There are two things that have put the mountain town of Ymir on the map in the last few years. The first is a mystery-thriller starring Jessica Biel that was filmed there in 2012. The second is the Tiny Lights Festival.
The 375-person BC town is located 20 minutes outside of Salmo, just off Highway 6. When you first round the bend through the trees, it may not seem like much.
Dogs roam dust-clouded streets along barefoot children on bicycles. The Hotel Ymir casts a shadow towards the Salmo River as it rushes through a reclaimed mining site nearby, and all around are the forested slopes, rock clefts and derelict historical buildings that quickly become so familiar in the Kootenay.
But this week (June 13-15), Ymir will triple in size as people from all over the country make their third annual pilgrimage to the eclectic, all-ages community celebration that organizers call “undefinable”.
Last year they were unable to keep a reliable head count, but they estimate they hosted more than 500 and maybe as many as 800 visitors, many of whom camped in the area.
Festival organizer Shawn Stephenson said this year will be even bigger. He has fielded hundreds of artist and musician applications and said he was careful to select acts from “all across the board”.
“We received applications basically covering the whole country. I think the furthest was Halifax, from Whitehorse to Saskatchewan to Quebec. Word really got out last year, I guess,” he said.
Stephenson likes to describe the festival as a “choose your own adventure”-style event.
“You can sit down with a schedule and according to your own tastes you can plan out your own festival experience. You can make it a rock festival or you can make it a stand-up festival or you can do whatever you want,” he said.
A quick glance at the weekend’s itinerary will reveal opportunities to attend writing workshops, gold panning tutorials, yoga classes, stand-up comedy shows, performance art, slam poetry and music ranging from the vocal stylings of mellow singer-songwriters to heavy roots rock or experimental electronica. Stephenson said their demographic thus far has been surprising. He said Tiny Lights is more community-oriented than the typical party environment dominated by college students and 20-somethings.
“We have everything from the youngest kid to old-timers. The history aspect attracted a lot of older folks last year. This is more of a listening festival than a party festival. It’s more intimate. Because of that, the crowd is really diverse,” said Shawn’s wife Carla, who co-founded the festival with him in 2012.
While listing off some of the acts they’re most thrilled to have included in their lineup, they mentioned Wax Mannequin, an avant-garde folk singer, spoken word artist Shari-D Wilson, Calgary’s first poet laureate Kris Demeanor and Nelson choral ensemble Laline. Geoff Berner (otherwise known as the “Whiskey Rabbi”) will sing comedic political-oriented songs and electronica act The Tailor will satisfy those looking for Shambhala-style dancing opportunities.
Shawn said they’re trying to break down the distinction between the audience and the performers. This year they decided not to have a headliner, to emphasize the communal spirit of the event.
“We went for a different model this year. Instead of taking one group and putting them up on a pedestal and saying they’re the best musicians therefore they’re the headliner, we said we’ll take the musicians who are coming and have them all share the stages and all the venues,” he said, adding that it’s not unusual for performers to pluck audience members out of the crowd and encourage them to join in.
Another large aspect of the festival is this year’s emphasis on sustainability. One initiative is a solar and bike-powered stage they developed in partnership with Fortis.
Operations and sustainability director Michelle Colley outlined the basic logistics to the Star. “There are going to be solar panels and these stands for bicycles that are being provided by the Nelson Bike Co-op, and the bikes get set up on stands. Festival-goers will be powering the sound for the stage because the power gets directed into generators and batteries.” She clarified that the power won’t stop with the pedalling. “There’s a solar backup,” she said.
Colley is also introducing a sustainability village, with booths on various eco-initiatives. “We’re bringing in all of these partners and there will be workshops running continuously about nutrition, wild edible walks, beekeeping, there’s alternative builders like the Tiny House people from Nelson, the Eco-Society is going to have a booth, and the Car-Share Co-op,” she said.
“The goal is for visitors to come away with one idea or skill that will help them live more sustainably. People might come for the music but they’ll come away with a way of living they’ve never thought of before.”
Carla said the response from the community has been fantastic. She recently graduated from SFU with a degree in economic development, and she said the festival will undoubtedly help Ymir’s local economy.
“Our goal as a town is to have more people employed locally doing what they like to do. We’re providing an economic engine. The spinoff for the businesses, the hotels are full,” she said.
“It’s really boosted community pride. The social capital it’s building is really a benefit,” added Shawn. “We’ve put Ymir on the map.”