Culture

Behold the Feral Children of Folk on the Rocks

From buying their own food to getting their first tattoo (henna, that is), being let loose at the annual summer festival is a right of passage for YK kids, says MICHELE CULHANE

“And remember, no swimming in the lake!” These and similar words have been firmly and loudly voiced by myself and many a parent when they first allowed their children to run feral at the Yellowknife Folk on the Rocks (FOTR) music festival. OK, maybe feral is a strong word, but when you look at its dictionary meaning: “in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication” and compare that to the small yet somewhat intimidating gangs of boisterous young kids, faces blackened by sand and barely recognisable —no supervising adults in sight —feral isn’t that much of a stretch. For many Yellowknife children, FOTR is the first time they are allowed to roam free, often with a few dollars in hand, in a safe and contained environment.

For a kid, music is generally secondary to the festival environment. It’s really about buying your first ice cream without your parent’s help, or getting a henna tattoo of your choice, or building intricate sand infrastructure for hours on end. I once found my five-year-old daughter grimy but super pleased with herself, having been buried in the sand next to main stage by her friends and sister. A quick check-in and brief dispatch of parental advice to the crew – “Great job but please don’t put sand on her face” – and off I went to take in the performers at the cultural stage.

My children are now teenagers and make their FOTR spending money by babysitting pre-feral youngsters while their parents get to spend some quality adult time in the beer garden. As I reflected on the first year they roamed solo with excitement, walkie-talkies in hand, I became curious to hear from other festival goers about their feral children stories. What are the long-term effects of free-ranging our children at FOTR sans helicopter parent overhead?

I met Marie Adams and her then 12-year-old daughter Jhilian when I moved to Yellowknife over 20 years ago. Marie has been folking out every third weekend in July since the festival started in 1980. “It was very important to me to bring my children to Folk on the Rocks as there were limited opportunities in 1980s’ Yellowknife to expose them to a wide variety of music and performance, and to the unique atmosphere, food and people at the festival,” she explained. Shy as a child herself, Marie wanted her daughter and son to be comfortable around adults and in a crowded setting. FOTR, a community-run festival in a giant, naturally confined sandbox, was an ideal event to provide the freedom necessary to learn basic life skills, while simultaneously exposing their young minds to a living arts community.

Marie’s daughter Jhilian was eight when she first free ranged, very responsibly managing her allocated funds while exploring the site and occasionally listening to music. Compared to her younger brother she was much less feral. “There was a big sense of independence with the money we were given to spend,’ recalls Jhilian, who is now in her early thirties and works for the GNWT. “It was well before cell phones so we used our watches to meet at a certain tree at given check-in times, or on the ‘6’ and the ‘12’ for my brother. Mom gave us the freedom to decide what we wanted to do. It was my first experience young-adulting.” As with my kids, Jhilian made her first solo purchase at FOTR. She explained that the freedom she was given at the festival definitely made her more comfortable as an older child and teenager when they were travelling in big cities down south. 

Andrea Patenaude, who moved to Yellowknife from Winnipeg over 10 years ago with her partner Gerald Enns, admits she is a bit of a denizen of the Winnipeg Folk Festival and has been delighted to get her annual folk fix north of 60. However, with the birth of their sons, now ages seven and nine, came a new festival experience – more gear and mess, less beer-garden time. Despite the challenges they still have the occasional tailgate party and FOTR, with its late nights under the midnight sun, is a fixture on their family summer calendar. This year they are turning a new leaf; it will be the boys’ turn to free range for the first time. (A little advice from Marie – give the kids their spending money in increments!)

Instilling positive musical experiences is important to Andrea, as well as many other parents I’ve talked to over the years. Exposing youngsters to a wide range of live music in a laid-back and positive setting is a great way to absorb many genres of music over time, potentially inspiring future musicians. Music can transfix any of us, however seeing small children leaning right up against the stages, awed by performers such as Tanya Tagak, is truly a beautiful sight. There aren’t many festivals where kids are allowed to get up so close without being reprimanded or without concern for their safety. The size of our northern festival is just right for kids. Feral and free-ranging young children at a large southern festival may not be looked upon so favourably.

Equally as important though, it’s lighting a spark in our little ones – particularly as they move into the teen years – to all that is wonderful about FOTR. The majority of children will not become performers, however they can very likely become assistant stage managers, ticket takers, face painters, and future beer servers – all extremely valuable life skills and key to keeping this incredible community festival rocking into the future.

Although it’s common for parents who previously volunteered to take a break when their children are small, they do often make it a family affair as they grow up. When given the freedom to roam, the once feral children often turn out to be the best volunteers as they truly appreciate the cool experiences FOTR has bestowed upon them. My children have certainly enjoyed their time painting picnic tables and then spotting their masterpieces during the festival. And as Jhilian points out, “It’s a right of passage, and so much fun, to volunteer in the beer garden when you turn 19.” 

Marie gave her kids the freedom to roam, yet she always had a welcoming blanket at main stage waiting for them and their friends, so she knew they would return regularly for visits. Reflecting on her time at FOTR as an adult, Jhilian is grateful her mom went to all the effort to ensure the most positive experience possible for her and her brother. It’s made her much more appreciative of the festival as an adult who may someday be extending those experiences to her own children. Despite an awkward, non-dancing phase in her early teens, she admits it isn’t FOTR unless she dances with her Mom. “I would absolutely take my kids to Folk, and be sure to embarrass them early on the dance floor to prepare them for life.” 

Although Andrea’s kids aren’t much into getting a groove on with their parents, they perform in other creative ways. “One time I went to check out a band and left my family at a side stage with some heavy rock vibes in the air,” she recalls. “The next day someone had posted a video on Facebook of my two boys full-on wrestling in the sand at the front of the stage along with commentary about the savagery of the young unidentified wrestlers. The video also showed snippets of Gerald just dancing away to the side, oblivious to the fact that our kids’ fighting had become the focal point of the set. So obviously they feel comfortable just being kids at FOTR!” 

FOTR is a fabulous venue for imparting children with some new-found freedom, while they also experience all that is beautiful and unique about a northern music festival, from drum dancing, to bannock, to midnight sun, to sand glorious sand. Just remember, when you see those sooty-faced and wild youngsters roaming the site and wonder where their parents are, these are likely the kids who will grow up to be future volunteer FOTR board members. With the ubiquity of cell phones these days, going old-school feral isn’t as easy as it used to be. Now friends text you pictures of your half-buried sandy children which can be a minor distraction from that quality beer-garden-adulting time. When I occasionally come across a kid checking the time on their watch, I can’t help but smile.