The story of Freezer Burn: Alberta’s regional Burning Man Festival

This column appeared with minor differences in The Gauntlet on July 21st, 2011.

Credit: courtesy Leah K

June 24, 25 and 26, 2011. Where were you? Lemme’ guess: Sled Island, shelling out shit-loads of coin just to bear witness to the throngs of young suburbanites struggling to out-cool and one-up one another. So where should you have been instead? Alberta Regional Burning Man’s 4th annual Freezer Burn festival. As Calgarians, we share the providential potential of being within a reasonable driving distance of several wonderful outdoor festivals such as Motion Notion, Shambhala, Mukwah, Inshalah, Tree Frog Fest and many more. Yet, while Freezer Burn is similar to the others in that you might find an ecstatic orgy of light, sound, psychedelic drugs, circus-type performers, crazy costumes and fire, Freezer Burn seeks to go furthur, bringing together a wide disparity of elements, creating a unique and dedicated community of self-proclaimed ‘burners’– a title which I take to be synonymous with ‘beautiful people’.

Credit: courtesy Starfive / Flickr

Burning Man proper is held annually in northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Founded in 1986 by Larry Harvey, Jerry James and a few friends, the burn has grown exponentially. 2010’s gathering attracted well over fifty thousand people, seven hundred theme camps, two hundred and seventy five pieces of placed art and one fiery wooden statue of man standing one hundred and four feet tall. It was through my personal interest in wanting to one day grace Burning Man with my presence that inevitably led me to discover and eventually attend Alberta’s regional Burning Man, Freezer Burn– a rare phenomenon, as most people learn of the event and attend through friends who have connections to Burning Man in one way or another rather than simply finding it as I did.

My initial emotion as we arrive at Freezer Burn for the first time is anxiety. I stand at the greeter’s booth, where I have volunteered to dole out hugs to other new arrivees, when the thick mix of excitement and fear, like two tangling snakes slithering their way up my spine, coil themselves together down into my pineal pit and pulsate my psyche with a noxious anxiousness. I have not yet been able to adventure into the core of the festival’s commotion, as I am contained at the greeter’s booth, which is a good half mile’s distance from the hustle and bustle of the whole affair. I can just barely see the top of the enormous climbing dome that sits near centre camp. While slinging hugs on long-haired strangers and hanging out with volunteer coordinator Favrah (who is running the booth) is enjoyable, the phantasmagorical frothing of light and sound that is in the distance sends my anxiety toward its most serpentinian loopyness.

Badger planning our Saturday morning

Freezer Burn festival got its start in 2007 when Jennifer Strukoff– the regional organizer for the Burning Man organization, booked the Rochon Sands campground for a weekend in June, and invited as many of her fellow burners as she could find. Jennifer had joined the burner community when she and her husband went together in 2004. Some 90 people attended the first Alberta burn ­– and with Jen’s capacities as an organizer, and keeping local burners in the ‘default’ world connected, the event continues to grow. The last Freezer Burn had approximately 200 people.

Saturday at noon Lean Bear, my closest friend and roommate, and I stood on the edge of the slope leading down to the river. A few of the children (of which there are quite a few), a unique presence at the festival, are blowing soap bubbles to my right. Badger, my girlfriend, has just laid down for an afternoon nap. A little further down the steep embankment is a group of fifty-some people, most of them nude. They have set up a giant slip-and-slide ­– complete with one hundred feet of durable industrial plastic smeared in astroglide– skidding down the riverbank and ending near the water’s edge. The event is already underway by the time the two of us approach. It is a full-on success ­– clothes stripped off with little hesitation, people’s bodies free from restraint ­– the air herself saunters amongst us, feeling light-hearted and gay. Awkwardness failed to even make an appearance (we were told that awkwardness was spending a few days in the city, since there is so much more there to do). As I crack another beer I can feel the tingle of a weed-brownie working its way from my gut, through my blood, and padding my brain. Lean Bear pops open his beer too. A tab of acid swirls in his stomach and a grin draws itself across his face. I muse over a statue of Jesus with a dildo tied between his legs. A few words of Jen’s from when we had met for coffee a few weeks previous bounce through my head. “There are a lot of interesting things happening, a lot of interesting camps. If you can think about it then it is there. It may not be posted in the ‘what-where-when’ of the event, but it is there. It happens so long as there is consent, and people are of the right mind.” I stretch my legs out and lay in the glorious grass along the ridge. The day melts into the wonderfulness of the now.

The ten principles of radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leave no trace, participation and immediacy are what gives Burning Man, and all regional burns such as Freezer Burn, as Jen put it, “an overwhelming sense of community” (The Ten Principles of Burning Man). Additionally, on top of those ten principles connecting Freezer Burn to its parent community of Burning Man proper, the smaller event serves as a powerful training ground and ‘pre-experiment’ for the full event, which requires an enormous amount of resources to reach, time to prepare for and stamina to survive. And, of course, the contrast between Freezer Burn’s current location– an elk farm west of Ponoka- and Burning Man proper’s location ­– the Black Rock Desert ­– forms a distinct juxtaposition and interplay of values and experiences worth bouncing around in one’s mind for some time.

Credit: courtesy Leah K

Credit: courtesy Normurai L. S.

Saturday evening Badger and I, exhausted from a full day of engagement with a canvas of creation, retire to our tent for some needed rest. Karmic clockwork wakes us at ten thirty; the man would soon be burning. We frolic under the sleeping bag a bit before finally getting dressed and finding our way to the festival’s centre. Two hundred people are gathered around one of the most elaborate wooden constructions I have ever seen­– a thirty-foot-tall man made of intricately weaved and woven pieces of driftwood, built by Brother Ong, and it was about to be burnt to the ground. The fellow to my left, who on the first night had been wearing all fur and this morning had been wearing a Galactacus costume, is now adorned in a steampunk inspired battle suit. Lean Bear, standing to my right, is floating around in an ethereal swirl of MDA and body glitter. The fire starts low in the man’s feet. The wind begins to pick up and the fire eats its way up the right side of his body. His heat radiates. His light illuminates. The fire eats him. The man’s left arm, extended upwards as if in revolutionary defiance, is the final piece to be consumed by the heat and light. Badger breathes out a sigh of relief as the last of the man collapses upon itself in a fiery rush ­– her inner tensions had been tied up into the great driftwood hulk. The air is soft and almost shimmering as our bodies drift around the remaining fire out toward the pulsings and bursts of bright and height that have now begun flowing from the sound stages. Bass beats roll our souls around and down through the earth as a brilliant flash and flood of luminosity carries us out and up into the trees and back again.

Burning Man and Freezer Burn defy the laws of thermodynamics ­– an astonishing group of people gather to participate in a unique experience, creating an abundance of new and exciting energy ­– a tingling tangling twining twirling ebb and flow of an extraordinary elan vital.

As a fellow burner grokked as we all watched the man be consumed by flames, “that glow is fucking glorious, man.”

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