Fear and Loathing in Northern Alberta: Our Experience at the “Woodstock of the North”
The 37-year-old festival in Driftpile, Alberta doesn't have star-studded lineup, but that's not why people go.
All Photos courtesy of author
We all need a place where we can escape—one without consequences or confrontation, where your sexual preference or occupation don’t define you. A place to just relax and soak in the sunshine and good vibes. I know, I know, I sound like one of those hippies spouting "peace and love man," but that’s what Northern Alberta’s annual summer solstice music festival, North Country Fair, brings out in me. Sometimes called the “Woodstock of the North,” North Country Fair is held in the beautiful Driftpile, Alberta and has been running since 1978. Every year is its own adventure; like the year where the ATMs ran dry and cigarettes became common currency. This year, my North Country was thought provoking to say the least. All weekend I was surrounded by a stellar atmosphere, a constant stream of “Fuck Yeah,” super molly, and a knife fight from hell.
The Year of Buzz
As our car pulled into the grounds I waved to familiar faces and observed a large group of bohemians journeying to the North. They were on their way to a wedding, but not just any wedding—Buzz’s wedding. I immediately hopped out of the car, grabbing my camera in a frenzy. Now, to understand my excitement for the wedding of Buzz, one needs to understand what he means to the North Country Fair. Buzz (and yes, that’s his real name) has been going to the Fair for 16 years now. I can only describe him as the party entity of the Fair. As he ventures throughout the NCF, every once in awhile, he will beckon the party vibes with his iconic “Fuck Yeah!” Now you may think, ‘Oh, this is just a guy who screams, “fuck yeah,” so what?’ Well, the thing about Buzz’s “Fuck Yeah!” is that it is heard throughout the whole festival. Seriously, I implore you to try and ignore it. Like he says: “Whether you may love it or hate it, you hear it and you remember it.”
Buzz best describes his reason for his NCF “Fuck Yeah!” “It’s actually a phonetic exercise I have developed as a means to achieve more volume,” says Buzz. “The words “Fuck Yeah,” are an excellent representation of the feeling the North Country Fair gives me. There is no other place in the world where I can express any sentiment at my maximum volume.” Buzz actually admits he has measured his “Fuck Yeah,” with a decibel meter. It sits at 115 dBs. That’s louder than a power saw at full blast. Buzz is not only known for his hype-building: for many fair-goers, he is also their alarm clock. I had the pleasure of camping next to him a couple fairs back and woke up every morning (hungover, I might add) to his powerful “Fuck Yeah’s!” followed by “good morning North Country Fair!” As I sprinted through the tall grass, I could hear the wedding in the distance. “Do you take Megan to be your lawfully wedded wife?” “FUCK YEAH!” After some beer and pot-filled wedding shenanigans, I ventured back to our camp.
On my journey back I ran into all sorts of characters, but the one who stuck out the most was a tall shirtless tattooed man wearing a kilt and a hat that said, “I’m a dick.” Following him was a short woman sipping from a Palm Bay can that had to have contained more than a weak cooler. “We need to get on their level,” said one of my friends. She was right. We did. After all, this was the North Country Fair.
Pokémon Acid and Dad School
For the first morning of this year’s fair, I awoke in a two-person tent with three other people, covered in sweat, beer, wine, and other unmentionables to a piercing whistle followed by a blaring “Cock-a-doodle Doo Motherfuckers!” Good morning, Buzz. By midday, everyone was on something. This ranged from MDMA, acid, ketamine, and mushrooms, just to name a few. Some of our camp members arrived back from the river with two randoms by the name of Keagan and Julian. Keagan had a bag full of beer and Julian had a bag full of oddball toys and treats. As the drugs began to take hold, the day grew more and more curious. Keagan retold his adventures in Amsterdam during April 20th while Julian pulled out toys of all shapes and sizes. Once he unveiled his kaleidoscope, everyone, on their respective hallucinogenics gathered around to look inside the magical gizmo. Our group of delirious hippies was thoroughly entertained for hours. We took to calling Julian the Toy King. “We’re just a couple of fuckin’ traveling clowns,” he laughed. Julian then whipped out what look like a mere Pokémon card and tore off the back, revealing a couple tabs of acid. He let out a little Peter Griffin-esque chuckle and put some tabs in his mouth.
Making our way to main stage, our group gained a bearded fellow named Phil in colourful shades and a furry animal hat. We sat on the cool grass, listening to the bluesy tunes of Fearing and White. In the state we were all in we took to calling each other different names—our festival names. I was Lee (named after Rush’s Geddy Lee), my friend Kristen was Daisy (briefly Old Maid), Julian was Pete, and Phil was Al. The only way I could describe our afternoon is that of a Ken Kesey acid party in the 60s. Al became the “dad” during our little trip and we were his Merry Pranksters. We took shelter from the sun under a black umbrella. Al reached into his pocket and pulled out a small sachet that smelled glorious. “This is the super molly,” he said. “This is the stuff you take when molly goes on vacation for awhile.” He dumped the white powder into a full water bottle and shook it up. After a couple of swigs each the bottle was empty. “You guys wanna hear something trippy?” Al asked. We nodded. “I’m a school teacher, I teach life skills and how to vibe your way through life.”
As the day went on our conversations in our newfound collective became more and more absurd. “Do Rabbis rap?” “Yeah man, they have to. They’re people too.” We eventually fused into a kooky cuddle puddle underneath our umbrella and got onto the topic of dads. I’m pretty sure it was due to Father’s day being so close. “We gotta start a school for dads, cause everyone needs to know how to be a good dad. Pete will build the school,” Al laughed. We all eventually dispersed into the night and to catch some bands. Daisy and I met up with some friends at Firefly stage and saw Edmonton’s new Brit-rock band Stark Martin. At the end of the night, we made our way to Shady Grove stage and listened to the acid funk styling of The Party On High Street. By the end of the performance, Daisy and I were at least four pills deep. Super Molly indeed.
Optimistic Knife Fight
As the next night approached, I walked to Shady Grove and saw nothing but fire—twirling fire to be exact. It was the electronic family troupe Circus of Hell, and they were putting on a wicked show. People did not really know how to react to the Circus’ performance so they cheered and gazed in terror and awe.
I approached a biker-looking individual in a black leather vest and asked him how he was enjoying the show. “This kind of shit makes me wanna dance with my knife!” Maybe it was the fire or dub-step like beats, but the man pulled out a bowie knife at least 14 inches in length and began waving it in the sky while dancing like a madman. No one seemed to care. “Join me!” he called. I don’t know what came over me, but I began dancing with him and pulled out my much smaller Winchester pocket knife. Our knives clinked and clanked together to the beat of the music. It was all in good fun. After the show ended, we hugged and were on our way.
The lineup for North Country Fair is never made up of world notorious musical acts, and that’s really part of its charm. Any genre is welcomed. This year’s lineup consisted of the Juno-winning Fred Penner, Edmonton’s own acoustic sultans Mohsin Zaman, and Barren Roads, and blues hybrids Fearing and White, just to name a few. I didn’t see as many bands as I wanted to this year, but for me that’s the point of the fair. It has this way about it that offers exactly what you’re looking for, whether that’s a transcendental music experience or a soundtrack to a super molly trip, or anywhere in between. It’s the freedom to be exactly who you are without fear of judgment. It’s that welcoming slice of hippy paradise that makes Alberta unique. I’m already looking at my calendar for the next North Country Fair. Only 359 days to go.
Stephan Boissonneault is an Edmonton-based writer. - @SDBoissonneault