A Newbie's Guide to BMF
A Newbie's Guide to Bear Music Fest
By Katrina Day
By the time I hung a right onto the redwood-lined stretch of Camp Blue Road, the sun had long since set over Pinecrest, California. My journey had begun twelve hours earlier in Brooklyn, NY, where I’d kissed my cats (and afterwards, my partner) goodbye and set off for my first ever Bear Music Fest adventure. While most of my fellow attendees would be rolling into the festival after a reasonable drive from the Bay Area, my jaunt to this particular neck of the woods had been a bit more of an odyssey. After a cross-country flight and a three-hour drive from San Francisco that took me through thickets of wind turbines, sprawling vineyards, and more podcast episodes than I care to mention, I finally reached my destination... some summer camp in the middle of nowhere that I knew next to nothing about.
I stepped out of my rental car on travel-weary legs and filled my lungs with cool mountain air. Blinking up at my unfamiliar surroundings, I felt as though I had just touched down on some funky alien planet. An enormous yellow moon hung in the sky, foregrounded by towering pine trees lit up like technicolor sentinels in the darkness. The sounds of music and laughter floated up from a rustic log-hewn lodge, and an inflatable flamingo drifted across the steamy surface of a swimming pool below. As I stood there in the moonlight, taking in the singular scene that was the eve of Bear Music Fest, one thought kept scrawling through my mind:
Where the hell am I?
I’d stumbled into the orbit of Bear Music Fest more or less by accident a few months earlier, when a friend of a friend recommended me for a writing gig with One Foot Productions, a co-producer of the festival. I’d been brought onto the Bear Music Fest staff to write website copy, artist interviews, press releases, and the like—but I had no plans of traveling all the way across the country to attend the festival I was helping to promote. I’d just do my work remotely and watch BMF unfold on social media… you know, like a proper millennial.
But the more I heard about the inaugural Bear Music Fest of 2016, the more my curiosity was piqued. Part of my job as a One Foot staff writer was interviewing past BMF attendees about their experiences, and every single person I spoke with described the festival as a joyful, transformative adventure—a weekend of art, community, and nature, removed from the grinding chaos of daily life. Whether I was chatting with an artist, a fellow One Foot staff member, or a past attendee, everyone had the same advice: “Just go. You won’t regret it.”
So that’s exactly what I decided to do.
I’ll admit, I had my reservations. For one, I was heading to the festival as a solo traveler. Considering that many BMF attendees, staff, and artists have been coming to the Lair of the Golden Bear (the summer camp that hosts the festival) for their entire lives, I figured that I might feel like the odd woman out. The prospect of tackling an unfamiliar drive along dark country roads after a six-hour flight gave me pause, as well.
But above all, I worried that my hopes for the fest were simply too high. I’d come to imagine BMF as a transcendent odyssey, complete with incredible music, an awe-inspiring natural setting, and a vibrant community of kindred spirits. That’s a lot to expect from a second-year festival. Hell, I’d gone to Bonnaroo with equally lofty hopes only to end up dehydrated, underwhelmed, and many dollars in the hole. What if Bear Music Fest ended up being a bust, too?
Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.
Now that I have my first Bear Music Fest under my belt, I can happily confirm that the experience was every bit as exceptional and enchanting as I hoped… but not necessarily for the reasons I imagined it would be. As with any adventure worth taking, it was the challenging, surprising, and unexpected moments that elevated the festival from great to extraordinary. Whether it was encountering a musical act I wouldn’t usually seek out, getting somewhat lost in the woods, or striking up a conversation with a complete stranger, my favorite moments of BMF were the ones I couldn’t have predicted. And though I’d hate to ruin the surprise for anyone, let me share just a few of my takeaways and experiences as a former BMF newbie…
Choose Your Own Adventure
Bear Music Fest is a super customizable festival. Taking place over the course of a long weekend in Pinecrest, California, it really is an event that just about anybody can enjoy. During my trip, I met families with small children, friend groups in their twenties and forties alike, couples both newlywed and newly retired, solo travelers like myself, and everyone in-between.
BMF can accommodate all these different kinds of guests because it gives you plenty of options for your stay. You can choose a cabin at Camp Blue and party into the wee hours of the morning, or snag a spot at the quieter Camp Gold if, you know, sleep is something you happen to enjoy. You can seek out acoustic sets or dance your face off at the amped-up mainstage shows. You can BYOB to your heart’s content, or pass on booze altogether. Take advantage of all the ways you can customize your BMF experience to suit to your specific needs.
