THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME

Hidden in the mountains of British Columbia is a boundary breaking music festival that’s kicking taboos to the curb and approaching public safety and harm reduction from a refreshingly human perspective…

Words: MEGAN VENZIN
Pics: ADAM STRAUGHN, DON IDIO

The West Kootenays are woke, but that’s nothing new. Once a destination for silver rushers of the late 1800s, the culturally rich region of British Columbia was built on the promise of a better life. In the ’60s, the lush locale became a verified hideout for evaders of the Vietnam War draft, and today the evergreen encrusted mountains outside of Kelowna remain a mecca for counterculture’s loyal crusaders. Perpetuating that movement is Shambhala Music Festival, an independently run arts and music event that embodies the same whimsical spirit of those wayward travelers who first stepped foot on the mythical grounds hundreds of years ago. Set in a picturesque valley on a cattle and produce farm known as Salmo River Ranch, Shambhala is like another world with its massive immersive structures, state-of-the-art production and forested backdrop. Its come-as-you-are vibe of acceptance and non-judgment are atypical of the modern world too.

What began as a private gathering for a few hundred friends in the middle of the woods has become the stuff of legend, lauded by electronic fans and artists alike as one of the world’s best music festivals. The first iteration was a modest one, and it would take time before names like dubstep virtuoso Excision and three-time Scribble Jam DJ winner Skratch Bastid would become synonymous with the event. But when something is this valuable, it will eventually be unearthed, just like the precious metals that once sat deep within its hills.

Founder Jimmy Bundschuh may have gotten this ethereal party started when he was just 18 years old, but 22 years later, his values remain the same — keep it community-driven, keep it anti-corporate, and keep it safe. And damn, does he have a stellar team to reinforce that last intention.

A HAPPY HOME

When we arrive on Thursday morning we are welcomed like family, or “farmily”, as the artists, staff, and longtime attendees refer to one another. For the next four days, Shambhala will operate like a quaint town complete with vendors who sell colorful, homespun parasols and food items like hamburgers made from the ranch’s own livestock. Yoga and flower-crown crafting workshops blossom in the garden that’s set between two of the six fully produced stages (or seven if you include the secret Rabbit Hole stage that festival goers may “fall into” by accident). Safe havens like “The Sanctuary” provide solace to those who need a quiet place to rest and unwind if anxiety rears its ugly head, and there’s even a fully stocked pharmacy onsite, should an attendee need medication for an unexpected ailment or infection. The only common commodities attendees won’t find are beer and hard alcohol. The general consensus among Shambhala’s founders and leadership is this: alcohol impairs decision making, and in an environment where people are likely to experiment with drugs, it’s best to minimize the risks. However, the desire to drink is a faraway itch for most people on the farm. To fans, Shambhala is home — a place where they feel whole, loved and taken care of.

“All of our public safety services are anonymous and judgment free,” explains Shambhala Public Safety Coordinator, Simon Hunt. “We don’t want people to be afraid and not come to us; we just want them to come.” Hunt, whose love for Shambhala began when he was a funk drummer with a general admission ticket, has officially served on the leadership team for nine years. His respect for his “home away from home” can be heard in his words, and felt in his warm, dark eyes.

Hunt gets shit done. More than 25 years of experience in emergency management — where he has descended from helicopters into forest fires and coordinated mountain rescues — make him the right fit. “It’s a combination of my life’s greatest passions — EDM, nature, and helping people in their time of need,” Hunt emphasizes. “It’s a very special role for me to play, and I love emanating that essence of care and safety throughout the festival.”

He is one of about 1,000 people, a third of all volunteers and staff, who are dedicated to public safety. The festival sees approximately 12,000 ticket holders, plus an additional 2,000 artists and industry members each year, so there are many watchful eyes to ensure the Shambhala population is well cared for. “In all honesty, this is the highest concentration of quality people I’ve ever worked with in my entire life,” Hunt shares. “I love being able to work with them, and co-create, and push the boundaries.”

