We were somewhere around Sumas on the edge of the border when the drowsiness began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “I feel sleepy, maybe you should drive . . .” but my photographer lacked a valid license and the end of the country was rapidly approaching. It was almost 1AM as our deep blue 1999 Subaru Outback, Shabawna, pulled up to the barren border; a formidable obstacle that stood between us and our destination. The whip was filled to the brim and screamed northwest hippies–our colorful attire and my photographer’s dreads certainly didn’t tame our appearance. Security checks are common place when going to events but never had we encountered an international border. We had two packs of cigarettes, a voice recorder, Canon 50D, a Gopro, two rage-sticks, ten gallons of fresh spring water, five days of camping supplies, a whole multiverse of ridiculous leggings, fur, scarves, onesies, facepaint, goggles, gems, acapulco shirts and hats, and absolutely no drugs. This was too important a mission to risk spending the weekend in a jail cell–not that Canadian prisons don’t sound charming.
We hazily pulled up to the booth and presented our passports to the border patrol officer whose dull gaze cut through us like a red Chrysler convertible cutting through the California desert to Vegas. Emotions buried under a stern brow, she asked us what our business was; if we had any stowaways, fruit or vegetables, weapons or narcotics? Stumbling over each other’s words, my photographer and I answered “no” to her questions. A pause, a shuffle of papers, and a slight nod directed us to the search area for further examination. Oh no! An onslaught of what-ifs rushed to my head:
What if my dready photographer brought a nug and didn’t tell me?
What if the months of hot boxing my car had left incriminating amounts of reefer scattered about Shabawna’s floor?
What if they found the sweet organic nectarines I had stowed away under my sleeping pad? NOT THE NECTARINES!!
An eternity passed until the officer called us over to the counter and presented a grinder and used vape pen, evidence that I had not cleaned out my travel pack quite well enough. Chuckling, the officer exclaimed, “marijuana residue is an arrestable charge at the border.”
Blood rushed to my head. The jig was up! We failed our mission before we even crossed the border, all because of a crusty old grinder! I must have forgotten where we were. He continued, “. . .buuuut I don’t really feel like filling out the paperwork, and we have a pretty relaxed attitude towards marijuana. You’re free to go, just make sure to be careful with this stuff next time. You can find plenty of it up here.”
We left, paraphernalia in hand as he wished us a safe journey with a handshake and genuinely kind smile. And then I remembered where we were. . .
. . .We were in Canada
Eyelids were heavy but the mood was lighter. All that stood between us and our destination now was the long trek through the Canadian Cascades; nothing gas station espresso shots and Canada’s exclusive all-dressed Lays chips can’t handle. Our destination? The mystical city of Shambhala, an enchanted utopia which springs to life for 5 nights every August in the forests of the Salmo River Ranch to celebrate music, art, bass culture, farm life, and all the crazy people (we’re certainly included) who attend it. Our Job? Interview one of the founders and report on what made this DIY gathering tick–but things are never that straightforward when a weekend involves psychedelia, thousands of lasers, towering sound systems, and 12,000 of the goofiest individuals in the northwestern hemisphere.
Wonky beats blared from Shabawna’s sound system as we descended on the Salmo Valley and down the raggedy dirt road towards the ranch. Vagabonds and gypsies hoping to swoop up last minute tickets littered the road, smiles stretched across their faces as they had made it to the promise land. The infamous long entry line was filled with dozens upon dozens of football fields worth of cars being searched for alcohol. Wizards, sparkle ponies, and mischievous tricksters alike erupted from their vehicles. They brought bold personalities, large sound systems, and plenty of dance moves to occupy their time. They came from far away lands that are hard for ‘Muricans to pronounce–Saskawhaaa?!–yet they called this their home. Will Mcinnis, a traveller from Ontario accounted narrowly escaping a tornado in Manitoba to attend the festival. One thing is for certain; he’s not in Ontario anymore.
I was filled with catlike curiosity. What is it that has continuously drawn thousands of people from all over the American continent to these forests for nearly two decades? That was what we wanted to answer–THAT was our story! Little did I know we were headed straight to the heart of the Shambhalian Dream!
