On the Road in Saskatchewan for Northern Lights
Arriving from the air, the Canadian province of Saskatchewan seems like a place that doesn’t want to give up its secrets. I’m flying in to Saskatoon to attend the 2015 Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Festival & Camp, and all I’m seeing is a flat landscape devoid of people. Little ponds, streams, creeks cutting through the geometry of long, perpendicular country roads. Small farms and barns that hint at a bucolic life, but no towns or villages, just individual homesteads. It’s going to take some time to get to know you, Saskatchewan.
Stepping off the plane in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I look down the horizon and catch a breeze of cattle and meadowy grass before crossing to the air-conditioning of the terminal. I see men in cowboy hats, men holding hard hats for their flights to the Alberta oilfields; the roughness of the people a contrast to the antiseptic cleanliness of the airport. But you can’t judge a place on its airports, so I step out to find my ride into the back-country of Saskatchewan. In our rental car, we drive out of Saskatoon into the buggy, flat prairie lands, where no amount of wiper fluid will wash your windows clean of the midges that flutter in front of the car. Saskatchewan was built around homesteads, and the roads seem to be what primarily divided these large plots of land. Supposedly there are more roads in Saskatchewan than in Alberta and British Columbia combined. That may be true, but many of these roads are unpaved and seem to go on forever. The roads shoot out in impossibly straight lines, like bullets from a gun, plowing into the horizon and crossing each other in perpendicular lines. The prairie drops out into marshlands periodically, the water so clear and calm that it’s like a mirror reflecting the rich greens and blues of the prairie grass and sky, the ducks on the pond suspended in the mirrored waters as if they’re floating in air.
Grain elevator in Canwood, SK
On the two-and-a-half hour trip from the airport to the festival’s site in Ness Creek, Saskatchewan, we pass through a tiny handful of towns scattered along the dusty, ramrod-straight highway, but we don’t see many people. This is deep farmland, and where the railroad used to tie little towns together around a shared grain elevator, now it’s become trucking country, with huge truckloads of grain going to agribusiness elevators far off. The old grain elevators are still there, though, each one towering over the small cluster of homes and handful of shops around the dusty highway, each one emblazoned with the name of the town on its side. Later at night at the festival, an astronomer is on hand to point out the constellations in a sparkling night sky un-ruined by artificial light. To the delight of the Saskatchewanians around me, he announces he’s discovered a new constellation and uses his laser pointer to draw a grain elevator out of the stars overhead.
After a few hours driving through prairies and elevator towns, hills begin to rise up around us and we enter the Canadian Boreal forest, a massive strip of green that stretches across the North of Canada from Newfoundland to British Columbia. Short ramrod trees standing in leisurely clumps in humid air with mosquitos buzzing all around. It’s beautiful, though buggy, and a near endless expanse that rambles all the way up to the tundra in the far North. Camping and hiking in the Boreal forest is a quintessentially Canadian experience. For the next few days, I’ll be staying at the Ness Creek campgrounds nestled deep in this forest, a huge camp intended for the Ness Creek Music festival, a much larger festival famous for its harder-edged electric roots bands and the magic-mushroom-fueled drum circles of which I heard many stories while I was there.
I come in late the first night at the Northern Lights camp, and after catching some of the acts onstage, I roll into bed in an old trailer. The rumble of a bluegrass bass comes through the woods around me, and the air has a thickness from the humidity that settles in layers. The festival is situated around a main stage and a large field, the stage quirkily decorated with a big red plywood barn, and behind the stage is the green room, a small cabin with a kitchen that the musicians cluster in to jam and hang. The next day I’ll go out exploring the grounds and find that all around the huge site are small, encouraging, hand-painted signs with sayings like “Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes in the middle of nowhere you find yourself.”
Caleb Klauder at Northern Lights
Waking up early the next day, I tumble out of the trailer for a quick shower before heading over to a mandolin group lesson from Caleb Klauder. He’s an old friend from my neck of the woods (the Pacific Northwest), and he’s been going strong for this whole week teaching classes, leading sessions, and performing at the weeklong camp that kicks off the festival. Along with a cheerful group of mandolinists ranging across multiple generations, I pick up some great tips and ideas in just the hour and a half or so that we have. Later that night, we’ll perform onstage as part of the instructor/student showcases. I love these parts of music camps, where beginning and amateur musicians are tossed up onstage. That adrenaline kick of performing in front of a crowd should be something that everybody experiences. Not only does it bring out hidden reserves some people don’t see in themselves, but it also gives everyone an appreciation for what musicians do every night. I go to bed early that night, looking forward to the first day of the official festival on Friday.
