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Jennifer Odian scoops out one big ball of chocolate ice cream and stuffs it into a waffle cone. She takes two paces to her right, to the black cherry pail, rolls up an oblong scoop and squishes it onto the chocolate one. She smiles. That’s the last of the rush. Odian removes her glasses and rubs her eyes. She and her blur of a helper, an obedient black-haired teenaged girl, look like they could use a break—not for the rest though; there’s washing, rinsing and restocking to do. But no, just as the customer’s change is passed over the counter, a new rush washes through the doors of her café, Jenz Place.

For 362.5 days a year, Atlin, B.C. is a sleepy town of 400, on the shore of glassy Atlin Lake, at the foot of Atlin Mountain. Its connection to the rest of the world is via a modest two-lane highway, Atlin Road, which first follows Atlin Lake and then Little Atlin Lake north into the Yukon. Traffic typically consists of either Yukoners heading to Atlin for some rest or recreation, or Atliners off to do some shopping in Whitehorse two hours away. But this weekend, every July, that all changes when the Atlin Arts and Music Festival raises its tents. Atlin’s population grows nearly tenfold for two days and nights of music, intimate art workshops and film screenings.

The rush still seems to catch some by surprise. A long line outside the Atlin Mountain Coffee Roasters booth keeps the baristas busy. “No ice coffee, eh?” a customer asks after a 20-minute wait in the sun. 

“No, not until we can go get some ice.”

Upon arriving early Friday night, it’s chaos. Atlin is overrun: roads are lined with vehicles, campers and tents; gangs of biking kids rule the streets. By the drinking games held in backyards and from the hearty laughter bellowing out from the decks of log homes, the party has clearly begun.

Atlin is unincorporated. It has no mayor, no chief, no councillors. The closest thing it has to government is the Atlin Community Improvement District, an elected body of volunteers who look after municipal needs like ambulance, firefighting and water services. Locals note this with pride. If something needs doing, it gets done by the people of Atlin.

Kind of like the music festival. Kim Winnicky, the festival’s producer and artistic director for the last six years—and its first non-volunteer employee—says some locals have told her without the flurry of activity from the festival, their businesses might not be able to sustain themselves year-round. But the festival wouldn’t happen without local businesses and members of the Taku River Tlingit First Nation volunteering their time and efforts. One company even takes care of outhouse pump-outs for free all weekend. “The owner of the company does it,” says Winnicky. “He’s a millionaire and that’s what he’s doing for the festival.”

With all the campers, revellers and families, the community of Atlin can get lost in the crowds. But, when you look hard enough, you notice that the same face sweating over ice cream pails by day is grinning at night, kidding around with friends. The woman who sold you a six-pack at the general store grazes your shoulder on her way out of a music tent.

Late Sunday afternoon, as some festival-
goers say goodbye until next year, performers are crammed shoulder-to-shoulder, three-deep on the main stage. It’s an impromptu goodbye for Winnicky, her last festival as organizer. There are tears, hugs and stilted laughs. And then the Taku Kwaan Dancers invite Winnicky to dance with them as they play an accomplishment song to far more than 400 people.