Wide view of colorful hot air balloons on the ground in Helen, GA

Balloons in Helen, GA

My brother-in-law Toby was truly a Renaissance man. Listening to him, you’d think he’d been everywhere and done all kinds of interesting things, and if he hadn’t been there or done that, it wasn’t worth going or doing! And you know what? It was all true!

One day we were talking about strange things that had happened around Lake Lanier, and he mentioned that a hot air balloon had once landed in the lake! I looked it up and sure enough, it happened back in 2011. By law, balloons may fly only between the hours of sunrise and sunset. A pilot was flying over the lake and the sun began to set. As he tried to land his balloon at Old Federal Park a gust of wind came along and blew him into the lake. There were no injuries and a bunch of nearby boaters rushed to pull everyone out of the water and also rescue the balloon.

We got to talking about the balloons, and it seems that Toby was actually flying them out of Helen, Ga. back in the early 1970s.

Helen was established in the early 1800s, and grew when gold was discovered in the area during the 1840s. This was several years before the better-known California Gold Rush. When the gold ran out, timber became the main enterprise and continued with a huge sawmill functioning right into the 20th century. By the late 1960s the town had dwindled to a gas station and general store with a few houses surrounded by open fields. About that time a group of local businessmen came up with the idea of turning Helen into an Alpine Village nestled among the mountains similar to those in Bavaria and Switzerland that exist today. (This is especially nostalgic to our veterans who served in Europe during the Cold War.)

In recent years it’s grown into a tourist destination for people all over the South and beyond. Myriad stores feature glass blowing on premises, antiques, motorcycle leathers, arts and crafts etc. In addition to the shopping, there are activities such as camping and hiking, trout fishing, tubing, and rafting on the Chattahoochee, (which is very shallow and only a few yards wide this close to its source), and then the Oktoberfest in the fall as well as many other things including rides in hot air balloons!

When Toby was there back in the ’70s, the wide-open spaces made it especially attractive for ballooning. You can’t steer a balloon. It just floats in whatever direction the wind takes it. The only control you have is your altitude, where hopefully you can find an air current that takes you in the direction you want to go. You also require a chase crew to pick up the balloon and its basket wherever it lands. Sometimes this can get exciting if it lands behind a fence on private property or in a pasture occupied by a possessive bull!

Toby had many stories about their adventures, both in the air and on the ground with the chase crew. On the days when it was too windy to fly the balloons, the crew would take surveyor’s tapes, stakes, and string to mark off lots along the proposed streets of the new “Village.”

As far as unusual entertainment goes, in early June there will be the “50th Annual Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race!” It starts in the fields outside of Helen and ends when the first balloon crosses Interstate 95! This is not only the oldest balloon event in the country, but also the only long-distance race. The balloon just carries enough propane fuel to stay aloft for about four hours, so the chase crew must be on the spot when it lands for refueling. Otherwise, time is wasted waiting for the fuel while your competitors are heading for the finish line! (This almost makes sailboat racing look tame!) Information about the race or about Helen in general can be found at www.helenga.org or www.cityofhelen.org.

In Memorium: Toby Murphy, 1944 to 2022.

Photo: by Vinnie Mendes