Music for Life: Festivals in Northern BC

Photo Credit: Arianne Loranger-Saindon

Music for Life: Festivals in Northern BC

👤Matt J. Simmons 🕔May 31, 2013

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Nietzsche may have had some strange ideas about the human psyche but he was right about one thing: music is the most unique, powerful creation humankind can call its own. No other species on the planet creates music.

In songs, whether we play or listen, our thoughts are translated into something indescribable. Music is often a solitary and subjective experience—no one hears the same piece of music in exactly the same way—but it also has the power to connect people. It transcends linguistic and cultural barriers, allowing people to share in an experience that stirs the same feelings.

And in a live setting, the performers creating the music are as influenced by the audience’s participation, whether passive listening or frenetic dancing, as the audience is moved by the music. “Music does bring people together,” said John Denver. “No matter what language we speak, what colour we are, the form of our politics, or the expression of our love and our faith, music proves: we are the same.”

Music festivals—especially the ones we have here in northern BC—are designed to make music appreciation easy: you often camp on location, mingle with artists and fellow festival-goers, enjoy food prepared on site (whether from your own camp stove or from a vendor), and you bring your kids, your parents, your granny, your friends. You share. These are events where you can let your hair down, loosen your limbs and dance. These are places where you can stare into a fire while listening to the sounds of acoustic instruments, where you can release yourself into that special place that music takes us.

The summer festivals in northern BC are a sure bet for a good time. Most integrate local and regional performers into a larger line-up of artists from across the country and around the world. Unlike many of their southern or overseas cousins, they’re still pretty affordable. And these festivals typically have lots of added extras, too, like kids areas, workshops, jam sessions, and more. So grab your flip-flops, sunglasses, and old blankets—it’s festival time.

Stikine Valley Gospel, Dease Lake – June 6-9

This small Christian-themed festival is celebrating its 15th anniversary in 2013. Set in the spectacular Stikine River Valley, this by-donation gathering features free camping, food, fellowship, and—to celebrate its 15th year—a tip of the hat to its founders.

Sweetwater 905, Dawson Creek – June 14-16

Located in the small farming community of Rolla, BC, (a few minutes north of Dawson Creek), Sweetwater 905 combines music, poetry, performance and visual art. It may be held on a rustic ranch but the festival’s performers aren’t just of the cowboy persuasion. This year, headliners include Toronto’s Sienna Dahlen, Vancouver’s High Society, and Halifax’s Ben Caplan, among many others. Camping is free; weekend passes go for $50 /adults and $30 /youth.

Midsummer, Smithers – July 5-7

It’s been 30 years since the Bulkley Valley Folk Music Society first put on a festival in the mountain town of Smithers. Those three decades have seen amazing and memorable performances by locals and touring artists alike. There have been incredible collaborations, wild late-night jams, and songs to send a shiver down your spine.

Held annually on the Smithers Fall Fairgrounds, a rambling site of buildings and open spaces by the Bulkley River, Midsummer features a huge kids’ area, extensive camping, multiple stages, and an awesome vibe. The days are full of music and performance workshops, various activities and, of course, great tunes, while the nights come alive with amazing high-energy acts. For the 30th anniversary (which coincidentally coincides with Smithers’ centennial), headliners from other places include indie pop band Hey Ocean!, Canadian folkie Del Barber, and Juno-winning world musician Oscar Lopez. Local and regional performers hitting the stage include Terrace’s King Crow and the Ladies From Hell, Hazelton’s The Racket, and much, much more. When your feet are tired from dancing (or your little ones need a nap) you can head to the “Bliss Zone,” a “spontaneous relaxation hammock enlightenment project” thought up by blissologist Eoin Finn. All this, you get for $60 /adult or $30 /teen. Kids are free and camping is $10.

Atlin Arts & Music, Atlin – July 12-14

It takes a couple hours to drive from Whitehorse in the Yukon to Atlin, BC. When you get there, your jaw will drop: the tiny town of Atlin is overwhelmingly scenic, set in a quintessentially rugged and beautiful northern BC landscape…which is probably how the festival attracts performers like this year’s line-up of Harry Manx, The Gibson Brothers, and Hawksley Workman. These musicians won’t play to just the Atlin population—the sleepy town of 400 is transformed into a bustling crowd of over 2,500 for the weekend. Performers from the Taku River Tlingit First Nation always open and close the festival with traditional and contemporary drumming and dancing. There are film screenings, kids’ crafts, storytellers, poets and visual artists. Though a bit out of the way, it is definitely worth the effort to get to Atlin for this festival. Cost for the weekend is $130 /adults and $65 /teens.