We collected our press passes and set out the to the meeting behind the towering Pagoda Stage where we were to interview one of the founders of Shambhala. She was MIA, no doubt preparing for the chaos of the weekend. We stayed for the mimosas and cheese platters. A shame. . . but our story was evolving. . . Instead we met a travelling artist, Gunter Fitzger, a dashing wanderer type who had taken a vow of silence and sobriety when he arrived at the festival. A mute!! the perfect candidate for an interview!
He communicated with smiles and frowns and scribbled words on his notepad; “this is a radical self experiment, in radical self expression. For me not doing any substance is a very significant change of pace.” Perhaps this is an odd move at a festival filled with eccentric people to converse with and vibrant environments to gawk at, but his demeanor was collected and he seemed sure that there was more value in a fresh experience than a saturated one. Instead his energy would be focused on the elaborate scroll laid out in front of him. The beginnings of a poem were painted on the long canvas that would unravel and be filled with a colorful documentation of experiences by the time the music and his vow of silence ended.
This was one character out of twelve thousand–“An eclectic collective of wanderlust travelers, gathered to create, share, and love,” as Fitzger described it. A living breathing organism that we were a part of. While he had chosen a path of silence, we were going to converse with this organism. We would accept its gifts and give them in return. We were going to be loud and outgoing and embrace whatever came our way and hopefully live to write about it.
Night descended as we set up home base between a mellow swamp and row of honey buckets in the artist and crew campground. Two RVs surrounded our stuffed, half set up tent. They made love squeaks at night but would provide shade in the morning heat; essential, as sleep was not an option tonight. Around us were familiar faces of performers who were just arriving. A group of wandering DJs asked if we had seen G JONES. Not yet, but we would be seeing him in action in a few short hours. The forest came to life with lasers and 808s beckoning in the distance. Hordes of creatures dressed in technicolor onesies and fur pranced through the trees towards the excitement. We blended in and followed them through lushly decorated groves and past illuminated villages of tents to the festival grounds, eventually emerging at The Amphitheater.
The stage resembled a Martian battleground inside a circus tent, perfect for a crowd of carnies from another world. Rage sticks were as common as headdresses at Coachella and acted as homing beacons for friends to find friends basking in the bass of the PK Sound subs sunken in the basin below the extraterrestrial domes. Only two of the six stages were open Thursday night which made for a dense crowd of sweaty onesies and goofy freaks. Artist like JOBOT, BLEEP BLOOP, and G JONES stirred up the soup of space cadets, gypsy pirates, furries, and uuuh… this guy. Shambhala was underway and it was silly, vibrant chaos at its finest.
The Amphitheatre kept booming while I slipped away to explore the rest of the illuminated forest. Vendors row flicked to life with merchants selling colorful garbs and heady trinkets. Illuminated art and elaborate flower beds filled open space. It felt like a rave but the vibes were organic and open.
I flowed towards the river and found the second stage, properly named the Living Room. Flames shot in spurts over the river and dancing polar bear projections covered the oasis like stage. The adjacent river was lit by moonlight and there was plenty of open space for dancing. Mike Paine A.K.A. Hoola, and his wife Sarah Spicer, A.K.A. Lion S, together known as “The Pride,” are influential figures in the Kootenay electronic scene and have run this stage for the last 15 years. The Living Room offers chiller uplifting vibes compared to the intensity of The Amphitheater and featured sets by Hoola, Vinyl Richie, and more on Thursday night.
Whether you want to get up to some deep house at The Living Room, get down to some fat trap at The Amphitheater or even just star gaze by the river, there’s a space for everyone at Shambhala. Some danced till sunrise, absorbing every gut rattling kick from the PK Sound system, some enjoyed the chilled out vibes of the lush forest environment, and some. . . spent the night in the secret garden contemplating the duality of perception and fractured reality while running away from a time traveling, fedora wearing humanoid robot and “Patchy the Horny Pirate” who kept screaming “WHERE’S THE BOOTY??” but that’s another story. . .
