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The Yellow Balloon Oregon/Washington BLM



The Yellow Balloon

Filming the Past with Oregon Public Broadcasting.

story & photos by Maria Thi Mai

Scene I: And That Has Made All The Difference...

On the road.

Even before the sun awoke, we climbed into our vehicles to rumble down a corrugated rough and tumble dirt road for what seemed like more than one hundred miles.

During the next hour we dodged boulders and kicked up dust while six tanks of helium clanged and banged providing us with a syncopated symphony from the back of our truck.

Eventually, we stopped.

As the dust settled (literally), we witnessed through the pre-dawn light a paradox. A high desert floor lay before us - thousands of feet above sea level.

Scene II: The Green, Green Grass of Home...

As I opened my truck door, crisp air stole my breath away and stopped me cold as I dropped onto a soft green carpet of grass. Pat O'Grady, an archaeologist with the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History, greeted us with his wise elf-like smile and a welcomed cup of coffee.

I noticed his campsite snuggled up against a rock wall which prompted me to wonder what archaeological treasures may be hidden on the other side...

Hot caffeine firmly entrenched in hand, we made our round of introductions. From Oregon Public Broadcasting, Vince Patton and Todd Sonflieth introduced themselves as the OPB producer and photographer, respectively. Orrin Frederick, Corey Plank, and Ed Zigoy hailed from the BLM's Oregon State Office Geographic Sciences department. Rounding out our party were Scott Thomas, archaeologist from the BLM's Burns District, and his compatriots Kenny McDaniel, Burns District Manager, and Brendan Cain, Associate District Manager.

Scene III: Phoenix Rising

The Yellow Balloon
photo by Maria Thi Mai

Oh...by the way. Did you know the BLM has a 30-foot long helium balloon? Sure we manage natural deposits of helium, but I had no idea that the BLM in Oregon and Washington owned its own balloon. Whoa. I was awed and became even more impressed once I saw the big yellow zeppelin for myself.

I was reminded of a recent animated movie about an old man who takes off in a hot air balloon seeking adventure. Visions filled my head of creating my own film floating high above the desert. But when asked, our experts told me my chances of going up in the BLM balloon were...well, slim. Corey Plank chose his words carefully. He told me that, while petite, I still wasn't quite light enough - the balloon could only lift about 50 pounds. (I tried not to look hurt.)

This was no Pixar movie. Better than any fiction, we were writing our own story to record the enigmatic medicine wheels that leave far more to the imagination than mere fiction could achieve. More on them later.

And so with both the temperatures and our balloon creeping up into the morning sky at an almost equal rate, the OPB film crew collected shots of daybreak summiting over the junipers, misty fog rising from a spring-fed pond, and, of course, our yellow zeppelin coming to life.

At the same time, our BLM team worked diligently to strap the GPS unit and camera to our balloon and test a sundry of other connections. But after much tinkering (and a few expletives - shhh...) followed by loss of radio connection, we disconnected our GPS and high-definition camera and made the call to dangle a regular ol' ordinary video camera on the end of our balloon with hopes of getting some usable imagery.

Scene IV: ...Phoenix Not Rising?

Over four tanks of helium later, (enough to fill nearly 2,500 party balloons!), our balloon was sent up. But it needed an anchor - more specifically, a human tether. Time to draw straws. And like pulling the sword from a stone, Ed became our chosen one. So we strapped him with a pack holding 100 meters of rope rolled around a spool on his back along with climbing hardware to help regulate the tension in the rope. Ed was literally "weighted down" and could control the balloon - and most importantly, keep it from flying away.

We began carving out an invisible trail in the sky for the balloon to rise, rise, rise! Paying no mind to the boulders at Ed's nimble feet, we guided him to the first of several medicine wheels.

The Yellow Balloon
photo by Maria Thi Mai

While the experts sent up our balloon with a camera, I thought back to the first time I heard we were visiting a medicine wheel archaeological site. I truly wasn't sure what to expect. And if you share in my unfamiliarity, imagine this: a circle composed of rocks ranging in size from a large cantaloupe to small watermelon - all in an area where about 30 to 40 people could sit comfortably around its perimeter. Like bicycle spokes coming from a hub, additional rocks radiate from the center. In one flat open area about half the size of a football field, we found two medicine wheels along with another as-yet unidentified formation.

Scene V: Reinventing the Medicine Wheel

Standing beside these rock alignments my mind wandered to questions such as: What did people do here? Was this area used for sacred spiritual ceremonies or as an arena for games? Or did residents hold council here to discuss important issues? There are obviously a myriad of questions with opaque and subjective answers to every varying degree.

Another important question came up when I looked at the OHV tracks sprawling across the landscape. How do we know that these rocks weren't placed here last week by visitors wanting to create a "crop circle" hoax?

At this point I turn to our archeologists, Scott and Pat, to ask them for validation of authenticity. They do not disappoint. Using language I can actually understand they explain that lichens and other microbes found on the rocks take many decades - if not centuries - to develop.

Furthermore, medicine wheels were known among some tribes in the American West. And yet... They are not features common to this particular area which raises their level of intrigue.

The northern Great Basin has an ancient heritage of human occupation that extends 14,500 years back into the Pleistocene era, past the time when people used Clovis spear points to hunt mammoths. Much has happened over the millennia to layer the landscape with a rich appliqué of archaeological artifacts and features.

And stone circles such as these will always captivate the human imagination.

Roll Credits: Without Whom...

I now look back to the BLM balloon which has allowed us to document another perspective about a people and culture we know little about - and to record it for all of history. And with OPB's Oregon Field Guide, all public viewers will be given another perspective thanks to the BLM's big yellow balloon.

Head over to Oregon Public Broadcasting and check out the segment from this article!