I had been hearing whispers about Wells for years. I knew it was a small Cariboo town, set in the mountains near the gold rush hub of Barkerville, a 10 hour drive northeast of Vancouver. And I knew it was home to Artswells, a music and art festival celebrating its 10th year, which showcased the artistic leanings of many of the town’s residents.
Turns out Wells is just as artsy, adorable and inspiring as promised. For Artswells, the tiny town opens its doors to share more than 100 (mostly) Canadian music performances, in addition to workshops, theatre and art exhibits.
We opted for the festival camping pass and made our home in a baseball field a quick stroll from the main street. The campground was quiet and clean, save for the sounds of guitar, banjo or accordion coming from tent clusters. The lack of showers was not an issue, as a crystal clear creek runs through town—while chilly, it was refreshing to take a dip after a few hours of dancing. The weather could be tempestuous—we were treated to a brilliant thunder and lightning storm that, while dramatic, dumped a good amount of rain on our campsite—but we also basked in sunshine for most of the weekend.
Wells’ small size is used to its advantage for the festival—all of the venues are within a short walking distance, and the variety of stages are impressive for a town with a population of less than 300, including a historic hall, the local pub, an outdoor stage and a little church in nearby Barkerville.
Beneath giant lanterns hanging from the wooden beams of the airy 1930s Community Hall, we danced until our feet ached and then retreated to the bleachers lining the room to sip beer and watch bands such as Fernie’s endlessly energetic Shred Kelly perform, the crowd jumping enthusiastically in response.
We saw Vancouver’s Jenny Ritter and Victoria’s Fish & Bird sing sweetly to the lovely strains of fiddle and banjo at the Casino and then moved on to the curling rink to indulge in a little nostalgia with renowned children’s performer, Fred Penner. He played to an adoring mostly adult audience, who meowed along with glee to “The Cat Came Back”.
The highlight of the weekend was Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer from Nunavut. She was joined by Jesse Zubot, an award winning violinist, who provided an ambient soundscape to the incredible sound that emerged from the diminutive singer. Tanya’s performance was surreal, intense, beautiful and terrifying. At times it sounded as though seven voices came from her as she writhed on stage, drawing the audience into the experiences of the Inuit people. When she exhaled her last note, the crowd leapt to its feet cheering, tears streaming down every cheek in the room, reeling from the intensity of her performance. As if that wasn’t enough, she was joined by Vancouver’s C.R. Avery, a talented beat boxer, and in the intimate confines of the Downstairs Hall, we were treated to a beat box/throat sing-off, the two artists standing in the traditional stance of the throat singer, face-to-face and inches apart, challenging each other with unearthly sounds and energy.
The best unofficial venue turned out to be the streets of Wells. As we emerged from the Downstairs Hall into bright sunshine, still trembling from Tanya’s set, we were greeted with a vibrant dance party, twirling and jumping to an energetic ensemble. The front stoop of the teal Municipal Office building was often host to impromptu open air performances, and was conveniently located close to a row of food trucks and tents, many of which stayed open late into the night to accommodate cravings for nachos and pulled pork sandwiches.
On our final night we walked to the dark creek beneath an enormous sky punctuated with shooting stars, and watched the green glow of the northern lights illuminate the mountains. In the distance, faint music could be heard, reminding us we were, at that moment, somewhere very special—little Wells’ big spirit had won our hearts, with music and art and the unique charm of a small mountain community. Despite its distance from our homes in Vancouver and Victoria, we knew Artswells would draw us back again.