Birch Forests along the trail
The next day, since the festival doesn’t start until 6pm, I’ve got a bit of time. I’ve been hearing about an off-campus event called Banjos & Bison (pronounced Bi-zon, not Bi-sohn) that brings festivalgoers horseback riding in the nearby Prince Albert National Park to see bison and listen to bluegrass, and I jump at the chance to get in on this. These trail rides are run by real-life Saskatchewan cowboy Gord Vaadeland, something of a celebrity in these parts as a tracker and modern cowboy. In the early afternoon, Gord leads us out with twelve horses and two draft horses pulling a wagon. I’m in the wagon going into the park, and we roll over a bumpy dirt path (that eventually blows out one of the wagon’s tires), moving deeper and deeper into a landscape of birch trees packed so thickly that you start to imagine phantoms passing between the nestling layers of trees that surround your vision. It’s a beautiful trip, and we move to a small clearing for lunch plus a concert from the young Saskatchewan band In With The Old. These three kids grew up in the Northern Lights family, and came to bluegrass the honest way: through community. Speaking with singer, guitarist and mandolinist (the three were constantly swapping instruments back and forth while playing) Ellen Froese-Kooijenga, she talks about her early inspirations at camp. “Campfire jams were always a good time, they made me feel like I could jam with all these people!” After her early inspirations at Northern Lights, Ellen says, she “went home and listened to every Stanley Brothers album I could find!”
In With The Old at Banjos & Bison
The stop in a clearing lets me talk a bit to Gord’s 81-year old father Ruben Vaadeland, who has fascinating stories to tell about his family in the area and his love for early bluegrass. “That’s my era of music!” he exclaims when I bring up the Stanley Brothers. His parents came over from Norway in the 1930s, promised 160 acres of land. What they weren’t told is that the land was snarled with deeply rooted trees and forest, a burden that took Ruben’s father most of his life to clear by hand. Ruben tells a bittersweet story of the first time his father got his hands on a backhoe. He’d planned to clear an acre that day, but the pure shock of being able to tear out trunks so easily after a life spent hewing by hand sent his father on a frenzy that ended many bare acres later. To this day, Ruben speaks a rare dialect of Norwegian called Jaersmold. His dialect is so rare that the last time Ruben returned to Norway, a film crew showed up to try and document him as one of the last speakers! Today, Ruben and another son of his own 300 cattle and 20 horses on a ranch just outside the Prince Albert National Park. They use horses as cowboys still, though ATVs are more and more common. Ruben’s a gregarious guy not afraid of a bit of hard work, but happy to tap along to his favorite bluegrass songs.
Ruben & Gord Vaadeland
Turning back from the picnic, I mount up on a horse and we trek through the birch forests looking for the 300 or so wild bison that live in this park. We don’t see them that day, but getting to be close to real cowboys and getting a glimpse at the hard-scrabble frontier life of Saskatchewan that’s only a few generations removed is more than worth the trip. Speaking with Gord on the way back, he’s excited about the young band, In With The Old, since he’s watched them grow up, but what’s funny is that he himself was once a young man picking up bluegrass on the fly. He formed up a bluegrass band with a neighbor friend, he at 20 and his buddy at 15 years old. Both of their dads were huge bluegrass fans, and they got into touring the Canadian bluegrass circuit. One of Gord’s highlights was playing the Blueberry Festival in the 90s on the same bill as Bill Monroe. In fact, it was Monroe’s last Canadian appearance before his death. With the power of American radio signals, bluegrass has been floating over the Saskatchewan clouds for three generations, making for a homegrown musical tradition that I hadn’t known had such strong roots in this part of the country.
Coming off the trail, I hitched a ride back into town with Jason and his family, a taciturn man who took me by the sawmill he owned, and introduced me to the brilliant Saskatchewan country singer Colter Wall. I pulled Wall’s CD out of a stack of old albums in the back of Jason’s pickup, bouncing along with his family, all three of them up front in matching, worn cowboy hats. Miles and miles of dirt roads, just flying along, speeding by little farms and homes, dairies and combines. As a car races past from the other direction, Jason raises a quick hand off the wheel for the ‘Saskatchewan’ wave. There’s an unspoken code of conduct here, and the feeling that these men make their own way, with their own hands, whether that means sawing the lumber of the Boreal forest to build bandstands for the festival, or hunting for moose on off-days.
