Summerland Spirit Festival Arrives by Storm

image use with permission/Todd Berntson

Summerland Spirit Festival (SSF) received its initiation by storm when a flash flood on the eigth day of the nine day festival washed out a footbridge and, for a short time, trapped ten attendees. The campers escaped by creating a rope system that allowed them to reach the rest of the camp safely. No one was injured. Festival president Todd Berntson commented, “It was like something from CNN. Quite literally, there was a river that was flowing through our campground. It was surreal. In some spots, it was five feet deep and rushing quickly. Very dangerous.”

Sean Nilsen was among the ten campers caught on the flooded side of the bridge. “There were 5 of us camped together including Gypsy, our two boys of 9 and 11 and one other adult family friend. I believe there were 5 others also camped on the same side of the creek as us – this bringing the total of us to about 10 – out of over 100 Festivants who were not camped on that same side of the creek.” Nilsen performed a safety check, and drew upon his training in Boy Scouts to devise a system to get the group to safety.  “After crossing the causeway section we reached what would have normally been another causeway section leading to the bridge crossing the creek. The bridge was absolutely fine. It was the causeway section that had floated about 30 feet out of place. I knew from seeing this earlier that it was roots and stones underneath and there was already a crew of people on the bridge beginning to plan our crossing. One of the other people on our side of the creek and I both tested a step into the creek bed to determine the depth and it was up to my chest – too much for kids to cross considering the current at the time.  I called for rope to help us and the speed the toss came with told me someone on that side had already had the same thought. The throw was just barely short and I had to dive into the creek to retrieve the rope end and depend on the other adults on our side to assist me back to the safety of the tree we had taken shelter under. Thanks to my background with Scouting, I tied off our end of the rope to the closest tree, which was luckily directly in line with the bridge railing.  Once the rope was tested and secure, adults from both sides built a chain from end to end to assist the two little ones, then the remainder of the adults across, I was somewhere in the middle of the chain. After everyone else was across, I believe I was the last to come up out of the water and we decided that the causeway leading up to the bridge, the piece which moved out of line, was secure where it had shifted to and would not float away from where it was,” said Nilsen.

4 hours of rainfall on July 16th between 4:15 and 8:55 am softened ground already wet from steady rain the day prior. Per National Weather Service records, the last flash flood in the festival area was in 2002. No injuries or deaths were reported from the recent or historic incident.

Mark Digatono, a festival attendee, camped in one of the tents washed out by the storm. “The person I was with woke me up. I was sleeping pretty soundly. I had been up about half an hour before it really hit and everything seemed fine. The ground seemed a little soggy because it was raining hard. I woke up to the water rising very rapidly. I got up to the road that the tent was by, and people around it. In very short order, things started floating by,” says Digatono. Despite the tent wash-out, Digatono did not experience any damage to his property or vehicle.

Digatono and Berntson report that property loss was minimal. “People lost some personal items in the flood and there were some broken tents, but there wasn’t any significant property damage. The part of the bridge that was washed out was a section of dock that simply floated up above the poles that anchored it into the creek bed and was pushed down stream a bit,” said Berntson.

Bridge damaged by flooding

Digatono said, “I witnessed several community members tying a rope out so that the people that were camped on that opposite side of the bridge had something to grab a hold of and have footing with so they could get across to safety. Elsewhere in the camp a number of us were stepping up and helping the safety crew that was on duty get people up to the lodge and get them safe. When you see something like that happening on television, you’re awed by what you’re watching and when you’re standing in the middle of it, it’s infinitely more awe-inspiring.”

Campers gather around a central fire - photo permission by Todd Berntson

The festival safety team evacuated all 120 attendees to a lodge on the same property. The ground parking lot filled with 3 feet of water, and cars did have standing water in them. After the water drained, all vehicles started except one. Berntson comments, “Had people not been warned about not starting their cars while the water was high, the automobile casualty rate would have certainly been much higher.”

Three people left on Saturday night because the storm washed away their tent and left their belongings too wet for use. The remaining dislocated campers slept on air mattresses in the lodge.

FEMA flood plane map

While FEMA and DNR maps do indicate that Turtle Creek Grove, the location of SSF, is in a flood plane, Berntson states that the event was wholly unexpected. “The last time that this creek had flooded like this was over a hundred years ago. It has never flooded in the 30 years that the current owner has lived on the land. I have not had a conversation with the owner specifically about the footbridge, but knowing him like I do, he will be reinforcing the dock portion of the bridge.” The property owner could not be reached for comment or confirmation.

