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Midway Music Festival fires up Arctic circle

FORT MCPHERSON, Northwest Territories ? In 1986, the Teetl'it Gwich'in (People from the Head of the Waters) of Fort McPherson in the Canadian Northwest Territories held a gathering 15 miles up the Peel River from the community.

The gathering was called by then Chief James Ross to discuss community concerns and to have a good time out on the land with no drugs or alcohol. The gathering went so well that it was decided to make it an annual event.

In order to get more people to attend, a site was chosen twenty-five miles southwest of Fort McPherson on the Dempster Highway at a place called Midway Lake, midway between Fort McPherson and the Northwest Territories/Yukon border.

The Dempster is the only all-weather road (gravel) north of the Arctic Circle in North America. It connects Inuvik, Tsiigehtchic and Fort McPherson with Dawson City, Whitehorse and the outside world. Yes, Virginia, we are open for twelve months of the year with the exception of break-up in May and freeze-up in October. And whenever the winds in the Richardson Mountains to the west of Inuvik decide to provide whiteout conditions on the highway.

The Midway Lake Music Festival is generally held during the long weekend in August, which is normally the first weekend. Since the festival was first held up there in the summer of 1988, the site has grown. There is a stage to accommodate musicians and storytellers and a dance floor to accommodate those who wish to show their steps to traditional Gwich'in jigs, waltzes and square dances.

Actually, the traditional Gwich'in jigs, waltzes and square dances were adopted by the Gwich'in from the fur traders who came to our country in the mid- to late- 1800s.

Each August, approximately 2,000 men, women and children pack up their belongings and leave behind their television sets, their radios, their microwaves, and head up the road to have a good time.

They do take one of the necessities of life: their bingo daubers. Bingo is the only vice that's allowed and provides much-needed funds to host the event. It also gives us a chance to play and hopefully pay off our bills. Or at least borrow from the winner, who probably doesn't need it anyway. But I digress.

By Friday, most of the tents, about 150 of them, are set, wood is cut, water pails and buckets and containers are full, grub is cooking and the people are settled in.

Fiddlers usually take center stage and get the crowd off with their rendition of the Red River Jig, which is always a crowd pleaser. Then come the square dances, which can go all night until six in the morning.

Saturday doesn't officially begin until about noon, when the singers and young dancers take over until late that evening. Once again, the jiggers and square dancers take over.

This is a time for old friends to get together and make new ones. In the past, people from all over the Mackenzie delta region would attend. Gwich'in from Alaska, the Yukon and points south also schedule their vacation around this time.

This is also berry-picking time up in Gwich'in country. At this time of the year, the knuckles (cloud berries/salmon berries/yellow berries) are ripe for the picking, but in the last few years the crop has been dismal or nonexistent. There was a time when buckets and bucket of berries would be harvested and put away for use in the winter. But these days, all you harvest up in the hills are mosquito bites. Yes, Virginia, we do have mosquitoes and lots of them. But don't tell anyone. We don't want to scare them off.

Midway is a time to have fun and the people do have one heck of a good time. They cook fish, caribou meat, bannock and soups and share with each other. There are raffles for Gwich'in slippers and other good stuff and there are jigging and singing contests.