In 2015, I was given the opportunity to photograph Ness Creek Music Festival's 25th anniversary. I had heard my share of stories: drum circles, Thai food, and mushroom trips in hot outhouses...I just couldn't shake the feeling that there was more to the picture.
In the spirit of 'new' journalism, I decided to dive into one of Saskatchewan's most humble traditions—a journey to the heart of what has kept Ness Creek alive for almost three decades.
Part One: Mud and Music
I was somewhere around Prince Albert on the edge of the northern forest when the sandwich I ate gave me indigestion.
I held my hand on my stomach as I drove past the rain-drenched pines. I suspected that my aches were more or less provoked by the anxiety of not knowing what to expect. This was my first time going to Ness Creek and big crowds are not my forte.
Although I expected to meet a few friends of mine at the festival, I had not taken the time to think about what 4,000 people would look like all cramped together in the forest. I passed through the town of Big River and into the western edge of Prince Albert National Park. As I made the final turn to my destination, the hall of trees came to an abrupt end, exposing a sea of vehicles that filled the slopes leading up to the Ness Creek Site.
I found a nice rut to park my car and tried to psych myself up about being there to work. With an olive green army jacket and a camera hung around my neck, I spent the next half-hour staring at my windshield too self-conscious to move.
I summoned a scrap of determination and lumbered over to the Main Stage. I continued my walk through the camping area which was an endless field of trailers, trucks and tents, all happily lodged in the mud. Crowds of people made it very clear that finding anyone I know was going to be a challenge, especially in the night without cell service.
I started to feel lonely and paranoid. So, I made my way down to the creek lest I be labelled a square.
The gloomy weather and rain made photos of mine completely unusable for work purposes. But it was still a welcome place to relax and collect myself.
I walked down the path to the creek. The music from the Main Stage seemed to fly right overhead, filling the valley with only rudimentary parts of the music: bass, muffled vocals and faint drum hits. There were small groups of people all throughout the forest, smiling, laughing and enjoying their ponchos.
I began to desperately search out a familiar face as I was banking on tenting with friends. After having such a crummy start, sleeping alone in my car was not overly attractive.
I was unable to see anything more than four feet away from me. I wandered hopelessly in pitch darkness for the next two hours until the flash of someone's headlamp blinded me.
For the first time all night, I heard music.
A familiar, nasal voice said, "Andy? Is that you?... How ya doin', man?"
Part Two: the Heart of Ness Creek
It wasn't until 3 a.m. when my friends and I finally retired into a leaky tent that reeked of cigarette smoke like a dingy Imperial 400 motel. I laid on the wet ground, taking in the dissociated sounds of The Basement Paintings as they wrapped up the final set of the night.
I woke up dizzy, but my attitude was fully refreshed. The folks stumbling around in the mud, slurring their speech and smelling like wet dog were no longer strangers, for I was one of them.
My first night had taken an unexpected turn for the better. If it had gone otherwise, I might have missed out on the Ness Creek experience entirely. I started my next day as part of the crowd, wandering around and trying to see as much as possible.
Ness appeared more like a small town or community as the event carried on. Something interesting always seemed to be happening, no matter where and when (5 a.m. is no exception). There were several booths selling handcrafts, clothes and art. Music and drum circle workshops took place over the course of the afternoon in various places throughout the site. There were well-groomed nature trails throughout the site and down by the creek. It was surprisingly easy to take a break from the over-stimulation of the festival and find silence among the woods.
A bus shuttled people to and from Nesslin Lake where families could enjoy a break from the festival and enjoy the park. This was especially handy considering many vehicles were stuck and had no way to re-enter the site. Thankfully, everyone seemed more than willing to help anyone who needed a hand getting out of the mud.
I spent most of my time around the Main Stage once the evening set in. I was soaked by rain at this point, but so was everyone else.
The Moondoggies headlined the evening after opener, Megan Nash, captivated the audience with her cordial rural charm. The last performance was by Library Voices, whose slow-building opener, Some Mezcal Morning, set a more psychedelic mood for the night.
My friends packed up the next day and I soon followed suit.
Not wanting to leave the area, I decided to do some shore fishing on nearby Hackett Lake when my car stalled and refused to start again. After getting a boost (thankfully, I hadn't gone up to one of the more remote lakes like I had planned), I decided it would be best to head straight home.
I was just about to leave Saskatoon when I decided to stop for some fried chicken. All the previous days' free-spirited nature gave me a powerful craving for corporate-branded deep-fried foods. Anyway, karma got the best of me and my car died in the drive-through.
I was in the middle of pedalling my vehicle backwards from the driver's seat Flintstones-style when a car pulled up behind me. The driver got out and asked me what the hell I was doing. After he and his wife confirmed my sobriety, they gave me a boost and asked where I was headed.
"Just left Ness Creek Music Festival. I'm on my way home," I said as their eyes lit up. "We've been going there for twenty years," he smiled. "There's nothing quite like it." We reminisced for a half-hour while waiting for my feeble car battery to maintain a charge. Ness Creek hospitality somehow found me at the perfect time.
After talking with several musicians and festivalgoers, there was clearly a common theme about what brings people out to the event every year. Ness Creek Music Festival is, and always has been, about the people. I probably could've guessed.
When you go to Ness, you're entering a community of its own. Go with an open mind, leave your judgements at the door, get to know your neighbour and lose yourself a bit. Maybe bring a poncho. There's a reason this event is so cherished. It's a one-of-a-kind place to make meaningful connections and experience the convergence of art, music and nature in a unique way. There's nothing else quite like it in northern Saskatchewan—a testament to the love and dedication of those who work to keep the spirit of Ness Creek alive for generations to come.
For more information on the event, visit nesscreekmusicfestival.com.