Dad learns a lofty lesson

At Home with the Kids

Posted: Wednesday, September 19, 2007

People sometimes wonder to what lengths men may go to retain their sanity when left at home with their children every day. In my case, the answer is about 60 feet.

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My wife and I were both thrilled when Google Earth debuted. At last, we had the ability to get a bird's eye view of the world ... well, almost. While the Google images of Juneau are very impressive, they aren't quite impressive enough to get a good feel for the finer points of the terrain around our neighborhood, such as the presence of smaller ponds and the route taken by our two creeks before and after they flow through our yard.

The answer for this shortcoming was to get some detailed aerial photographs of our neighborhood, but living on a single income we couldn't justify hiring an aircraft and pilot. Then one day I thought of using a tethered balloon.

The original plan was to make a hydrogen balloon, but my wife questioned whether our insurance would cover the potential explosion, and I had my own concerns about venting the chlorine gas that gets produced as a by-product when electricity is passed through salt water to make hydrogen. Besides, the helium tanks my son discovered at Wal-Mart's grand opening each contain almost nine cubic feet of helium - which calculates to about a half-pound of lifting capacity - more than sufficient to hoist our quarter-pound digital camera.

Accordingly, the day after Wal-Mart's opening I took my kids shopping and soon returned home with a tank of helium. I made two balloons from four lightweight garbage bags and clear tape, a design that provides more capacity at lower weight than either latex or Mylar. Soda straws and rubber bands formed a harness for the camera. Two lightweight fishing lines tethered the balloons and the harness. I set the camera on time-lapse, and let it fly.

Shortly after the launch, my son came to me complaining about a stick on the bottom of his shoe. I placed my foot on the stick and lifted him, and was horrified to discover a nail protruding from the stick. This was when I stopped looking at the balloons.

My boy was not injured, not even scratched, but I didn't know this until after I had examined shoes, socks, and bare feet. By the time I looked skyward again, the camera and balloons had lodged high up in a cottonwood tree.

The two lightweight fishing lines broke easily in my initial attempts to get the camera freed from the tree. The balloons were still attached though, and I wanted the camera to come down, and not to go up and away!

The rest of the afternoon and evening was a futile effort involving, at various times, a fishing pole, a bow and arrow, and several Mylar balloons we'd had in the house for over two weeks. At one point, a neighbor with a pellet gun took out the homemade balloons, so at least I no longer feared a free-flying camera.

As the sun was setting, I made one last effort by climbing 60 feet into a nearby spruce tree. From my precarious perch in the swaying spruce, I attempted to cut the offending branch in the cottonwood using a pole saw, but my glasses fell off and in the dim twilight I was unable to make out the angle of the saw blade and its location on the branch, so I surrendered to the inevitable and blindly felt my way down in the dark.

The next morning, I tried the bunched Mylar balloons again, on a single stand of fishing line. Within five minutes, the camera slipped between a couple of the balloons, and a slight tug on the line jiggled the camera free.

After the camera dried out - the result of a heavy dew - I discovered that it survived the dew and the fall without any major damage, although the flash apparently quit working. I then looked at the hundreds of pictures taken before the battery quit. Most are junk, but there are a few exceptions.

In one early picture, for instance, my daughter is helping her brother with something on his shoe. She's a good big sister.

• Michael Wittig is a stay-at-home parent and longterm Juneau resident.

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