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Trapper Creek Bluegrass Festival draws crowd to 'big playground' in Alaska wilderness

  • Author: Victoria Barber
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 26, 2015

TRAPPER CREEK -- Trapper Creek Bluegrass, perhaps Alaska's quirkiest festival, turns 10 this year. The event is part music fest and part installation art show; it has an atmosphere that's like a house party in a gypsy caravan that is also throwing a yard sale.

Located on about 40 acres of land called Boot's Bison Ranch off the Parks Highway, the twice-yearly festival wrapped up its first weekend over Memorial Day and will be back this August.

The festival site is a wooded lot, where a tree fort hangs 30 feet in the air and old boats and buses -- some elaborately painted -- are placed haphazardly next to giant, handmade tepees. Walk through the grounds and there's no telling what you might stumble across -- a sound sculpture made of old pots, a row of movie theater seats, a maze, a kitchen dinette set, a giant trampoline or a working bread oven.

Justin Boot Rousseau, who goes by Boot and is known in Alaska music circles as part of honky-tonk bands Goat Rodeo and Goddamned Ranch Hand Band, owns the place and started the festival about 10 years ago. As the event grew, he and his friends kept creatively repurposing discarded items to make "a big playground."

"Who doesn't want to hang out on a sailboat in the woods, drinking rum and pretending to be a pirate? Drinking cheap Champagne and pretending to be rich?" Rousseau said.

Trapper Creek Bluegrass Festival is as close to Burning Man as you'll find in Alaska, drawing a crowd of counterculture, artistically minded individuals who -- it must be said -- know their way around a hallucinogen or two. Held two weekends of the summer, over Memorial Day weekend and in August, it's gained popularity largely through word of mouth. More than a thousand festivalgoers showed up this year, the biggest turnout yet according to Rousseau.

It doesn't hurt that in addition to being a big, strange party, the event has one of the best musical lineups of the summer, with over 30 bands from across the state on two stages -- one of which was built out of the back of an old Dodge Caravan. The emphasis is on bluegrass and honky-tonk but with forays into other genres. There are trending Alaska bands like The Shoot Dangs and Blackwater Railroad Company and well-chosen imports including Animal Eyes, Saucy Yoda and Hobo Goblins. And, of course, fire dancers.

"This is like the gathering of the tribes, anyone who's doing anything fun or awesome or creative in this state stops by here once a year at least," Rousseau said.

Curious to check it out but unsure how to navigate the gathering? Read on.

How do I find the Trapper Creek Bluegrass Festival?

Directions to Boot's Bison Ranch aren't widely circulated, but it's not hard to find. Just turn in where you see the big blue Trapper Creek Inn off the Parks Highway by Mile 114, then follow the signs. A gravel road will lead to a dirt road that gets more narrow and pothole ridden as it goes deeper into a forested area. At the point that it crosses your mind that surely this is the wrong place, that this is like the part of the movie where the unsuspecting tourist wanders into an insane backcountry trap, you'll have arrived.

Where are the bison?

There are no bison.

Where do I park?

The festival grounds are arranged around a dirt loop about a mile long, and driving this loop is the gauntlet that begins every Trapper Creek experience. Drive carefully because there will be a parade of people -- slowly wandering, distracted people -- in front of and alongside your car, regardless of the time of day or night. There are also roaming, loose dogs: dogs who, in the spirit of the festival, have lost any fear they may have once had of getting run over by your vehicle. As you're scanning for a spot to park on the side of the road, relax and take in the sights -- seemingly abandoned cars, peculiar structures, oddly costumed people and dust drifting over everything in the vaguely Thunderdome-esque scene. You've arrived!

What should I bring?

We suggest any of the following: camping supplies; cash if you plan to eat at a vendor's booth; something to sit on; any dogs -- including stray dogs -- you might have around; a rain coat; mannequin parts; drinking water; coffee tables or other living room furniture; a hammock; toilet paper; hand sanitizer.

What shouldn't I bring?

Glass bottles or glowsticks; co-workers.

What should I wear?

Trapper Creek has a generally hippie/raver festival aesthetic but with more of an influence from children's cartoons and animal mascots. So bust out your patchwork harem pants, belly dancing accessories and Barney costume and you should be all set. Trending this year: animal tails and old blankets worn as capes.

What amenities are available?

Trapper Creek is host to more elaborately decorated and creatively constructed outhouses than any other 40 acres you'll find; some of them are made from trees off the property. They are maintained by a stalwart force of volunteers and supplied with toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

As for showers, there are some available at the Trapper Creek Inn down the road but if you're going that route you risk missing an essential part of the Trapper Creek experience, which is getting really dirty. The dirt of the road that encircles Trapper Creek is as sugary soft as sand on a Florida beach, and a significant volume of dust is kicked up every time someone walks along the road, which is always. The constantly churning dust coats everything: hair, clothes, car, the inside of your nose. Dust is the great social equalizer of the festival, the element binding everything together. It's probably not great for asthmatics, however (you may want to find a camping spot in the woods if that's your situation).

Should I bring a child to Trapper Creek Bluegrass Festival?

There are usually some children at Trapper Creek, and there is a somewhat sheltered camping area reserved for families. However, the answer probably depends on how you feel about your child being in the same general area as loose dogs, derelict cars and boats and hundreds of adults who are drunk and/or tripping balls.

Will I enjoy Trapper Creek if I'm sober?

Perhaps you're that rare kind of person who has a good time while sober and surrounded by friends and strangers who are partying. You find it delightful and entertaining when someone randomly whips out a howling rendition of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" at 5 a.m. by your tent, or includes you as a prop in their impromptu poi performance. However, if sober you finds this kind of behavior intensely irritating, the answer is: maybe for a few hours or an afternoon. Probably not much longer than overnight.

Trapper Creek Bluegrass Festival

Event is one weekend in May and August each summer: the next festival is Aug. 21-23, 2015.

See Facebook for details closer to the event.

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