Kispiox Valley, Hazelton – July 26-28

The location of the Kispiox festival is a special place. On the Kispiox River north of Hazelton, it’s remote and rural and feels removed from the rest of the world. Peaceful. Rejuvenating. And when the festival is in full swing, all the world you need is right there with you—there’s always something to see and to do. Since its humble beginnings in 1995, the festival has grown to attract performers from across the country and attendees now number in the thousands, so you can be sure you’ll be in good company. Multiple stages are scattered around the site, including a main stage built in a natural, grassy amphitheatre and a great indoor venue (“The Hall”). Like many of its festival contemporaries, Kispiox features daytime workshops, night-time fireside jams, kids’ activities, vendors, and great food. With its scenic setting, immersion in a family of thousands and a superb soundtrack, Kispiox is guaranteed to be a great weekend.

ArtsWells, Wells – Aug 2-5

Grounded in its historic heritage, the Wells festival continues a legacy of music and culture that started with the Cariboo gold rush. But make no mistake: this is not a dusty old festival! Performers include electronic and hip-hop artists as well as an incredibly diverse line-up of world, pop, indie, folk, country, and jazz. The festival’s tag line is “Expect the Unexpected,” and for good reason—it’s known for being wild and wacky, in a good way.

More than just a music fest, Arts Wells is about art in general. It includes film, dance, theatre, and literary components as well as over 80 musical performances. Seems a lot of festivals are celebrating an anniversary of one kind or another this year and Arts Wells is no exception—2013 marks their 10th. To celebrate with them, it’ll cost you between $105-145 for adults and $40-50 for youth, the range depending on when you snag your tickets.

Grizfest, Tumbler Ridge – Aug 3-4

This two-day festival douses the town of Tumbler Ridge with family-friendly music and activities every August long weekend. The festival also promotes local music with a battle-of-the-bands competition. This year’s headliners include Juno-nominated electronic music outfit Dragonette, singer-songwriter Alyssa Reid, and up-and-coming country star Kira Isabella. Weekend tickets go for around $100 ($50 for youth).

Edge of the World, Tlell – Aug 9-11

Haida Gwaii is the perfect place for a music festival. Life on the islands is laid-back and simple; time here ticks like the lazy beat of a hand-drum. The staggering coastal scenery and rich cultural heritage are more than enough reason to visit Haida Gwaii, and this August music fest is just the icing on the cake. Edge of the World—held on the Tlell Fall Fairgrounds about halfway up Graham Island—kicks off every year with traditional Haida song and dance and features a range of genres including world, folk, blues, reggae, electronica, and more. This year, EOTW is excited to present the electro-folk of Tamara Nile, the distinct loop-based sounds of New Zealand’s Mihirangi, and the soulful get-up-and-dance funk tunes of The Boom Booms. For the privilege of seeing these artists and more onstage, you pay only $60 /adults and $40 /youth.

Robson Valley – Aug 16-18

Held every year on the Dunster property owned by one of northern BC’s favourite bands, Mamaguroove, the Robson Valley Festival is in its 8th year. The line-up they’re presenting in 2013 speaks to the success the festival has had over the past few years. Oliver Swain, A Tribe Called Red, Linda Rae, Shred Kelly, and Rachelle Van Zanten are among the long list of performers. Weekend passes go for $110. Bring drinking water and leave your pets at home.

Music on the Mountain, Fort St. James – Aug 23-25

At Murray Ridge Ski Area, a short drive from the town of Fort St. James, the “MoM” festival integrates kids’ and adult entertainment. For kids this year, MoM features GoGo Bonkers, a live children’s theatre show, and Lost & Found Puppet Co.  For the whole family, there will be performances by the Sarah Burton Band, Willhorse, Born in Cities, and northern festival veterans Folky Strum Strum. Early-bird passes are $60 and include camping.  

Coldsnap, Prince George – Jan 24-Feb 1, 2014

Thinking ahead? Way ahead? Plan to check out Prince George’s Coldsnap Festival. Past performers have included the likes of Dan Mangan, Hannah Georgas, Delhi 2 Dublin, and Said the Whale.  

Call for contributions!

Prince Rupert-based photographer 
Arianne Loranger-Saindon is working
 on a photo book of Northern BC’s music festivals. This summer, she will travel to nine or ten festivals to take photos and collect stories. The book should be available in the summer of 2014, and part of the proceeds will go towards supporting the festivals themselves. If you have been a performer, organizer or festivalgoer and would like to contribute a story, please contact Arianne at To see more of her work, check her out on Flickr: Contact her directly for prints or more info.