HARM REDUCTION

Pushing the boundaries is what Shambhala does best. Also promoting a safe and secure festival experience is Chloe Sage, Drug Checking Project Coordinator for ANKORS (AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society), a Nelson-area nonprofit organization that provides free drug testing services to festival-goers. Beneath a bouncy crop of brown and purple curls, Sage has a comforting smile and an inviting demeanor. She’s sweet, assertive, and smart as hell. Sage sits at the helm of a diverse collection of experts, who range from chemists sent by Interior Health (British Columbia’s regional health authority), to volunteers with backgrounds in harm reduction and safe sex education. “A lot of us have experience in drug use, and there’s a lot of knowledge in that too,” Sage says candidly. “It’s not that we’re sitting on the other side of the table sharing all of those personal experiences, but when people come into the tent knowing that our volunteers have also been [in similar situations], they feel safer.”

Attendees do not hesitate to take advantage of these services. At all hours, there is a winding line of patrons pouring outside of the front flaps of the white ANKORS tent. Hung above the entrance are digital monitors to alert festival goers of harmful substances that have been detected that day — nasty concoctions like ketamine cut with 3-MEO-PCP, an analog of PCP that causes aggression and hallucinations, and cocaine cut with Levamisole, an industrial pig wormer that wreaks havoc on the human immune system, causing users to develop open sores on their bodies.  “Levamisole has a stimulating effect, so dealers will sometimes mix it in, but this is absolutely not what people are looking for when they take a bump of coke,” Sage says.

But in many cases, the drugs sold at Shambhala are exactly as advertised. Sage chalks it up to “quality control” — something she believes ANKORS’ presence helps promote and reinforce. This is the 17th year that ANKORS has partnered with Shambhala, and their onsite team has grown from two people to 70. Their methods have also become more sophisticated over time.

When ANKORS first introduced their progressive services to Shambhala, it was in the form of reagent testing, a method that uses chemical reactions to identify the presence of key substances within recreational drugs. In 2016 however, ANKORS upped their game, and began raising funds to purchase a Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR) spectrometer to improve the accuracy of readings. The current opioid crisis, and increase in fentanyl-related overdoses, influenced the decision to upgrade. “In BC the progression of policies has been rapid because of this mass death,” Sage explains with noticeable pain in her voice. “Losing thousands of people a year led policymakers to want to try all options, and drug checking is one of the options money was put toward.”

The average price of an FTIR spectrometer — a machine which uses a laser to measure the absorption of substances (liquid, solid, gas) across an infrared spectrum — typically costs upwards of $42,000, and provides a highly accurate reading of present components (as long as they make up at least five percent of the sample). After two years of fundraising efforts, ANKORS secured their spectrometer in 2018 with help from GoFundMe, Shambhala, and festival attendees who opted to include a small donation at the time of their ticket purchase. Now, attendees have access to five FTIR spectrometers, four of which came along with partner organizations like Interior Health, British Columbia Center on Substance Use (BCCSU), ASK Wellness, Getyourdrugstested.com and University of Victoria (UVIC), who brought a mini mass spectrometer, capable of a second level of testing with more sensitivity.

“To be able to be open and put drugs on the table and have a conversation about it without someone feeling like I’m going to arrest them or judge them means they, at their own pace, can start to integrate those harm reduction messages and practices into their own lives without shame,” Sage explains. “Here, our whole concept is [founded on] a culture of taking care of ourselves and each other, and this is just one of the ways we do that.”

The testing process is refreshingly human. We fill out a form with checkboxes to provide the ANKORS volunteers with an understanding of how we secured our substances, what we believe them to be and who will be using them. (“It’s MDMA. We bought it from a dealer in the campgrounds and we plan on dropping it tonight before Stylust hits the Village Stage.” For research purposes, of course.) We are then seated opposite two ANKORS volunteers with an FTIR spectrometer between us. They explain the next steps and ask us to open our gel capsule, and empty a small amount of powder over a sensor that sits in the infrared laser’s path. The spectrometer is connected to a laptop that uses software to communicate with a library of compounds more than 10,000 entries deep.

