Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

In-tents experience

For many fans, the camping community at the Winnipeg Folk Festival is as important as the music

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For five days in July, a city away from the city emerges in Birds Hill Park. It's a place where people who don't see each other for the rest of the year reconvene for a weekend of music and discovery. They make music and art together. They break bread. They sing and talk and tell stories until the inky, starry Prairie sky gives way to a dewy Prairie sunrise. They make memories. And then they come back.

The Festival Campground at the Winnipeg Folk Festival defines the event as much as the music onstage. It's at once a utopic refuge and a wild party. It's more than just a post-music festival crash pad; it has its own culture, governed by a strong sense of community. And while you've got to be down with the good times to stay at the Festival Campground, it's a welcoming place.

Festival camping is a perennial sellout, although tickets for this year's fest -- which runs July 9-13 -- have been slower to do so. Festival and Quiet Camping (the more sleep-friendly, lights-out-by-11 campground) are both still available, a rarity in June.

Executive director Lynne Skromeda says anecdotal research has revealed that this past winter has been a factor. (It's hard to get into the folk fest spirit if you are still dealing with frozen pipes in May.) She says a summer filled with big-draw arena and stadium shows -- Beyoncé & Jay Z and Bruno Mars among them -- has also played a role.

"Lots of (folk fest) fans are music fans and when you have to deal with getting your tickets more quickly, sometimes we fall down the list because we're always there," she says, adding that competition from other music festivals -- be they local or big destination events such as Coachella and Bonnaroo -- is a factor as well. Still, sales have been steady; the WFF expects that the Festival Campground, which has a capacity of 6,000 (including RVs and volunteers), will be sold out by the June 30 advance ticket deadline.

Regular campers will find some new additions, including shelters built from reclaimed materials and communal fire pits, which will become a destination for jams, led by the Wandering Minstrels. Services such as showers and food vendors will return to the Festival Campground this year, as will the popular Art & Animation program, with new artists to discover.

"There is so much great stuff this year," Skromeda says. "It's very interactive. Historically, we used to have some bigger animation projects but fewer of them. Now we've got more of them -- and more things for people to experience, regardless of how old you are. Things like Big Games (giant versions of board games such as Connect Four and Jenga), which is back this year. There's yoga classes, there's dress-up stations, you can go glow-bowling."

Many folk festers have taken to social media to express disappointment about the fact that the Castle Boys -- the team behind the iconic structures that had become a fixture in the campground -- were denied animator status this year. "Since we are unable to support everyone, we try to share the opportunities and include the creative interactive projects that meet the specific criteria of the program, which this year the Castle Boys' application did not meet," Skromeda explains in a followup email.

Both the Winnipeg Folk Festival and longtime campers work hard to protect the campground's vibe. "Our goal is to create a safe, positive, fun environment for people so that it's an extension of the festival," Skromeda says. "So respect's a really big deal. Harassment is shunned. It's just not allowed. It's not allowed by us, but it's not allowed by other campers -- and that's one of the special things about it.

"We don't police (the campground), but we do have campground safety crews that go around and make sure that things are OK. We're not trying to ruin anyone's good time -- we'll never come in and be The Man. But we need to make sure that people are safe."

Community is a big draw for other longtime campers, like Ben Hopper.

"There's incredible energy, kindness and sharing. You're always looking out for people's best interests," Hopper says.

Hopper's what you'd call a lifer: this will be his 37th Winnipeg Folk Festival, and he turns 37 this year. The veteran festival volunteer started camping on his own about 20 years ago, and was something of a festival pusher among his friends. Now, he has a group that's about 25 strong. "It's a family tradition that became a tradition with my friends."

Hopper appreciates campground improvements such as the addition of food vendors, a first-aid tent and better garbage and recycling facilities. However, he would like to see things like showers -- which were absent last year due to a supplier snag -- become more permanent.

He'd also like to see the site outhouses get an upgrade and a better charging station for cellphones. But he's encouraged by what he's seen so far.

"I'm glad the folk fest is going through such a period of change. I'm excited to see what they continue to be."

Paula Henry, 50, has been attending the Winnipeg Folk Festival for the past 32 years, missing only a handful when her kids were little. "It's a big part of my life," she says. "When I was in my young party days, I lived for the folk fest. That's all I would talk about for months."

She's got stories, to be sure -- including one that involves naked Tai Chi on top of Pope's Hill, the site of much folk fest lore. (She remained clothed, for the record.) But for Henry, the festival is all about the music, whether that means singalongs in the campground or seeing Don McLean singing American Pie at the mainstage. "That was an amazing moment for me. It was such a significant song in my childhood."

Everyone who attends has a folk fest moment that sums up their experience. Hopper's moment was immortalized in a photograph. In it, revellers have converged under a postcard sky on Pope's Hill, the distorted light from their fluorescent glow bracelets making them look electric.

"Everybody was dressed up. The weather was perfect," he recalls. "I remember thinking, 'This. This is why I come here every year.'"

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2014 G3

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