Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Countryfest: community-focused

Big party only part of what annual event means

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Campers fill the fields behind the stage. The festival expanded its camping area to 4,300 spaces this year.

During its 25 years, Dauphin's Countryfest has earned a reputation for being one of Canada's rowdiest music festivals. Everyone's heard the lore; tales of debauchery and hedonism in one of the most party-hardy campsites around.

Still, the culture of Canada's longest-running country music festival isn't just one of Party, Sleep, Repeat, to quote someone's relentlessly on-point tank top. It's also a culture rooted in community -- a fact underscored during a weekend of never-ending rain. The people who go to Countryfest are among the most committed folks you'll ever meet, dedicated to the good times no matter what. Middle-aged veterans in full Gore-Tex coexist among 18-year-old first-timers in bikinis and flimsy ponchos. Overwhelmingly, people are friendly. They're creative; for example, just about anything can be a beer receptacle, from jerry cans to plastic T-ball bats. And they're resilient, still just given'r even when rain has transformed their campsites into sludgy cesspools of mud, beer and bodily fluids. (Of course, there are always a few loogans in the bunch; as of press time on Saturday, RCMP had responded to 15 calls for service in the past 48 hours, including two assaults. Eight men had been removed for intoxication.)

Countryfest has become one of Manitoba's destination music festivals, bringing out 14,000 fans to the Selo Ukraina site and its unique hillside amphitheatre on the edge of the bucolic Riding Mountain National Park. Since its inception in 1990, the festival has attracted some of country music's biggest names, including Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and this year's headliner, Rascal Flatts.

Not only is Countryfest community-focused, it's also community-driven. It's a non-profit organization, run mostly by volunteers and a full-time staff of three. Any profits go back into the community. Over the past few years, the festival has invested in Dauphin's four-cinema multiplex, a new swimming pool, a new hockey arena, a splash park and a skateboard park. To celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, it gave away $25,000 ($1,000 per week) to community groups.

The festival has also heavily invests in site improvements. This year alone saw the addition of a new seating section, 300 more parking spots, 2.4 additional hectares designated for camping, the repainting of concession buildings and re-graveling roads throughout the site.

Eric Irwin, president of Dauphin's Countryfest and the mayor of Dauphin, says improving the experience with expanded services is crucial in cultivating a culture of respect. After all, for four days, this is people's home. "Regulars trust that we're investing in it to make it better," he says. "And hopefully, they'll respect it."


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Make no mistake, those who inhabit the fabled Back 40 campground are 24-hour party people.

By early afternoon, the grid of RVs and tents is humming with activity. Wildly competitive drinking games are in progress. If you walk by, you will be invited to join in; people freely share their beers and whatever else they have to offer. An earnest young woman in tie-dye offered me a straight shot of grape Sourpuss out of the bottle at 1:45 p.m. I passed. Advice from veterans is also passed out. "You're going to want to change your shoes," a young woman from Morden who has been coming for eight years cautioned me about my sneakers.

Surveying the site, it's hard not to be struck by the sheer volume of beer cans everywhere, a visual shorthand for the wild night before (no wonder Countryfest has an on-site recycling depot). Between the campground rave and individual pop-up parties, the fun goes straight on till morning.

Jordan Fidler, a 19-year-old University of Manitoba law student, and his buddies are trudging through a particularly thick patch of mud. One of them has lost a flip-flop. "If I were to give any advice, it'd be bring good shoes," Fidler says. "My feet are (expletive)."

It's his first time at the festival and he's been partying every night until 7 a.m. . He's shirtless and covered in mud. "I haven't actually been to any concerts yet," he confesses.

His friend, Tyler Chembell, 20, has been coming for a couple of years. For him, it's about the music and the people. "Everyone's here for the same reason," he says. Indeed, music festivals can be unifying experiences. So can torrential downpours.

A trio of young women -- Ellary Austin, 20, Maryssa Zajaros, 18 and Kristen Cyr, 20 -- are wandering the campground in the pouring rain. Zajaros and Cyr have just met Austin. Fast friendships form here. "I'm coming until I'm old and wrinkly," Zajaros says of the festival. It's her second year. First-timer Cyr has been converted. "It's official," the young roofer says, "I want to start looking at trailers." Wise woman.

Nicole Dorge, 56, and her family accidentally found themselves in the Back 40, which she chalks up to lack of experience. "It's entertaining, though," she says. She and the family are hanging out, taking shelter from the rain under her trailer's awning. "I'm surprised at how many kids are here. I had no idea."

The Lorette resident said kids are mostly well-behaved. "They come and introduce themselves. They say, 'Hi, neighbour.' "

They don't exactly offer a reprieve from the party. "You maybe get a break between 6 and 8 a.m." Still, she's not bothered by it.

"They're having a good time," she says. "We were all kids once."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2014 A3

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