Hudson Hot Air Affair is the Biggest Winter Balloon Festival in America

Up, up, and away!

If there was ever a justification for setting a 5 a.m. alarm and driving to Wisconsin on a bitterly cold February morning, the Hudson Hot Air Affair is it.

The three-day, family-friendly event began as a way to lure people to its namesake town in the doldrums of winter. Now in its 31st year, the Affair attracts thousands of gawkers, not to mention hot air balloon pilots from as far away as Tennessee and Texas. Organizers say it’s the largest winter balloon festival in the country.

Kicking off today and running through Sunday, February 7, this year’s Affair will be different than previous years due to the pandemic. A hybrid event will feature pop-up launches with live video coverage; spectators can visit hudsonhotairaffair.com to find locations for balloon spotting.

Last year, by the time we arrived in Hudson, a half hour before sunrise, there were already hundreds of spectactors milling about on the snow-covered fields outside E.P. Rock elementary school. Folks were bundled up like Randy Parker in A Christmas Story, with camouflage parkas, fuzzy earflap hats, and long johns underneath their jammies.

The first launch of the day was scheduled for 7:35 a.m., with a mass ascension of 30-plus balloons. (2021 will see about half as many.) Balloon flights are always weather-dependent: The ideal flying conditions are 4 to 6 mph winds with visibility of one to three miles.

As burners hissed and plumes of fire roared into the sky, telephoto lenses click-click-clicked and kids ran squealing from balloon to balloon, giddy with excitement. And it was pretty exciting! Watching teams transform a puddle of ripstop nylon or Dacron—known as the “envelope”—into a supersized balloon was impressive.

The most popular balloons were specially shaped—like the 80-foot-tall Fred G. Monster, pictured above. But we liked the classics, too, like Jacks UpSky, the racer-style Lindstrand 60X driven by Ken Walter, founder of WindDancer Balloon Promotions in Waukesha, Wisconsin. “Hot air ballooning is not only my passion and my job,” Walter told us. “It’s my lifestyle.”

A second balloon launch was scheduled for 3 p.m., but as the winds picked up, the prospects dimmed. “Winter flying can be challenging,” explained Walter. “Either the weather is awesome or terrible; there is very little in between.”

Latercomers who’d missed the morning ascension were understandably disappointed. But that’s the touch-and-go nature of guiding a giant nylon gasbag above the treetops—you gotta count your blessings when you’re lucky enough to do it.

To read our full report on the Hudson Hot Air Affair, grab the new issue of Minnesota Monthly or check out the online story here. The article includes other event highlights, like a pancake breakfast, mystery hot dish contest, and smoosh board competition, as well as our top picks for things to eat, see, and do in the St. Croix River area.