The SSF had spent time prior to the festival in safety planning. One team member brought a two-way radio set for communication, and a bell tower on the property was used as an emergency signal. “Prior to the start of the festival, we had made several trips to the festival grounds and utilized high-definition aerial maps to plan everything out, from the location of the campsites, to severe weather protocols. For example, we intentionally created very wide pathways throughout the camp that were illuminated by more than 300 solar lights, so that people would be able to navigate the campgrounds safely and quickly in the event of severe weather when tiki torches are ineffective. During the heavy rains of the flood, it was difficult to see your hand in front of your face, but you could easily follow what looked like a nighttime airport runway of lights to navigate through the camp. All we had to do was to have a small team go down each row of lights and wake up everyone in the tents along that path. Once one of us reached the end of a path of lights we just radioed in that a particular path was completed. That way we could know for certain that everyone had been alerted, even in that chaotic situation with limited visibility.”

The SSF, this year in its inaugural year, was beset by extreme weather even before the storm. Along with an oppressive heat wave, a windstorm early in the week damaged tents and forced campers to take shelter in the area lodge. Says Berntson in his festival recap notes, “Throughout the festival, we endured blistering heat, high winds, floods, and the loss of many of our shelters.” In these notes, he describes the windstorm: “Over the next three hours, the storm was fantastic. A carport that had been cinched to the ground was lifted almost 50 feet into the air and hurled over a hundred yards. Two of our three workshop shelters, which were made from thick steel pipe, were crushed by the wind.” No injuries were reported after the windstorm.

According to Nilsen, the festival grounds had also installed WiFi the day before the event. “We were able to track the weather system as it progressed and subsided, which helped alleviate concerns and allow people to plan their own next steps.”

Berntson says of the emergencies,”Between all of the Directors and Coordinators, we have approximately 40 years of collective experience. This proved to be invaluable because each of us understood what each other was doing and what had to be done in order to secure the safety of our participants and to navigate the challenges of keeping everyone warm, fed, and calm through both severe weather events. What could have resulted in a crisis and tragedy has become part of our legacy of success.”

Berntson also noted that the festival attracted attention from local citizens and that Barron County did inspect the group for due diligence in safety standards. “We purchased our own festival insurance policy and the land owner secured the permits from the county.  We had a couple of county inspectors at the festival throughout the week just to see how things were going.  Frankly, I think they just wanted to see what a group of Pagans looked like.  We also had a visit from city council members, the families of employees who worked there, and even the entire family of the guy who came to clean out our porta pots.  At first it kind of felt like we were on display at a zoo, but we just decided to embrace it.”

The festival will proceed on the same grounds in 2012, and plans are already in place based on the first year experience. “Next year we will be implementing additional training for our safety team and will have an official safety coordinator. We will also be purchasing additional first aid and basic lifesaving equipment. With all of the other things we had to handle this year, we just didn’t have the time to do as much for the safety team as we would have liked. Fortunately, all of us on the council were familiar with emergency procedures and had resources available to us in order to successfully handle some pretty extreme condition.

Digatono is undaunted by the weather of 2011. He says, “I am absolutely planning on attending next year.”

Note: Festival attendees have posted their own accounts of their personal experiences in Facebook pages and blogs.

18 thoughts on “Summerland Spirit Festival Arrives by Storm

  1. Mark Digatono says:

    It might be nit picky but Digatono is the proper spelling of my last name.
    Otherwise thank you for this article. I understand the storms are the News but there were many other absolutely magnificent aspects to this festival. Well done.

  2. Mark Slone says:

    Thank you PNC, for posting this News piece. It is unfortunate that this did not appear earlier.
    I wish to publicly apologize for my comments made about the previous community notes posted as a courtesy by PNC.
    I assumed that a individual was responsible for the text in this yahoo group. To you I apologize.
    I guess we all have to take a deep breath. Publicly, we will never really know who sat at a keyboard and typed the last yahoo group post.
    I hope that in the future the members of PNC will take a second look at posting outside sources. Make fact checks, note editorial changes to postings, add links( two of the three posts had links, Summerland did not).
    In this community I am glad that we have the choice of PNC and other sources like a yahoo group. For myself I am sticking with the volunteers at PNC. I am sure mistakes will be made again, and we should call out PNC on them, in a civic manner. Or at least try to be as civic as we can. I believe that PNC will just get better and better by having a vigilant reader base.
    Thank You, Mark Slone

  3. Star Foster says:

    Pagans often forget nature isn’t always nice, or that just liking trees doesn’t mean we understand nature. I’m always surprised when I see Pagans camping in flood plains or at the bottom of a hill where it’s obvious ground rushes through in a storm.

    Getting your tent flooded or sleeping in a tent during a thunderstorm is a great lesson in nature’s power. I’ve huddled in a tent with thunder and lightning cracking around me perfectly aware of how vulnerable we are and how little the universe regards us in the big scheme of things.

