LIFT-OFF: A festival that’s so much more than music and hot air

LIFT-OFF: A festival that’s so much more than music and hot air
Hot air balloons take off in St. Andrews West during Lift-Off.

By Adam Brazeau 
CORNWALL, Ontario – Cornwall’s signature event and Ontario’s only hot air balloon festival wrapped up its 20th year.

Thousands flocked to Lamoureux Park from July 10-13, for 16 live music acts, a free concert night, indulgent vendor fare, a large midway, kids’ fun zone, and beer garden.

“I’ve heard so many positive comments about this year’s festival and music lineup,” said Jason Jesmer, Lift-Off co-chair.

Music festivities were kicked off by local five-piece ‘seasoned to the max’ rock band Street Road. Then, Cornwall’s four-piece tribute act Lost Boyz took Lift-Off deep into the heart of the 80s. With perfect timing, 90s rockers and Cornwall/Ottawa natives Barstool Prophets fired up the crowd. Their set set the stage ablaze.

Headliners Glass Tiger had the crowd roaring as they sang along to classic hits like Don’t Forget Me – When I’m Gone.

Organizers estimated nearly 10,000 people attended the first night.

Throughout the four-day event several other area acts and Cornwall’s own guitar hero took the stage, including Trailer Five, The Paul Deslauriers Band, Mandee Woods, Hadrian’s Wall, and SwitchGear.

Canadian rockers and headliners 54-40 owned the stage during day two of Lift-Off.

Alan Doyle, best known as the frontman of Great Big Sea, wrapped up the third concert night with a powerful and infectious performance, adding a fresh twist after two days of solid rock.

Then, Lift-Off went country. Numbers were way down thanks to Mother Nature’s attempt to rain on Lift-Off’s parade. But the show must go on – and it did.

Doc Walker delivered a heavy dose of toe-tapping fun, closing out the 20th anniversary of the festival.

Unpredictable winds forced most of the 20 hot air balloons to take flight at an alternate site in St. Andrews West.

Lift-Off 2014 saw two of its six launches take place at the RCAFA Wing 424 on Water Street. The yearly Cornwall tradition has almost disappeared.

In 2013, the U.S. border patrol warned the festival’s board of directors not to fly the balloons into America.

“Our first choice is to always fly from Cornwall, but it’s all about wind direction,” said Stephanie McDonald, Lift-Off’s director of passenger services. “We move it for the safety of the pilots and the passengers.”

But hundreds still lined up to see the massive multicoloured balloons in action.

As they braced themselves for their first ride, newlyweds Shawn Pollard, 29, and Joanne Bourdon-Pollard, 28, couldn’t get much higher. Joanne surprised her husband with the tickets as a gift.

“We kept talking about doing it, and I thought it would be romantic,” she said.

Then without warning, an offer to fill a vacant spot came forth; despite a slight fear of heights this reporter was airborne.

Pilot Hal Cooper briefed me on how to land properly. Then, he introduced me to my fellow passenger, Crysler’s Roger Lafrance.

After a brief struggle, I flung myself into the basket.

Cooper began to light up the burners, shooting flames into the balloon. After 20 years, he said he no longer feels the heat. But the inferno hovering above my head was hard to ignore until St. Andrews West and the large crowd started to shrink.

Staring into the clear open sky, I was completely awestruck. I’ve lived in Cornwall all my life. And after 31 years, for the first time I saw it differently.

As we glided over treetops and fields of soybeans, corn, and hayfields, the lush green forestry sprawled across the area looked phenomenal.

Cooper said it took one flight for him to get hooked. It wasn’t hard to see why.

But like all things that go up, the coming down part was inevitable. The landing was shaky, a bit bumpy, and altogether safe and easy.

I thanked Cooper and his crew for the amazing experience, and headed back to my news desk.

For this Lift-Off fanatic, the experience made the elephant in the room (or rather park) even bigger: will the festival turn 21?

“I have no idea,” said Jesmer. “I’ve been on the board for eight years. So for me…I’m exhausted. But does that mean it’s the end? That’s not for me to say when there’s a dozen-plus people around the table that are ready to pick up the torch and keep it going. So it depends on who you ask.”

Jesmer noted that half of Lift-Off’s board is new blood. He stressed that finding volunteers to help run the festival is vital to its longevity.

“This is a full-time job,” he said. “We were short-staffed from last year. I asked dozens of people if they wanted to help out who are business leaders and can make a difference. But they’re already committed to multiple organizations.”

With new festivals taking shape in Cornwall, the board cut ticket prices to shreds, offering a full weekend pass for $25.

“As an organizer, I was very happy when I looked out into the crowd and saw all those people. But I’m conservative, and would like to see the park packed shoulder to shoulder,” said Jesmer.

Festival-goer and city resident Chantale Racine told Seaway News her family never misses the event.

“I couldn’t picture summer in Cornwall without Lift-Off,” said Racine.

Amen to that!

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