The next day, Saturday, is the first full day of the festival, and it opens to pouring rain. Rain that comes in sheets and doesn’t let up into the evening. I’m soaked almost instantly, and didn’t think to bring a raincoat. After a couple hours of sloshing around in front of the stage, my Saskatchewan friend Patton MacLean hands me an extra coat just so I can make it through the day. But the rain doesn’t seem to dampen anyone’s spirits. The audience holes up under the tents, while a few hardcore Saskatchewanians stick it out in the middle of the field/swamp in their lawn chairs with big umbrellas and hardcore rain gear. Even the barn swallows in the rafters of the stage snuggle together, two by two, cuddling against the rain.
On the stage, I’m watching Saskatchewan roots songwriter/Canadian nomad Steph Cameron sing beautiful folk songs she’s written and is performing all by herself. As a young girl, she spent summers at nearby Shell Lake, SK gathering wild roses with her grandma. She cut the roses up, steeped them in water, and made her own perfume. She’s telling this story to introduce her lovely song “Bury Me Where Wild Roses Grow”. These days she makes her home on the open road and the mountainous wilds of British Columbia’s Kootenay Rockies, where she holes up to write songs and escape from society. Later, in a warm cabin, I’m interviewing her about this and she’s thinking back to her childhood in Saskatchewan. “When I was in Saskatoon, at 14 years old, and needing money,” she says, “I just went to the liquor store every day and busked constantly. It was how I would make money because I didn’t have a job. It’s what I’m good at… I love busking. For me, it’s the same interaction that I have hitchhiking. I get to meet new people; it’s always a joyful experience.” Cameron lives in the Kootenays now, in rural British Columbia, and is a full-time musician and long-haul traveler. She makes the trip over the mountains from BC to Saskatchewan frequently, reveling in the beautiful vistas and coming over to play shows or visit family.
Steph Cameron on the mainstage at Northern Lights
Before moving to the woods, Cameron was based in the gritty neighborhoods of East Vancouver, where she came at 17 years old from Saskatchewan, immersed in social work, trying to make a difference in the lives of the many out-of-luck or homeless people in that part of the city. “I was doing housing and welfare advocacy for people down there. I ran a needle exchange and I managed hard-to-house low-income housing. I draw on a lot of those experiences obviously. I spent 4 or 5 years working on the downtown eastside and, like I said, it’s commonly referred to as Canada’s poorest neighborhood. It’s a suffering neighborhood. I love to do that kind of work but I burnt out really bad after 4 or 5 years down there… I’ve just progressively been getting more and more rural since then. Now, I live out on 100 acres.” She lives outside Slocan City, which has about 400 residents. “I need peace and quiet in order to write,” she admits. “I get easily distracted in a city or in an urban environment because there’s so much going on and I can’t focus. When I’m out in the country and there’s nothing but the stars and there’s no cell phones and there’s no internet, then it’s easy to reflect and to create, for me, anyways.”
Another group that pulls me out of my rain shelter beneath the tents, hoping for a good picture, is Métis duo Dallas & Phil Boyer, joined at Northern Lights by the Northern Prairie Dancers. Métis music and culture is a blend of French and Native elements, and the Métis historically have roots that stretch throughout the Canadian Midwest and down into the United States. It’s fiddle-heavy music, drawing from Scottish and French-Canadian traditions, but fracturing the tunes through the prism of Native American rhythms. Dallas is the fiddler and Phil, his father, is on guitar. Dallas has the kind of hard-rolling, drone-heavy fiddling style that you get with some of the more crooked Métis tunes, and he’s got a whole host of great tunes. His feet tap along in the traditional French foot rhythms used to keep time to the fiddling for the dancers.
Later in the cabin, I get a chance to sit down with Dallas and his father to learn more about Métis music in Saskatchewan. I ask how Dallas learned the music and Phil starts talking about Back to Batoche Days, an annual gathering of Métis in Saskatchewan. “We call it our homeland,” Phil says. “The festival there has been going on for 44 years or something like that. I went to the very first festival when I was young and to the talent show there. We took Dallas up there when he was 6 or 7 years old and he heard the fiddle playing and he said, ‘I want to do that.’ So we bought him a fiddle and we moved out of our house and let him have the house while he practiced,” Phil says, laughing. “That’s a story! Anyways, so from then on, he’s been playing ever since.” What’s fascinating is that Métis culture today in Saskatchewan takes place on the ground of the historic battles that gave the Métis their identity. Batoche was the site of the 1885 Battle of Batoche, the final battle of the Northwest Rebellion that saw the surrender of the great Métis leader Louis Riel. “Not too far from where we play at the venue there,” Phil explains, “they have a big stage and not too far from there was the war people fought, the trenches and the church are there. A lot of history there and we call that our homeland.” I ask what it feels like to be close to that history while they’re playing and Phil says, “To come from there and to play for there; it’s pretty amazing. We’re playing for the elders who are still alive and you’re playing for the people that have passed on because, back then, fiddle playing was all that they did for entertainment.”
