BIRDS HILL -- It's early afternoon, and a young man with a shock of purple hair is strolling down a gravel road, strumming on a ukulele and singing, to no one in particular.
Zach Katz feels at home in the Folk Festival campground, which was literally coming to life around him on Wednesday afternoon. The 19-year-old should. After all, he was practically born here.
"The first time I was out here," Katz explains, "I was a few weeks from being born."
Katz's mother, Zoe, a puppeteer, gave birth to little Zach in the wake of the 20th annual Folk Festival. He's returned with his parents every year since. Now on the cusp of turning 20, Katz plays "10 or eleven" instruments and is the bassist and lead singer of Lemon, a local ska-punk band that has performed gigs at Ozzy's and the Albert.
Little wonder the campground brings out the music in Katz.
"It's nice to just soak in that mellow feeling," he said. "Relax and let go of insecurities. It's a really nice place to let go all the stress you have for a few days."
It's tricky to describe the main festival campground, which over four decades has developed its own quirky, vibrant ecosystem. On Wednesday afternoon, the grass field was teeming with the first wave of mostly hardcore festival goers hauling in their precious cargo -- plenty of firewater and firewood -- to their pop-up tents scattered over several acres. There were hippies and hipsters, new music and oldies, grandparents and grandchildren. Think: The Grateful Dead go camping.
"It's like you come into Birds Hill Park and get to the campground and it's a different experience," offered Naomi Goertzen, back for the first time in almost a decade. "There's a happy, positive vibe. People presume there's goodness in others."
By Friday night, almost every inch of grass will be covered in a sea of nylon "homesteads." And almost every one of them will tell you about the transformation that occurs when people of disparate backgrounds and ages come together to form a mass of humanity so distinct a man wearing a cow suit tells you, "It's udderly beautiful."
Morgan Fiks is the cow. He's a second generation of the "Castle Boys," who, some 15 years ago on a lark, erected a small wooden castle in the campground to be used as a landmark. Each year, the group of original three Castle Boys expanded. So did their displays, which grew more elaborate. About 10 years ago, Fiks caught a glimpse of the "Happy Castle."
"It blew my mind," he said.
Now the Castle Boys consist of roughly a dozen veterans, including a handful of carpenters. This year, they are erecting a red barn -- the wooden frame hauled in on a five-ton truck -- complete with saw "horses," bales of hay and a chicken coop. Hence, Fiks in a cow costume.
There will be a talent contest today and a jamboree on Friday. "It snowballs every year," said Fiks, the Castle Boys foreman. "It's always getting bigger."
Just like the campground itself, which includes several groups of "animators," many of whom are passionate Folk Fest veterans who, over the years, have become part of the cultural furniture.
Take Erica Bird and Cari Cappy, who on Wednesday were riding around in their Advice Booth powered by a bicycle built for two. Bird was dressed as the devil (red bustier), Cappy as an angel (white bustier).
In real life, Bird is a nursing technician and Cappy works at Costco. But on festival week, they are good and evil.
"It's like an adult recess," Bird said. "You just play for the week. We love it."
Added Cappy, of the campground: "It's kind of its own community. Everybody's got their own frame of mind. No judgment. Everyone's the same here. It's a good release."
You can be anybody for a few days. A few feet away, Greg Jorgensen is pouring himself a cherry-flavoured beer from Belgium. He's 62, and a professional engineer by trade. But in the festival campground, Jorgensen becomes "The Dude," complete with baby blue housecoat and shades, with more than a passing resemblance to Jeff Bridge's iconic character.
Ask how the campground will transform come nightfall and Jorgensen points to nearby Pope's Hill -- where John Paul II held mass in 1984 -- and says it will be covered with drum-banging revellers "all night, every night. It's a big party."
"Once you come," The Dude added, "you're addicted."
Dwight Andrews came once -- to the first Folk Festival in 1974. There, he met his future wife, Nadine. "We were making cookies," he said.
Andrews is 60 years old now and in the last 40 years he and Nadine have missed just four festivals. On Wednesday, Andrews was escorting his nine-year-old grandson, Zachary, around the grounds under his wing (an apt metaphor given Andrews' several bird tattoos, including a bird of paradise on his earlobe).
"We look forward to it every year," said Andrews, who goes by Little Red in these parts. "Can't wait."
Andrews doesn't flit around from campfire to campfire with his mouth organ and guitar, as he did back in the day. He's a bit hobbled now, walking with a crooked, wooden cane with a parrot head for a handle.
"A lot of good people," Little Red said. "Too bad people couldn't be like that all the time."
Asked if the surroundings -- all the fresh faces and fresh ink -- make him feel younger, Andrews smiled and replied: "It makes you feel good inside, so it must."
"It's going to be great," Little Red added. "But I tell everybody to enjoy it because it goes by so quickly. It's Day 1 and all of a sudden it's Sunday."