“I’m detecting a match in the system for MDMA,” the shaggy-haired volunteer behind the laptop announces. It’s news we are happy to hear. He and his counterpart, a tank-top wearing dude in a hat cocked to the side, ask if we are familiar with MDMA and its risks, and if we need any additional information today. We thank them and head out the front entrance, past a table of colorful literature, each card detailing the effects of different kinds of common recreational drugs, and instruments like barrels for measuring GHB, clean needles and condoms.

A whopping 3,489 tests were run at Shambhala in 2019. Following each event, Sage publishes a comprehensive report on ANKORS’ festival findings. Some of the most recent releases can be read here: ankorsvolunteer.com/reports. “Everyone who is part of this team feels like they are a part of a movement,” Sage emphasizes passionately. “A movement against prohibition, a movement against stigma, a movement towards being empowered. We are all a part of this, so I want people to leave the tent feeling that they are a part of the movement too.” We definitely do.

MEDICAL

Just footsteps away from the ANKORS tent is Shambhala’s 24-hour medical headquarters. Powered by more than 200 of BC’s registered healthcare professionals, the team covers a wide spectrum of expertise: nurses, paramedics, ICU professionals, toxicology experts, a local obstetrician, Kootenay doctors who specialize in trigger point injections — the list goes on. They are unpaid volunteers, receiving nothing more than a festival ticket for their time. The positions are competitive, and the turnover rate is low. It’s a passion for medical, music and an environment with unique challenges that keeps them coming back year after year. Together, they set the gold standard for what on-site medical at festivals should be. There are very few conditions this highly astute team is unable to treat on-site.

“We may have to send between 10 and 15 people over the week to the local hospital for needs we aren’t able to manage,” says Shambhala Medical Director, Brendan Munn, who is serving in his role for the sixth consecutive year. “Compared to a local community of similar size in this region, we are sending only 10 percent of the ambulances that would normally be expected.”

Part of the reason their methods are so effective is due to the acuity of their first response team. On average, it takes about two-and-a-half minutes to reach a person in need. An intuitive festival layout, alphabetically organized campsites and roving helpers known as ‘Paper Boys,’ who respond to incidents on foot, help minimize the amount of time that passes in emergency situations. “We always focus on how to make those first five minutes count,” Munn shares. “I want to find more ways to push that to attendees too — showing them steps to increase the safety around them, and really build that into the culture of the festival.”

It’s already happening. Just outside medical HQ is a trailer where a partner organization delivers Naloxone trainings on demand, using real syringes and navel oranges to represent the fleshy part of a victim’s buttocks. These tools and knowledge help reduce preventable overdose death, and equip attendees with skills they can use in the real world. Munn is an innovator. He has presented at the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine (WADEM) Conference numerous times, on topics like ‘Preparing and Planning for Recreational Substances at Music Festivals: Considerations from Public Health to Critical Care,’ and will no doubt continue to build upon the exceptional level of care that Shambhala provides.

COLLABORATION

Every aspect of the groundbreaking festival is the result of constant collaboration. From its immersive stages which are produced by local artist collectives to its inspiring teams of health, safety and harm reduction experts who keep attendees on the right path, Shambhala is proof that humans are stronger when we work together.

Mat the Alien, a turntablist, d&b legend and 18-year Shambhala veteran responds frankly when we ask him why he comes back every year. “It’s world renowned for being one of the most unique festivals,” he says with excitement. “BC and Canada have amazing, open-minded crowds, and when Shambhala happens, it’s a huge get together of friends from across the globe.” We too see the people who eat, sleep and breathe Shambhala as our friends, but also, they are family. Bound by our affinity for the alternative lifestyle, Shambhala will always be our safe place. Shambhala will always be home.

Reproduced with permission from DJ Mag