In the case your night does go sour because Patchy is harshing your vibe and might be a hologram from the future sent to interrogate you about the Earth’s water supplies. . . Shambhala offers the forward thinking Harm Reduction center where you can check yourself into the psychedelic first aid tent. Here a team of volunteers with experience in mental health treatment offer a 24 hour safe sanctuary with cozy beds that are away from the intense lights and pulsing music. Harm Reduction also offers information on recreational drugs and free drug testing so you can know what you’re putting in your body. Along with this the event staffs a massive medical response team that treats 200-300 guests a day, mostly for minor injuries. Even though Shambhala does not condone drug use, it is apparent that they want to keep their guest safe and healthy and they’re doing an excellent job. There is an sober camp that offers three AA meeting a day for people struggling with addiction, a safe haven for women and a sexual health division for guests. All these free resources make for a safer festival for all of its guest that is respectful and honest about all that goes down in the forest. There has only been one recorded death in the 18 years that this event has been taking place. That’s impressive for a festival that regularly draws 10,000 partiers and proves that education and mental, physical, and emotional support teams can save lives. Many major festivals would be wise to integrate similar programs.
As the sun crept over the mountains, I crept back into my tent by the swamp. It had been a 24 hours binge of high grade absurdity and rest came easy.
Mornings, or more accurately afternoons at Shambhala consist of cooling off in the Salmo River. Troops of skinny dippers soaked up vibes sunrays on the banks as dready musicians blew their didgeridoos and banged their cajóns. I wandered over to the food court in search of nourishment. There was a variety of healthy options available, but I thought poutine was more appropriate. When in Canada do as the Canadians do a.k.a. eat delicious strange food. If meat is not your thing there are countless vendors who source all their organic produce locally from the Kootenays. If meat is your thing then your first stop should be a Shambhala burger. All the cattle are raised naturally within one mile of the Salmo River Ranch making it one of the freshest burgers I’ve ever ate.
It’s much easier to see all the goofy faces of everyone who attends shambhala during the day.
Although most of them are strangers, you’re certainly not in danger.
Silliness is what unites the entire community and there seems to be an unspoken agreement to be as outlandishly goofy as possible.
I shimmied past the newly opened Fractal Forest, Village and Grove stages to the Biodome for a couple workshops. The first covered spiritual nutrition and advocated psilocybin mushrooms. The second was a sexuality workshop and recommended a regular kegel exercise schedule. I’m doing mine as I write this (Huuhg!)
As the sun set and the moon rose, the Friday night creatures emerged from the forests.
The familiar deep rhythmic rumble echoed throughout the valley as the rest of the stages came to life, each of them bringing their own unique vibe and crowd.
Spiritual gangsters and gangstresses basked in the thick low ends emitted from The Grove’s crisp Funktion One soundsystem, dripping with the bassy organic beats of artists like Goopsteppa, The Librarian, and Geode. Old growth forest surrounded the stage which featured acrobatic dancers and was covered in growing vegetation. Visionary artists worked on live paintings in lush galleries surrounding The Grove.
The Village was home to jungle and dubstep artist like Datsik, Skrillex and Downlink, but could have been mistaken for an Ewok village in the forests of Endor. Walkways in the trees surrounded the gigantic geodesic dome stage where acrobats dangled with fire toys over the densely packed crowd of grungy bassheads.
If you need your fix of funk, the Fractal Forest has plenty. A pyramid saturated in morphing fractal lasers sits atop a giant old growth stump surrounded by a sea of wacky neon trippers. Fort Knox Five, The Funk Hunters and Stickybuds graced the sacred stage Friday night.
The highlight of the night was Dirtybird Records takeover at The Pagoda Stage, a three story tower drenched in projected visuals and surrounded by castle walls. Booty house aficionados Claude Vonstroke, Shiba San, Justin Martin and more filled the 25 foot walls of PK Sound with 12 hours of the bounciest beats in house.
The party raged on through the night and till the sun rose during Christan Martin’s set. J Phlip, Ardalan, Worthy, and the rest of the Dirtybird collective intermingled in the crowd, getting down just as hard as the rest of the freaks. They came to perform but stayed to enjoy the rest of the weekend. Claude poured Jager into the mouths of fans like a big momma bird feeding her young hatchlings. I wiggled my way into Justin Martin’s infamous snapchat mystory and made plans to interview the crew as they floated the river on inflatable pizza rafts the next morning.
Dirtybird takeovers have been popping up at numerous festivals over the last year and the crew has combined their loves of good house music and good food at their own travelling Dirtybird BBQs for the last 10 years. Christian commented, “it was so great to have everyone just hanging out to hear everyone else’s set.”
