Erinn McPherson and Jordie Laidlaw married in the Nevada Desert at the Burning Man Festival in 2019, which was the event that originally inspired the creation of ValhallaFest. (Contributed Photo)

Skeena Voices | The tale of Vikings

ValhallaFest co-founders and couple strive to recreate Burning Man culture to bring people together

When Erinn McPherson and Jordie Laidlaw planned a casual summer backyard party, they had yet to know that their attempt at a fun gathering would eventually set the stage for ValhallaFest, the biggest electronic music festival in the Northwest.

With lots of homemade brew to share, the two decided they would build a few funky art installations and a dome to make their event a night to remember for their friends, joking naming it KegFest.

“I homebrew a lot of cider so we did this big party at my friend’s house… and we had at least 100 people show up, it was the biggest party I’d ever thrown so it was pretty impressive,” says Laidlaw, ValhallaFest’s art director.

“This was kind of the start of wanting to introduce Burning Man culture to the North and that’s why we set up the dome. We had made this chill area fulls of pillows, this shelter had black lights and fabric with paintings in it… And then we had the band, Devil’s Club, play inside.”

The next summer, they held another KegFest with that party growing in size and excitement. For weeks, they had people coming up to them to express how they wish this was an actual event in Terrace.

Hearing the feedback, they knew that if they were going to throw another party then it was going to have to be bigger and better. They were introduced to Ray Pederson soon after, who had recently moved to Terrace and purchased a 160-acre lot past New Remo, and heard about their creativity. As a newcomer, he was eager to host a giant bonfire on his property to entice locals to come by and introduce themselves.

“The initial thought was that we’re just going throw a huge party out in the woods but then we thought, it might as well be three days in a row over the weekend,” says ValhallaFest media and artist director McPherson. “Planning is my specialty, I love details. I told them to let me know what they need, that I’d be happy to help out.”

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When they all sat down together to plan, they embarked on the idea that they should start a music festival and what started off as a few funny ideas over drinks, turned into months of serious planning. They decided they would build a giant concert stage, rake out camping grounds and get as many artists as they could to perform and run crafty workshops.

Throughout the process, a lot of their vision originated from the famous Burning Man Festival that takes place for a week every August in the Black Rock desert of Nevada. Drawing in over 70,000 people, the makeshift, temporary town turns into a massive festival with countless art installations and live music at every corner. Attendees are welcomed to lose themselves in the music and spirit of the landscape as they befriend strangers of all sorts.

For years, Laidlaw has been a devoted festival-goer to Burning Man and says his life transformed after his first experience. Growing up on Haida Gwaii, he was always planning interesting events for his classmates as there wasn’t much for a teen to do on the islands.

Although he recognized how much he enjoyed being creative, he decided to pursue nursing and moved to Terrace. After years of studying, his friend convinced him to drive down to Nevada where for the week, Laidlaw rediscovered his artistic side.

“What struck me about Burning Man was that it kind of changed my perspective on what is art, like I can’t really draw because I’m really messy with my stuff and I can’t paint or anything… but there, I would look at these little art pieces and I felt like it would be easy to make cool stuff like that,” Laidlaw says.

“[The artists] didn’t hide anything so I can actually go over to look at it, see how they made it and how they’re powering it, which they then happily explain to me… it was just such an exchange of knowledge and ideas that I was super inspired to create.”

When Laidlaw returned to Terrace, he started to experiment making art with whatever he could create with on his days off from the hospital. He says he really enjoyed playing with lights and space, so he would go online to learn how to configure wires.

And then every August from thereon, he would make the pilgrimage south to attend Burning Man, determined to learn more from the artists in person to further advance his work.

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When Laidlaw first started dating McPherson, he really wanted her to experience the festival as it played such an important role in the person that he was. They had only been together a few months but she agreed to trek down with him and walk into a setting beyond her comfort zone.

“When we first got to Burning Man, I was awake for 26 hours and very exhausted, plus I was hungry. Then I started crying because I just want to go home and thought this sucks,” says McPherson.

“I grew up very conservative and had particular viewpoints on how the world should be but then the first thing we see there is this naked guy riding on a bicycle at five in the morning.”

Despite the challenging start, McPherson opened herself up the festival culture and met a lot of people who viewed her as a creative being. As it was with Laidlaw, this sparked the artist inside of her that she had kept refrained for too long.

Originally from Seattle, McPherson says she was the “perfect student” and wanted to be the best at everything. When high school ended, she studied baking as she dreamed of opening up her own pastry shop but as she instinctively studied textbooks to achieve perfectionism, she didn’t feel it brought her joy anymore and quit. Paired with a bad breakup, the life she envisioned fell apart. Her father, an aircraft mechanic living in Terrace, persuaded her to move to Canada and do an apprenticeship with him.

“I was the president of the Robotics Club in school where I built robots for fun. I guess there’s no difference in building a robot than fixing a plane in some aspect and I’m comfortable with that, so I came up to help him,” recalls McPherson. “Then two months after moving here, I got invited to The Northern, and that’s where I met Jordie.”

At Burning Man, surviving in a camp they had built themselves as shelter from the many dust storms, they would delve into enriching conversations that naturally stemmed from the world around them. It was that week that Laidlaw decided he was going to marry McPherson and the following year, he proposed at their next festival together.

“After our first burn together is when we decided to move in because any flaws or issues in your life will bring them to the forefront there and we went through them all,” Laidlaw says.

In 2018, plans for the first inaugural ValhallaFest, named in tribute to McPherson and other festival founders’ Scandinavian roots in reference to a mythical place where Vikings rest, started to take form. It was scheduled for the summer solstice in June.

This was also the first year that the two would not be attending Burning Man as they couldn’t take the time off work. With all this creative energy bubbling inside them, they wanted to bring in as much of that desert experience as they could. With the help of countless volunteers and friends stoked to make this a reality, ValhallaFest was a success as nearly 500 people showed up.

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Since then, they were granted funding to built more infrastructure onto the property and expand their festival, checking off their second annual ValhallaFest as another great event last year with over 700 attendees.

“We had people coming up to us after the festival saying that this is amazing and they want to start making art now or that they didn’t have any friends in town until after this,” says McPherson. “I think it was a lot of self-growth for everyone because you can’t be with all these people who are doing these amazing things and come back the same.”

They then returned to get married at Burning Man last August. Surrounded by newly-acquired festival friends and a rabbi they had arranged online, they said their vows at a triple lighthouse structure there called “The Folly”. They strapped bungee-cords to their bikes so they could be lifted for a traditional chair dance afterward. On their way back from the ceremony, a huge dust storm hit and reminded them of their first experience together in the desert.

Now, the countdown is on for the third annual festival. They had originally planned to move to Vancouver Island but since realizing how much potential and excitement ValhallaFest brings to the Northwest, they’ve decided to stay to keep helping it grow.

For them, it isn’t about how many stages they build or competing with other big festivals but creating a space for people in the region to venture out of their comfort zones. They know that not everyone can travel to Burning Man but they hope that desert art mindset can be passed onto their festival-goers to do great things in life.

“We’ve really been trying to push that here in Terrace, to meet people that you would never meet and to create a sense of openness here,” McPherson says.

“The large party is just a part of it, but it’s really those quiet moments where it’s you with other people telling stories and finally feeling comfortable in your community.”

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