    Glad everyone’s ok, and hope they carry these lessons with them next year.

    • Rosemary says:

      I agree nature is a powerful force and teaches us many lessons that can remind us how vulnerable we are, life is and we need to not become too proud and remain humble.

      On another hand, once the initial shock of seeing my tent in 3 feet of rushing water, and cleaning up after the water went down, I also realized how beautiful the power of the rushing stream (which before was a babbling brook) was. I kept remarking to Kathleen that while the experience felt traumatic, it was also so very beautiful and awe inspiring.

      on the lesson side, the beautiful thing about the land our festival is on, is that all we needed to be was 10 yards away across the dirt pathway to be on safe ground and there is plenty of safe ground. Plans are in affect to make sure people don’t get tempted by the shade of the tree line and camp in vulnerable areas next year.

  4. Todd Berntson says:

    Exquisitely done! Thank you for such a great article. This was a very unusual event—one for the history books, at least for our festival. I am happy that the story has been told and archived.

    Thank you. 🙂


  5. Tracy Jarvinen says:

    All in all the weather was only a small part of an amazing spiritual experience. There were many things that happened at the festival that were beautiful and uplifting. While we were waiting for the locusts and Dave to build us an arc, we had wonderful music, friendship, and bonding that came from what could have been traumatic or devastating. Instead we found laughter and joy in the fact that all were safe and well.

    We are truly blessed!

  6. Kathleen says:

    I really enjoyed this write-up: good job Diana!

    For the record, I was one of the more water-blessed on Saturday morning. I had enough time to grab all our stuff off the floor and put it on our cots. That kept it JUST high enough to avoid most of it getting waterlogged. The tent was a total loss, though. The tarp we had over it came down and allowed the current to wash up and over, crushing the tent poles under it. Cots, bedding and all our stuff survived, though Mark Digatono amusedly pointed out that the dyke’s tent suffered the worst flooding. In retrospect, next year I’ll go for slightly higher ground and suffer the sun instead. I had given some thought to the proximity of the creek, but camped next to it anyway. That said, I accept responsibility for my losses. We could have played it safer, and will next year.

    Other than the moderately crummy weather on the bracketing weekends, nights were comfy and the fest was seriously fun. Probably the most fulfilling I’ve had since my first.

    Full disclosure: I am the treasurer for Summerland.

  7. Rosemary says:

    I also want to express thankfulness for a well done article.
    I resided in the same tent as the previous poster, Kathleen. While our tarp crushed the tent poles, it also trapped a few items from another flooded out camp site that were of personal value to them.
    Another thing that was implemented by many people was a buddy system, in that no one went back out into the weather without someone else with them.
    Other than weather, the festival was an amazing experience where alot of friendships were formed and love felt. Community, and values such as compassion and all of us working together was truly created in 9 days.
    other than camping on more higher ground, the lesson the weather taught me is that what is really important is other lives, and friendships are what is really valuable in this life-tents and items can be replaced, not people

  8. JRob Zetelumen says:

    Given the importance of fact checking stressed in a previous thread, there are some things in this article which I am curious about.

    The article says that all 120 attendees were evacuated to the lodge. Were there actually 120 people in the camp at the time of the flood? If so, as the first year of a nine day festival, that would be astounding and noteworthy and would deserve quite a lot of praise.

    In a point which is relevant to the fact checking of the previous thread, considering the loss of personal property which was reported as minimal, how many people lost personal property? How many when considering the wind storms of the previous weekend?

    • Mark Slone says:

      So what is so astounding? With a large pagan population in the upper midwest and a few dis-enfranchised from other “local” Festivals. It’s something new and different to check out.
      I am astounded there was not more!
      Mark Sone

    • Todd Berntson says:

      Thank you for your kind words, JRob.

      I appreciate your pointing out how astounding it is that we had so many people at our fest for our first year. We had people attend from nine different states and three countries (including the US), many of whom had never been to a fest before. If the feedback we received, as well as the registrations we have already received for next year, are any indication, we will likely double our attendance next year.

      SSF has been enjoying good momentum and is attracting a lot of new people to the community.


      Todd Berntson

  9. Rosemary says:

    With weather all total-wind and rain- Kathleen and I lost 2 tents to damaged poles, I threw out one, albeit both old, sleeping bag and towel.

    On good side, my gift of butterfly earings and Kathleen’s gift to me of pentacle earrings were safe and sound.

    My glasses could’ve been lost but I foolishly, along with a buddy, went back to the tent to retrieve them during the worst of it. Honestly though, they would’ve been safe too where they were located inside the tent.

    I don’t know how well others faired

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