River & Sky reaches pre-pandemic crowd numbers


The River & Sky Music and Camping Festival 2022 may well have hosted the most diverse line-up of artists, as well as the most diverse audience, ever seen in West Nipissing. The event, held on the parklands of Fisher’s Paradise in Field, spanned 4 days and, post-COVID-restrictions, saw an exuberant blossoming of friendships as around 1500 people gathered from across the continent to join locals. From Syrian food to Montreal disco to pop and punk and classical sitar, arts in the woods, vendors, local food, workshops and crafters, there was plenty on offer for everyone. After 14 years, the festival keeps evolving and embracing myriad forms of artistic expression.

Abigail “Abi” Cassio is the 24-year-old executive director, having taken over from originator Peter Zwarich. This year was particularly satisfying for her as she took over in 2019, 2020 was cancelled because of the pandemic, 2021 saw a limited audience of 300 and rapid tests at the gate, and 2022 was like a sunrise after a bad storm, with a resurgence back to pre-COVID numbers. “I haven’t slept much,” she said on the Monday following the event, with volunteers still unpacking the grounds at the Main Stage area of the park.

The other stage area is at the beach on the Sturgeon River, where many of the 34 booked performances took place. “I programmed most of it at the beach to see what it would be like… the people staying and hanging and swimming kind of liked it.” Abi started with Zwarich in 2019 as the intern assistant. The organizers were still doing the final count on Monday, but “We pre-sold 850 tickets online, which is the most we’ve sold online. We haven’t counted everything at the gate, but there’s probably more than 1500 people altogether on site… which is on par or better than 2019 – which is nice after the pandemic.”

At the main stage, the headliners were the Pink Mountain Tops on Thursday (“They have their first new album since 2003- they played the festival before as Black Mountain; they were awesome!”); Austra on Friday (“They were a poppier band”); and Dilly Dally on Saturday (“They were more punk”.) On Saturday it was standing room only at the performances. 

River & Sky is a family-friendly event. There were plenty of children running around, and lots of new people. Speaking to guests, some were veterans but for many it was their very first time, and everyone appeared relaxed and happy. Cassio said there were 140 volunteers, and she lauded her crew, which she was able to hire because of some major funding, providing her with communications and marketing staff.  She said that the cost to put on River& Sky is in the range of $250-$300K, much of that received from Ontario Trillium Fund, Ontario Creates, Ontario Music Investment Fund, and Northern Ontario Heritage Fund.

Cassio says COVID fears didn’t seem to be a big concern for festival-goers. “We did an option for masked camping. With the purchase of your ticket, you could camp in a masked camping area – we would have cordoned off an area – but nobody asked for it… We didn’t have the rapid tests. Because we are fully outdoors it lessens the risk so much. Based on that data, I’m not worried. Also, it seems with all the cases happening it’s hard for any health unit to pinpoint a spreader event – it can happen anywhere at this point. The health unit comes and checks.”

As for the local hosts, Chris Fisher and Julie Ann Bertram, who own Fisher’s Paradise, Cassio has nothing but praise. “They are the best ever – they are so helpful, they are amazing.”

Why is this event so important to the north? It’s longevity, its evolution, its cultural and racial diversity, the continual renewal and artistic surprise, make it an enriching experience. Cassio says, “We don’t have anything like it up here, I don’t think there’s even anything like it down south. It’s very special. It’s so unique; a mix of the property itself, the Fishers, and the people who come, and the bands who come and want to come back – it’s so word of mouth. People hear about it, people come, invite their friends. You can’t explain it until you see it – there’s a special feeling about it. Some of my staff have worked at Up Here!, or Northern Lights Festival Boreal… everyone cares about it so much. People who are involved care about it … wanting to continue.” Caring about things was definitely a theme. There wasn’t a speck of garbage anywhere in the park at the end of the day.

On the menu were not only music and visual arts, but local food vendors, including the vastly popular Syrian and Caribbean stands. “The Syrian food vendors, they are from Sudbury. It’s their first time here and they asked me ‘Can we come back every year?” And we had a Caribbean jerk chicken place, places from North Bay, a vegan restaurant from Sudbury… We had maybe 35 crafters and 30 workshops… [We had] so many people come from Montreal, from Toronto, who flew out here from Nova Scotia, from B.C.”

Cassio professes a sincere happiness that this festival gives opportunity to so many unique artists “to have people come see their stuff. We’re all about giving people opportunity, whether it’s the food, the crafters, the workshops, the bands. A sentiment I heard throughout the festival from so many people was “I didn’t know any of the bands and now I have some new favourites!” That’s always a unique thing for us too. I have creative leeway to book whoever I want – I don’t have to book to draw people because people come either way; they come no matter what the music is because of the experience. I have more freedom in what I want to book and I know people are going to like the French disco band from Montreal that they’ve probably never heard of.”

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