Record attendance at River & Sky


Festival brings performers from all over the continent

Isabel Mosseler


This year’s River & Sky Music and Camping Festival, held July 20-23 in Field, proved to be one of the most well attended in 15 years of operation. Following a year of operating under strict COVID guidelines, creatively adapting to restrictions and staying relevant to the arts community, this year’s festival was back to normal for the second year in a row. Obviously, participants were eager to come back and enjoy live music in a rural setting on the banks of the Sturgeon River, as thousands of people from all over Ontario and well beyond converged at the local campground known as Fisher’s Paradise.

River & Sky Executive Director Abigail “Abby” Cassio, building on the successes of festival founders Peter Zwarich and Lara Bradley, was overwhelmed by the response from guests, volunteers, and artists. “I think we had maybe 4,000 people here… the most we’ve ever had. Our parking lot was completely full… on Saturday there were 1500 people on one day.” The 4000 included not only attendees, but volunteers, artists and vendors, keeping the festival grounds full of sights, sounds, sunny days and brilliant nights, good food and friendly fun.

The festival, held at the Field site owned by Chris Fisher and Julie Ann Bertram, has become a meeting place for the arts communities of both Sudbury and North Bay, with music of many genres, from loud and rhythmic to soft and soulful. The beach and grounds were peppered with whimsical and amusing works of arts – the Magic Yeti Hands installation by North Bay’s Studio Nude Beach being just one example. Everyone seemed to take a vested interest in the festival by cooperating to keep the grounds clean of debris, keeping green in mind with a newly instituted composting program on site. By the end of the weekend, the festival diverted 400 liters of organic waste into composting, to be taken to community farms.

Workshops kept adults and children busy with everything from yoga to sewing and milkweed demos, exploring creativity with the likes of Sturgeon Falls Art Studio (Alexandre Aimée and Cole Baker), stargazing at night, and canoe instruction. There were about 20 vendors, from clothing to jewelry, wood crafts to tattoos, including West Nipissing’s Restless Ravens Homestead selling handcrafted herbals. Damascus Syrian Cuisine handled most of the hot food services, and there were vegan hot dogs on the beach, artisanal ice pops from Papaya Pops, and Caribbean specialties from Flames Caribbean Kitchen.

Then there was the live music – more than 30 different performances, new and repeat; this was Shotgun Jimmie’s 15th year returning to R&S, and favourite Julie Doiron was back. 

West Nipissing Mayor Kathleen Thorne Rochon visited the festival on Saturday, celebrating the success of the event with proprietor Chris Fisher. She was impressed with what she saw. “What a great cultural event right here in West Nipissing! Thousands of people got to see the beautiful place that we call home. And [it’s] great for our economy too. Local businesses provided services to the festival, and local artisans and vendors were onsite selling their goods. The organizers, venue and volunteers should all be commended for their work to make it all happen,” she beamed.

Abby Cassio indicated that for this festival, they strived to focus more activities on the beach, where people like to hang out. She set up vendors there as well, “That was the first year we did that… the hot dog guy, he’s in love with it. He’s going to come back just to camp with his wife. He said he wouldn’t rather be anywhere in the world making any amount of money than be here!”

As for the musical line-up, “It’s the same caliber of programming… Same sort of budget, but I moved it to the beach last year because I always thought that it was kind of sad when you’re watching everybody leave at the main stage, and most of the people who want to stay want to stay at the beach.” Cassio also wanted to introduce a drag performance this year but that didn’t work – however she met with WN Pride’s president and is hopeful for next year.

Another element in evidence this year was the number of young families and children. “A lot more kids this year, and tons of dogs,” beamed Cassio. With all this activity one would expect something to go wrong, but it didn’t. Field First Response and Field Fire Department volunteers were on hand. There was a “sanctuary” set up for anyone who might need help, volunteers patrolling continually, crisis response teams. Although the weekend went smoothly, Cassio had her moments of stress. It was a hot weekend; anyone could have been overwhelmed. “There’s a feeling where you’re like, OK, everything’s going well. But what? What’s the catch?” Fortunately, there were no emergencies. Cassio said she plans on making a donation to Field First Response for their efforts.

The director was finally able to relax on Saturday night, as she had a moment of clarity. “As Little Mazarn was playing… they’re from Austin, TX, and they played in 2019…  It was just a very ethereal feeling; the sun was setting and it was sunny, it was a nice day … it just felt meditative. And I think I was like, it’s not a mistake that nothing’s going wrong; you can feel good about it.”

Julie Anna Bertram says that success was no accident and she gives Cassio credit. “You planned properly,” she told her. Cassio agreed this year’s event was a culmination of four years of trying to constantly improve. She developed a ‘Production Handbook’ for everyone behind the scenes, so everyone knew who was doing what and who the leads were. “No one was searching for anything… last year, I slept, I think 2 hours… this year I just enjoyed it the whole time; everyone enjoyed it… It worked and everyone did a good job. So, then I was emotional, like stress leaving your body.”

The feedback from contributing artists confirmed that this was a stellar event for them as well. “I had a bunch of artists who were new, who told me it was now their favorite festival, and they want to come back… Headliner Aysanabee [an Oji-Cree singer-songwriter]… they came from Spain, flew to Sarnia, drove here in one night, played and then left to go to Toronto to fly to Squamish. I met him [playing solo at a music conference]…  I was explaining the festival and he [said he] would really like to come.” It worked out that Cassio managed to get the entire band. “He said ‘Next year I’m just making sure I’m not working so I can just come. This is the best ever!’. That’s lovely. It’s the 15th year and we ended up having five or six people who played at the first festival ever together… They were all happy.”

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