Day Trip: Winnipeg Folk Festival

Went to the Winnipeg Folk Festival on Saturday for the first time in nineteen years. I picked a great day for it: There was a weather warning because of the extreme heat and humidity, and thunderstorm warnings for later in the day. On Friday evening, a nurse friend working a twelve-hour shift at Concordia Hospital texted me to let me know that Emerg was full of Folk Festers. “The heat?” I asked, and she replied “Overheated… and a few bad cookies.” While I had no intention of eating cookies (good or bad, plain or enhanced, home-made low-cal store-bought chocolate-chipped or otherwise) in this weather, I was a bit anxious about surviving the heat. I repacked about seven times, texting J.  (a veteran of many Folk Fests) constantly to ask what I should take along or leave behind. “Take it all,” she told me. “That’s what the car is for.”

SPF 30 sunscreen, two 1-litre Nalgene water bottles, three light cotton scarves, a beautiful wide-brimmed green hat, three plastic rain ponchos, a tarp, a fleece blankie, a light shirt, a heavier shirt, little travel packs of tissues, toilet paper, hand wipes, extra ziplock bags, two low festival chairs (I couldn’t decide!), an apple, my cell phone, money and ID and house keys and a comfy backpack and two sketchbooks and a bunch of markers and pens and coloured pencils and charcoal pencils, a book of poetry (in French), a novel (in English), my journal, a towel to wrap around my half-frozen water bottles for insulation, a heavier scarf for the evening, sunglasses, and and and…. Really, I was going for one day, just one day, but I like to be prepared. I drew the line at first aid supplies, and also managed to leave the extra shoes behind.

J. kindly contained her laughter when she picked me up with all my gear. I waved goodbye to my dogs, calling last-minute (and unnecessary) instructions to my mom who was petsitting for the day. It was kind of worrisome to leave them in someone else’s care on such a very hot day, since the Brindle Dog (who is old, black, and very active), gets all excited and frisky around her Oma, and the Fluffy Dog is just so darn hairy, and I always worry about the cats escaping. I had gone over the emergency heatstroke protocol half a dozen times, and I’m sure even the neighbours were getting tired of it.

But my mom was filling the wading pool for the dogs before I even had the gate latched, and J. had chocolate-almond croissants and fresh strawberries for us to eat in the car, and the sun was shining, and I was super excited about going to Folk Fest for the first time in so long, and spending the day with my dear friend. So off we went! And we looked so cute together, honestly, J. in her yellow flower-print dress and straw hat and my in my turquoise dress with its batiky leaves and vines and my massive green hat, and all our bags and gear and grins and chocolate smeared on our faces and croissant crumbs in our cleavage and our skin sticky with sunscreen. We got out there just before eleven and stood in line for my day pass, and by the time we stopped at the Aurora Farm booth to buy Manitoba Mist bug spray (seriously awesome stuff, and yes I know the person who makes it but no I am not getting any kickback for my endorsement of this most awesome non-toxic bug spray ever) and wandered over to find a patch of shade at the Burr Oak stage, I was already feeling wilted from the heat.

We got all set up in the shade with chairs and a blanket under our feet. Texted everyone we knew who might be there, and settled in, J. with her embroidery and me with my sketchbook. Within minutes, we were swarmed by J.’s nieces and cousins and their partners and friends. They were so lovely and beautiful! But I always think pretty much everyone is beautiful at an event like this. People are there because they want to be, they expect to enjoy themselves, to hear good music, to meet up with friends. They wear the most interesting clothes. At first I was all wow, people can just wear whatever they want here and nobody cares but then I saw that there was indeed an unwritten dress code, and the people who strayed too far from International Hippie Chic really stood out. I’m thinking of the ones wearing too much black, or too much leather (unless it was beaded and fringed), or baseball caps with sports logos. And of course the police and RCMP.

Folk Fest has changed a lot since I was last there in 1996, the summer before I moved to the Netherlands. Back then, it was mostly one big empty field. You could stand in the middle and see pretty much everything there was to see. There was one long line of porta-potties, and I think the festival schedule was a big fold-out sheet instead of the spiral-bound book they sell now. The food vendors have a permanent structure with power and plumbing, which, since I have some germ phobias, made me very happy. I like to know there is ample water for hygiene, and ample power infrastructure to support good refrigeration!

