Outdoor festival a hit
Midway Lake attracts about 1,500 music lovers

Daniel MacIsaac
Northern News Services

FORT MCPHERSON (Aug 06/99) - The 14th instalment of the annual Midway Lake Music Festival was dedicated to the past, celebrated the present and showed the promise of a healthy future.

Held in a beautiful valley west of Fort McPherson where the Rocky Mountains served as backdrop for the enormous outdoor stage, the festival attracted some 1,500 Gwich'in Dene, musicians, dancers and guests from across the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska.

Organizer Hazel Nerysoo said the 1999 festival was dedicated to the memories of Johnny Charlie Sr., Lazarus Firth and the "Yukon Drifter," guitarist Grafton Njootli -- three men who died in the last year, but who loved the festival dearly.

"What's so nice is that families can camp out together and cook over fires," said Nerysoo. "I was up at 10 this morning and there was already a crowd sitting around outside the kitchen telling stories."

Getting up that early at the festival was in fact an accomplishment. Inspired by fiddlers like Ben Charlie from Whitehorse and Yellowknife's Lee Mandeville, the crowds began dancing in the early afternoon and didn't let up until 4 or 5 in the following morning.

"That was the thing about Grafton," said Nerysoo, "he would play until the finish and then be the first up in the morning."

The crowd came from far and wide to share in and contribute to the welcoming, laid-back atmosphere. Gladys Netro joined a dozen members of Old Crow's Vuntut Gwich'in community at the festival. She said Midway Lake is so popular because it's simply about meeting up with family and friends and relaxing.

"We have other Gwich'in gatherings every year, but they're more political and this one's more cultural," she said.

There were even a few Alaskans on hand including fiddler Trimble Gilbert and his two guitarist sons, Bobby and Albert, who confirmed that Gwich'in ties remain strong even across the international border.

Festival-goers spent time dancing or simply watching the dancing, with up to 40 couples square-dancing at once, sampling caribou soup in the kitchen or brewing tea over the fire and sitting back to relax while the children played together.

But Nerysoo said that on a more serious note, guests also gathered to pray Saturday for Inuvik's Alfred Moses, hurt in a car accident on his way to Midway Lake earlier in the day.

Of course, the festival provided not only a setting for reunions but also for introductions and there were several new faces in attendance. One of them was Bob Pelson, Fort McPherson's new band manager, who came up from Edmonton on June 1.

What with all that dancing and talking, the party was still going strong Saturday night well after the sun had dropped below the Richardson Mountain. The sky turned a perfect blend of purples and pinks and promised fair weather for Sunday's jigging contest and canoe races and, of course, dancing.