Floating over Oregon's Alvord Desert

From the latest entry in my Appreciation of Oregon series published in The Oregonian and on OregonLive.

Alvord Desert, August 10, 2013

Our weather balloon launch came off without a hitch and the footage the GoPro cameras captured as they rose with the balloon from the Alvord Desert floor surpassed our expectations.  But the one thing I love most about this clip is not the footage, it's hearing the exuberant voice of a young girl.  

She is running barefoot on the hard-pack grey desert floor chasing the path of the balloon as it twirls away from earth. A northwest wind is pushing the white balloon toward Steens Mountain, a golden sunset is hanging on the horizon. 

"Ahhhhhh, I like this" she shouts as her legs carry her across what looks like an endless elephant's hide of a landscape.

There is more expression in her tone, than in her words and I believe her excitement defined all of our feelings as we chased, photographed or watched in amazement as the balloon faded from our eyes. 

Give a watch and listen hard at about the :16 second mark. There are other nuggets of great audio in this clip but this is by far what I hear over and over in my head when I replay this day.

The idea to launch a weather balloon with cameras attached came from my friend and work collaborator, Bruce Ely. We were headed to Oregon's dry--and hopefully clear--side to gather material for a multi media show around the Perseids meteor shower. We hoped the balloon and cameras would supplement our all-night time lapse of the meteor shower. 

Bruce and I launched a weather balloon with cameras  once before, while working on Great River of The West, our 2012 time lapse and still photo project about the Columbia River. That launch produced some interesting footage, a massive retrieval effort and the experience we hoped would make this launch perfect.

We nailed the launch from the desert but the GPS-based retrieval still needs some refining.

Our intern, Allie Milligan is probably too kind to say so. She was with us in the desert on her last assignment of the summer. We promised to have her back in Portland in time to catch a 9 pm flight home to New York.

At noon on the day she was to fly, we were thigh deep in sage and scrub brush somewhere near the Harney-Malheur County line in one of the most remote places in southeast Oregon. We were in what looked like a dry creek bed, 7 or 8 hours from home and without any cell phone reception to coordinate our search. We were feeling a little hopeless.

In the end, technology rescued us. We drove several miles up the road to get a signal, reset the GPS and eventually found our gear. I'm not about to tell you about the pace we set getting home. Allie did make her flight but I'm sure some dry sage from southeast Oregon is now trying to take root in New York state.