My two favourite things were first, the number of trees that have been planted over the years, creating shady areas everywhere, blocking noise, housing birds and other creatures, freshening up the air, rustling in the wind, and all the other good Tree Things. The second favourite thing was Fiona’s Fountain, a gorgeous covered water fountain in memory of Fiona Carruthers, artist. The story I was told is that Fiona, an artist who loved the Winnipeg Folk Festival, died by suicide, and her parents established the fountain as a memorial to her. I tried an Internet search to find out more about her, but couldn’t find much. If anybody knows more about her, her art, or how her parents came to decide on this wonderful memorial, I’d love to hear about it. It made me so sad for Fiona to know she felt such despair, and also so happy that her fountain is there to keep her memory alive in such a beautiful, functional, symbolic way (water, water, the blood of the world). A way to keep the conversation open, to keep shining an unflinching compassionate light on suicide, to remind people how grief and happiness aren’t always mutually exclusive.

Anyway, except for forays to the porta-potties, the food vendors, and Fiona’s Fountain, and a quick tour of the Handmade Village and the Martha Street Studio lino-printing workshop, J. and I stayed at Burr Oak all day. We heard Bardefou and Mariachi Ghost and Xylouris White and many more groups. We were close enough to enjoy the music and the dancers, but far enough away that we could chat and interact without being shushed or having to yell in each other’s ears. I reapplied sunscreen often, terrified of burning. Except my legs; for some reason, my legs never burn or even tan. They always remain the same unhealthy pallor, pocked with scars here and there from falls and dog bites, and now as I get older spidered with thin purple veins. (Oh how lucky I am that I have the little spider veins and not the varicose veins of other family members! At least these don’t hurt!) So I pushed my legs into whatever patch of sun there was, hopeful that this year might be different, while slathering my arms and shoulders and chest and neck and face with so many layers of sunscreen that by the end of the day the sunscreen was having some kind of chemical interaction with the plastic arms of my chair, creating a disturbing sticky white sludge. By the end of the day I had applied layers of kleenex to the arms to protect my  skin and dress. At some point I’ll have to retrieve that chair from the garage and clean the arms before someone wants to use it again!

The people watching at Folk Fest is wonderful. People dress up, they dress down, they are face-painted and hennaed and tattooed and braided and costumed and bikinied and colourful. Their adorable (mostly) children are dressed like dragons and princesses and little forest creatures and tie-dyed hippies. Pinwheels are planted by half-shell tents. Children build inukshuks in the dry streambed. People are blowing bubbles and burning sage and smoking pot and pouring cold water over their heads and dancing in the hot sun until they are slick and gleaming with sweat, throwing out their arms, carrying their babies, waving their streamers, working their hula hoops. It’s so much fun just to look around and see how much diversity their is in people’s self-expression! But diversity only goes so far. The festival is overwhelmingly white, although the range of ages is wider than at a lot of other types of fests.

Another change from 19 years ago is the music. Back then, I remember there being basically a single “world” stage, and the rest was folk and bluegrass type music. Now the whole fest has shifted to include a lot more world and indie music, and there’s a lot more subwoofer action going on (which is pretty much always okay with me!) and there was even some electronic music in the evening. I didn’t get to see that, as my party was at the main stage, but I would have liked to check it out.

We got rained on a bit at the mainstage, but after the heat of the day, it was welcome. I put my light shirt on over my dress against the chill, and kept the big green hat on as a rain hat (I’d had to MacGyver some of the cotton scarves to tie it onto my head earlier because of the wind. Yay, knot-tying skills!). And we left just as it was getting dark, after Arlo Guthrie’s set. A tired ride home, and a good night’s sleep. I didn’t take any pictures, since I hate taking people’s picture without their permission. But I should have tried to get a picture of Fiona’s Fountain.

Winnipeg Folk Festival. Bird’s Hill Park, Manitoba.



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