Firing up Yurt Fest

March, 2015

Firing up Yurt Fest

Iqaluit’s answer to Burning Man.

There are no tickets, there is no website. The date is flexible and the location remains undisclosed until the 11th hour. If you’re on “the list,” you get an email the day of the event, with a time and GPS coordinates that take you literally to the middle of nowhere.

Now in its fifth year, Yurt Fest is what I think of as an uncrashable party. People usually drive out by snowmobile, pulled in a qamutik, meaning access is limited at best and treacherous at worst. The party starts around 9 p.m. at the mouth of the bay, where festival-goers flock to solicit rides or directions. Several intrepid partygoers without machine transport decide to begin the six-kilometre trek from Iqaluit across frozen Frobisher Bay towards the yurts on skis or by foot. 
Snowmobiles whiz away from town at full speed, stopping to pick up pedestrians who want a lift. Slowly, 250 or so attendees have arrived at the yurts, piled three to a skidoo or half a dozen in a qamutik, some passengers already buzzed from the beers and whiskey they sipped in or on their sleds.

Ducking your head and stepping into a yurt, you find disco lights, a fully functioning DJ booth—as long as the generator is running—and a loveseat made of snow. Outside, a 12-foot-tall snowman perches on a wooden structure fabricated mostly from pallets, an abundant source of wood north of the treeline. This lumber monument is to be later lit on fire, an ode to Burning Man, the desert cousin of—and inspiration behind—Yurt Fest. It’s part dance party, part winter camping, and the most anticipated event of the year by Iqaluit’s would-go-to-Coachella-if-it-didn’t-cost-$2,000-to-fly-out-of-here crowd.

Ducking your head and stepping into a yurt, you find disco lights, a fully functioning DJ booth—as long as the generator is running—and a loveseat made of snow. 

The theme is Return of the Melting Man, the name of the snow effigy who is destined to return to the ice from which he was made. Around midnight, a trio of fire dancers come out swinging before the contents of a bright red jerry can are poured over the slats of wood between the Melting Man’s legs. An archer (yes, an archer) draws his bow back, takes aim and lets fly a flaming arrow. Miss. He tries again. Miss. And again. Miss. A roman candle eventually does the trick, and the Melting Man is engulfed in a roaring fire beside us, on the bay frozen thick with six feet of ice.

The fire fest continues as strangers, neighbours, and friends come together in small groups to set friendship lanterns alight—our own icy-cold version of a full moon party. Flashes of green, yellow, and pink slowly ascend into the midnight blue sky, and for a moment the party is put on hold as we collectively look up, faces aflame, eyes aglow, silent in awe at the spectacle around us.

Then it’s back into the yurts for some music. We peel off our parkas and toques, grinding into the shifting snow floor below our feet. In 2014, Yurt Fest features a live performance for the first time, courtesy of Toronto rapper Rich Kidd, who spends most of the night in a full sealskin coat. Rich Kidd’s intimate performance at times blends freestyle raps with traditional Inuit throat singing, a testament to the North-meets-South fusion that is characteristic of Iqaluit’s social fabric.

The fire fest continues as strangers, neighbours, and friends come together in small groups to set friendship lanterns alight—our own icy-cold version of a full moon party.

The show is followed by hours and hours of live DJ mixes, bodies and music drifting in and out of the yurts as the sun returns from a brief hiatus. The white light of Iqaluit’s increasingly earlier mornings does little to sober the alcohol-soaked spirits of the crowd; guests remain on the sea ice, mingling, hula hooping, drinking, dancing, until they can no longer warm their feet, hands, and cores with mulled wine or smoke. The Ski-Doo shuttles begin in earnest around 4:00 a.m., although some stay even later.

Steering my snowmobile over the rutted ice towards town, I blink against thick snowflakes that further cloud the already uniform, white landscape. It is as though the sky were conspiring to extinguish the last embers of Yurt Fest, such that you would never know what had occurred just hours before unless you had been there.

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