LEWISTON — The Great Falls Balloon Festival ended Sunday with nine balloons floating off into the sunset after what was described as a “record year” by one official.
“It was amazing,” festival Marketing Director Christina Noonan said.
The weather cooperated, she said. “We haven’t been able to launch six out of six launch windows in the last twelve years,” she said, noting that last year, there were five out of six scheduled launches.
Noonan reported that this year, the food booths’ business was up 25 percent over the last few years, and attendance was beyond what organizers have seen in the past. Although the final numbers won’t be available for a couple of weeks, Noonan declared this year a “record-breaker.”
Noonan expressed gratitude to the many volunteers, sponsors and others who came out to see the balloons.
Sunday morning at the festival was a family fun day, with music, face-painting and Mad Science.
A woman in a lab coat ran feverishly quick science experiments, asking a large group of children for their theories before explaining why the blue liquid turned clear or why the gummy bear went up like a roman candle when lit on fire.
Bill Hunter manned a truck full of rubber ducks by the canal, awaiting the arrival of heavy equipment from K&K Excavation to dump the floating birds into the canal at noon for a fundraising race.
Each of the 2,100 ducks was tagged with the name of a donor who selected their duck in hopes of winning $1,000 cash or one of 20 other prizes, including cash and gift certificates.
The annual race is sponsored by the Auburn-Lewiston Rotary Breakfast Club, and ducks go on sale a month before the festival. According to Hunter, the money raised goes back into the community, with an emphasis on children at risk.
Hunter said Brookfield Energy helps out the group with a little extra flow down the canal to hasten the duckies on their way to the finish line.
This year’s race was expected to at least match last year’s duck donations.
“The weather’s definitely helped a lot,” Rotary member and duck volunteer Kim Preble said.
Sunday’s winner of the $1,000 grand prize was Savard Appraisal Services of Lewiston.
Entrances to Simard-Payne Memorial Park were manned by the Lewiston High School Army Cadets, who assisted festival-goers and volunteers.
Sgt. 1st Class Sam Romanov, a five-year veteran of the cadets, commanded the contingent present at the park. He said cadets were at the festival all weekend from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m.
Checking over his gear Sunday, ballooner Derald Young of Damn Yankee Balloons in Dixfield seemed pleased with this year’s conditions.
“It’s been just fabulous,” Young said, explaining he’s been flying since Thursday night and up to three times a week before the festival.
Behind Young was his first balloon from 35 years ago, inflated on its side and repurposed into an attraction kids could walk through.
At the Auburn American Legion food stand, the Beaulieu family worked the first shift. According to Linda Beaulieu, members of the family, including Della, Donald, Marc, Diane, Shane and post Chaplain Dennis, are all veterans.
She said the proceeds were much better than last year’s, citing a great weekend turnout which caused the group to even run out of lime rickies Saturday night.
Across the bridge in Auburn, Elvis impersonator Robert Washington sang “My Way” as kayaks bobbed along the river.
Under an awning, Darryn DuShane of Lewiston Auburn Canoe and Kayak Rentals took payments for an afternoon rental.
“It’s been great this weekend — amazing,” DuShane said.
After a slow start due to rain, the business posted its biggest earnings all year Saturday — a feat DuShane feels confident he will repeat on Sunday.
For the festival, DuShane offered a guided trip on a rubber raft to see the falls, experience some Class II rapids downriver and to see the evening balloon launch.
“It’s been a real hard start,” DuShane said, explaining that it’s not only the rain that hindered his business, but the rise in water levels for days following the deluge.
Despite a slow beginning, DuShane said there is still plenty of interest from paddlers who are overcoming old perceptions of the Androscoggin’s industrial legacy and seeing its recreational value.
According to DuShane, “The mayor here in Auburn is a champion of the river revitalization — we need more people to embrace his ideology.”
In Gritty’s, tables were full, and happy patrons had no problem waiting out on the sunny deck.
“It’s great for us,” said server Emily Hartnett from Auburn. “It’s also great for the community.”
Hartnett said she worked the festival the last couple of years and sees the business it draws into the restaurant, rain or shine.
Around 5:30 p.m. balloon crews started taking the center of Simard-Payne Memorial Park, backing trailers into parting crowds and stretching guide ropes among unconcerned balloon-peepers’ legs.
Local band Veggies By Day belted out Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” while Michelle Hill of Auburn danced with her daughter, Kendall, 4, and her friend, Bowman, 4.
“I grew up in Auburn, so I remember when the first festival came,” Hill said. “It’s hard to believe it’s been 21 years.”
The launch came as cameras, phones and iPads were held aloft. On the ground, a second wave of balloons were rolled out — baskets were wheeled in and ropes were strung through the crowds, which were cleared out before the fires were lit.
Auburn City Councilor Mary LaFontaine was in attendance for the evening launch and acknowledged there was some friction in Auburn about whether to be part of this year’s festivities.
As for herself, LaFontaine said the two cities should work together on the festival “as much as possible.”
Brushing off any dissent about the logistics of Auburn’s place in the festival, LaFontaine said that if the Twin Cities work together more often, there would be little room for squabbling over such things.
“There’s nothing bad about any of this,” LaFontaine said as she watched another balloon lift off. She said hotels in Auburn were being booked, restaurants were seating guests and businesses all felt the boost.