons Over Letchworth. Hence, we knew we were in safe hands.
Captain Sean Quigley is an F.A.A. licensed commercial pilot; he has since logged over 2000 flights in hot air balloons in festivals and races from Florida to Maine as well as in Europe. In 1989, he placed sixth of 38 countries represented in Le Coup Du Monde, World Cup balloon race in Belfort, France. He has piloted his balloon over the brim of Niagara Falls several times and placed ninth in the U.S. in a distance Long Jump competition, travelling over 114 miles in 2.5 hours. In 2004 he flew in a weeklong festival over the Alps at Chateau d'Oex, Switzerland. In January 2012, Sean flew two flights to 13,000 ft. over the Austrian Alps.
Captain Quiqley and his crew, I think it's a family affair, then set about inflating the balloon. This drew a large crowd. Soon the flight crew had raised the balloon, and we embarked. Along with us were two other couples, one of whom were with their adult child.
The balloon ascended slowly, and we slowly drifted over the gorge and the waterfalls. We could feel the mist coming up from the waterfall directly below. We passed over the Upper Falls, an active railroad trestle crossing immediately above it. Our pilot was terrific and had complete control of the balloon.
Our captain had expected our balloon ride to last about two hours. He would take us over the many gorges of Letchworth State Park and skim the treetops. Weather permitting, he might float low over the Genesee Falls and perhaps dip the basket into the river. But on this particular day, the wind did not cooperate. The balloon struggled to rise and did not move very far. We passed over the first gorge, barely rising in the hour we were in the air. After a bit, the captain called out over the radio to his ground crew, who had been following us in several cars, that he would have to bring the balloon down. In the distance, we could see another balloon.
The captain brought us down in a farm field after calling ahead to his crew to warn the farmer, a close friend. Despite the setback, Bhavna and I were happy. That was one thing less on our bucket list.
After the balloon ride, we gathered at the initial meeting point for a quick glass of champagne, some cheese and an exciting chit-chat about ballooning with the captain. We had fun, and on the long, late drive back to the Grist Iron Inn, we talked about ballooning with our children in the future.