Meet Your Neighbors
As an Grade A introvert, I was definitely anxious about spending an entire weekend with a bunch of people I’d never met. Having dozens of potentially awkward first conversations back-to-back is not exactly my idea of a good time. When I woke up the first morning of Bear Music Fest and and headed to the dining hall for a communal breakfast, I had no idea what to expect of the people I was about to encounter. But as soon as I walked up to a random table, said “hello”, and was greeted with authentic smiles and a genuine eagerness to connect, it became abundantly clear: these were my kind of people after all.
Bear Music Fest attracts a certain kind of attendee. Someone who’s adventurous enough to trek out into the middle of the woods for a weekend and open-minded enough to be excited about a lineup of musicians they probably haven’t heard of. Someone who longs to find themselves sitting around a fire, immersed in an epic story alongside their fellow humans—just like we found ourselves the night the Q Brothers performed their captivating hip-hop adaptation of Othello for a rapt, all-ages crowd at the Blue Campfire stage.
Meeting new people can be intimidating, especially now that most of our social interactions take place in Internet comment sections. Bear Music Fest is a perfect remedy for that remove. At BMF, you can discover your new favorite musician and share a meal with them later that night. You can strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you and know you’re going to find something in common. You can sit in comfortable silence with new friends as you watch the sun set over the mountains. There’s no hierarchy of artists, guests, and staff; no posturing or judgement. Just a bunch of good people, finding some connection.
More Than Just Music
Don’t get me wrong, the music at BMF is not to be missed. The organizers do an incredible job of handpicking a diverse lineup of acts that you won’t find at every other festival. The bands at BMF are chosen because they’re super talented, not necessarily super famous. I particularly loved getting to know the soul-pop duo Lohai (whose cover of “How Deep Is Your Love” is still stuck in my head) and the one-man bluegrass band Zack Orion (with whom I had a lovely discussion about the joys of cat parenthood). And because the BMF lineup is relatively small, you have the chance to see every act at least once over the course of the weekend, if you like.
But Bear Music Fest has a lot to offer besides its killer lineup. Some of my favorite moments came to be when I wandered away from the various stages to explore my new surroundings. I spent part of my first afternoon at the festival hiking over to a beautiful Alpine lake and chatting with some locals at the Pinecrest general store. The next day, I attended a songwriting workshop hosted by Music2Life, where I took part in a far-ranging, intimate discussion about music for social change. I spent the last night of the fest cruising around in the BMF shuttle bus (or “Bertha” as we came to call her), singing and laughing with a bunch of new friends. In short: Come to BMF for the music, stay for the unexpected adventures.
A Few More Quick Tips
— Though the accommodations at BMF are comfortable and clean, you’re still basically going to be camping. Pack LOTS of layers, rain gear, bug spray, and anything else you might need to stay warm, dry, and comfy in the great outdoors... Because trust me, you're probably going to need it all. Check out our packing list to get an idea of what you should bring.
— Expect to be offline during the festival and remember to print out important information for your trip, like driving directions to and from the Lair. Not only is cell service spotty on the way in, but you never know what accidents might befall your devices while traveling. My cell phone may or may not have gotten run over by a golf cart during my stay at the Lair, for example. Like I said—PRINT EVERYTHING.
— While I enjoyed my solo adventure, there are definite benefits to rolling into BMF with a bigger group. Not only do you have someone to share the experience (and driving duties) with, but there are also some sweet group discounts to be had at BMF. The larger your group, the better your rate. You can visit the BMF website for more details.
The Bottom Line
Though Bear Music Fest has only been around for a couple of years now, it already feels remarkably established in its identity and style. You really get the sense that the organizers had a crystal clear vision of what they wanted BMF to be from the jump. The result is a unique event that’s a summer camp, house party, and music festival all rolled into in one. A Rock Boat in the woods, if you will. And in the years to come, BMF will only continue to improve.
There’s still plenty of room for tweaks and upgrades. I would personally love to see even more diversity in the artists and attendees we attract. Finding ways to make the fest more accessible and attractive to a broader range of people will be key, in future years. I’d also like to find more ways to let attendees know about the full range of events and amenities we have on offer at BMF—from wellness services and childcare to outdoor excursions and workshops.
Sitting poolside on the last day of BMF just before live band karaoke was about to start, I felt so grateful to have stumbled into this artsy little community in the woods. In three short days, Bear Music Fest had already come to feel like home. I can’t wait to head back out to Pinecrest next year. Until then, I'll be working alongside the rest of Team BMF to make sure that the best little music fest in California only gets better from here.