Dallas & Phil Boyer at Northern Lights
Phil Boyer comes from deep in the tradition himself, and you can tell what a proud father he is watching his son fiddle. “When I was a young lad,” Phil says, “we’d have house parties at my mum and dad’s house. That was the tradition back then and my uncles would all play some sort of instrument on my mum’s side. My dad, as well as my grandpa from my dad’s side, would play the fiddle. I started singing at the age of 5. In 1985, I entered the talent show at Back to Batoche Days, and Sunshine Records out of Winnipeg was there doing a promotion and the first place winner got a recording contract. That’s when I won first place and I recorded my first album in 1985. 30 years later, I did another album, just this past Christmas, through Turtle Island Music in Saskatoon. Music has been part of my life forever, as early as I could walk.” Phil and Dallas are kind enough to give me copies of their albums, and I listen to them on the way home, misting up at some of the heartfelt country songs that Phil wrote about his family, and soaking up their blend of hardcore rural country music and old French Métis fiddling. It’s a wonderful combination, and it was gratifying to see how many people appreciated their performances at the festival, since all too often Métis or Native culture is swept under the rug in North America.
Northern Prairie Dances dancing to Dallas & Phil Boyer
Interestingly, Phil & Dallas’ presence at the festival was actually a condition of the organizers, who were hoping to get live music for the Northern Prairie Dancers, who usually only danced to recorded music. I sat down with the president of Northern Lights’ board, Jennifer Bork, to talk about Northern Lights’ work in the community. “We take local musicians that are old time musicians,” Jennifer explains, “and we go into the schools and we do music sessions with the students where they’re dancing. We call this our Prairie Heritage Music. We don’t want it to die.” This is the “old time” in the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Festival’s name. It doesn’t correspond exactly to our American definition of old-time, which usually means Appalachian stringband music and is a newer influence for Saskatchewanians. Old-time in Saskatchewan refers more to Canadian fiddle traditions, and even to the old dancehall orchestras that folks still remember. Tracy Lalonde, another board member I spoke to, has family members who played in these orchestras. Her grandfather was the town fiddler 50km from Ness Creek, and she grew up with house parties and dances of Canadian old-time music, but like so many of her generation, took it for granted early on. “Many of us grew up with parents and grandparents playing in kitchens, kitchen parties, campfires, things like that,” Tracy says. “Live music was really a part of our lives and for me, anyway, in my situation, that really went away in the 80s. We wanted a way to get those instruments back around the campfire, get music being made in the kitchen again and just be able to draw on any musicians who were around, to gather around and have a party with. And over the 10 years, we’ve seen that actually happen especially because of the camp. People are picking those things up again.” Though they didn’t perform at Northern Lights when I was there, the up-and-coming Americana duo, Kacy & Clayton, come from these old-time Saskatchewan roots and had relatives that influenced their music who played in the old-time orchestras.
Both Tracy and Jennifer are excited for the future of Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old-Tyme Festival, especially for a proposed dancehall that’s going to be built on the site. It will have a vintage, repurposed horse-hair dance floor, meaning that the dancefloor will be supported under the joists by bags of horse hair, a traditional method for making dance floors springy in the region. Saskatchewanians sure love to dance, and I’m pulled on to the dance floor myself on the last night I’m there at the festival. Towards the end of the night, with the Caleb Klauder Country Band holding court, the women began to get pretty wild on the dance floor, grabbing men from the sidelines and yanking them out to dance. Try as I might to keep my Seattle cool, hands in my pockets, I was dragged out to the floor by a thoroughly drunk and thoroughly charming older woman who led me through the basic moves of the two-step with deliberate grace, puffing on her cigarette the whole time. Saskatchewanians have a particularly charming kind of prairie two-step dancing, something akin to a waltz step. As we spin across the dance floor, I realize how much I’ve fallen for Saskatchewan. For its wide-open vistas, densely packed forests, diverse traditions, and hard-working people. The folks at Northern Lights are justifiably proud of all the great international bluegrass and old-time bands they bring out to this faraway corner of the province, but they should be most proud of the uniquely compelling Saskatchewan culture they’ve incorporated into the festival so well.
The author at Ness Creek, SK
Northern Lights Bluegrass & Old-Tyme Festival & Camp returns this August 12-19, 2016 in Ness Creek, Saskatchewan!
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