“That’s the cool thing, we really get to do this all together,” responded Justin, his younger brother. The two stuck around all weekend as Shambhala is not just one of their favorite places to perform, it’s also one of their favorite events to attend. “We all started out as fans, before we were performers. We all love what we get to be apart of.”
This October they get to bring together the rest of their extended family of bumping house producers at their own festival, the first Dirtybird campout, a summer camp themed gathering that is sure to be one of the silliest events of the season. The unique lineup curated by VonStroke will feature camp games, events and world class BBQ cuisine, prime ingredients for a good time.
Artist like Griz, Destructo, Big Wild and Koan Sound performed on Saturday night. DJ Jazzy Jeff spun an eclectic vinyl set at Fractal Forest, interweaving retro 80’s hits with modern rap verses and Tipper performed a bouncy glitch set at The Grove accompanied by the psychedelic, epilepsy inducing visuals of Android Jones.
The environments at Shambhala are what set this festival apart from the rest. Unlike other festivals, the event is on private property and most of the structures at Shambhala stay up year round, becoming more and more elaborate as each year passes. Fifteen year Shambhala veteran and volunteer Alex “Suplex” Cameron saw each of the stages evolve from humble beginnings and helped build them to their current epic proportions.
“The reason everyone wants to play here is because of the architecture, engineering, design and labor that has been contributed to make the stages fantastic and amazing. Everyone who wants to start a party needs to know that you need a crew of 40 volunteers to really put their heart and soul into it for a couple years before anything magical is going to happen.”
This was Shambhala’s 18th year and it most certainly was magical. This is the seventh year that the event has sold out and I posed the question “How does an event sell out without selling out?” Suplex replied, “A-by respecting the environment, B-respecting local creativity and local labor, and C-not involving large corporations.” Local DJs, producers, farmers, carpenters and vendors make up what Cameron calls the “farmily.”
World class artist and talented local performers alike gather here to perform because of the beautiful community and effort of the organizers and volunteers contribute to creating an insanely vibrate, safe, and respectful environment that feels like home.
“It’s not about who’s playing where, it’s about who’s here now and the energy we are sharing in this moment,” stated Cameron.
He was also very adamant about guest not shitting in the woods; “If you think about shitting in the woods here at Shambhala think twice, cus it might be you on the end of the shovel next year volunteering and digging footings.”
It’s not hard to follow this advice as the honey buckets at shambhala are the nicest I have ever been in. Open vent floors allow fresh air to flow in and solar panels power lights and fans that pump out the stench and heat of the boxes that could regularly be considered poop ovens. The walls are covered in hilariously deep graffiti that makes it entertaining to try a new facility every time you need to take care of your business.
Thomas Jack, Pretty Lights, Rising Appalachia, Bonobo and more took the stage Sunday. It was the final night of a five day adventure but it showed no signs of winding down. By now, previous strangers were now familiar faces in the crowd and the grandiose playground in the forest now felt like home.
Although energy levels were sparse, some mustered the strength to see Monday morning’s sun peek over the hills one last time. It was 8am; creature hour as I like to call it. It’s when all the diehard weirdos gather to dance together for one last time before returning to the default world. The Fractal Forest bumped one last hurrah of funky house music all morning to send off an unforgettable weekend that can only be described as mystical.
I flowed down to the river and found one of the pizza floaties left by the Dirtybird crew. It was my 22nd birthday so I thought it appropriate to don my birthday suit and float the river while reflecting on the experiences of the weekend. Community was what came to mind. For 18 years this collective of unique souls had brought their quirky personalities deep into the forest and lived together in absolute blissful silliness. Some of the biggest names in electronic music may have been on the lineup but the main event was is truly all the beautiful souls one encounters in the heart of the forest. Shambhala is a shining beacon of a gathering that respects its environment and community. The Shambhalian dream is rooted deep in the earth, nourished by consciousness, love, goodness and absurdity.
Contributing Writer: Olas
Contributing Photographer: Casey White
Check out the full photo album here.
Daft Punk’s Alive 2007 introduced me to the world of electronic music, and ever since, it’s been a huge part of my life. I’m currently a philosophy student at UCSB, but music and shows are my passion. Thanks to EJ, I hope to share the magic of music with anyone interested.