If you ask Mike Lesmeister how Santa and a reindeer got back to the North Pole this Christmas Day, he will probably say by hot air balloon.
Lesmeister should know — he was the pilot.
As many in the region slept in their nice warm beds or woke to see what Santa had left under the tree for them, Lesmeister and his friends braved the cold to take to the skies in the red, white and blue balloon named Liberty Belle.
For Corey Schlenker, the ride was a way to honor his late uncle, George Ibach, who was not only an avid balloonist but also introduced Lesmeister to the activity.
"It’s an awesome experience being up there, looking over the city," Schlenker said. "When I’m up there, I always think my uncle is watching over me and is with us."
It was also a chance to bring cheer to unsuspecting Rochester residents as he donned a Santa suit and fake beard for the nearly hourlong ride. At times, the balloon was too high to see who was in the basket but occasionally the group was low enough to see that it was Santa who had taken to the sky.
Schlenker admitted that it was a unique way to spend Christmas morning, but as his wife, Allison, said, "Why not?"
"We have family near and we are early birds," she said, adding that she can’t get her husband in a Santa costume any other way.
As the balloon took off from a field near the Rochester Math and Science Academy, Lesmeister shouted out "Merry Christmas" to those still on the ground. From somewhere in the neighborhood, someone yelled the well-wish back.
After a few false attempts, the balloon finally landed in afield not far from Northgate Park. Shortly after the balloon touched down, Jessie Davis and her family were there in their pajamas. Davis said they had just finished opening presents. The family had been hearing a noise, which they later learned were the balloon’s burners, and looked out to see the hot air balloon.
Davis’ sister, Sara Witeli, said the family didn’t believe her when she told them Santa was in the sky.
Eight-year-old Abi and her 12-year-old brother, Joel Davis, rushed to the balloon to greet Santa and the reindeer. "This is really cool," Joel said.
The Davis family weren’t the only curious neighbors. As the balloon passed over the city, some cars stopped to take pictures and residents came out of their homes to look toward the sky.
A few even yelled up to Lesmeister and his passengers to wish them a merry Christmas and even ask where their presents might be.
Back on the ground after the flight, Corey Schlenker reflected on his ride.
"Amazing," he said.