Lakes of Fire 2011

I participated in Lakes of Fire, the regional burn for the upper midwest.

LoF apparently is run coequally by the Chicago and Detroit communities of burners—I get the impression that most burns are run by the burners in one town, so in that respect, it’s a little unusual. This is only LoF’s third year, and it has quickly ramped up to a pretty big event—I heard there were 1150 people there this year. LoF got on my radar last year, when it was held very close to the spot where my grandfather once had a blueberry farm. That, plus the fact that it’s associated with Chicago, piqued my interest. I’d been wanting to experience a different regional burn, so LoF seemed like a natural.

I had lined up a ride from Chicago to LoF with someone on the chicago-burners mailing list, and had lined up a theme camp I could camp with. Twelve hours before I was to board my flight to Chicago, my would-be ride bailed on me, but referred me to someone running a bus up there. So I wound up getting on board that, along with about a dozen hippies. I don’t have much patience for hippy woo-woo, but they were all nice folks.

This year’s LoF was in a new location farther north, near Muskegon. It was raining off and on all the way there, and when we got there (probably after 10:00 PM), the venue had been drenched, with more rain still coming down. The event was being held at the site of a commercial campground that encircles a small lake, and parts of the ring road were too muddy to pass. The bus was diverted to a spot other than what had been set aside for it, and nowhere near the theme camp I was supposed to be joining up with. I had no interest in schlepping my stuff over there in the rain/dark/mud, so I pitched my tent where we landed and wound up befriending the folks of the neighboring theme camp, Shady Cinema, whose ringleader is a film geek. In fact, I wound up being adopted into that camp—they gave me so much food I barely had a chance to break into my own food, and they had shelter and entertainment. And good people. It was a lucky break that I wound up there. That night I also met Shirley, LoF’s placement lead, who drove me around on her golf cart while we chatted. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Mia Farrow. Also went wandering around with my new friends at Shady Cinema and wound up in Tick Town, a bar camp, where we chatted for a while with Monica, a woman participating in her first burn.

Friday morning was cold and drizzly still, with only intermittent moments of sunshine and warmth. I definitely didn’t bring enough warm clothes. I did just get a new pair of Adidas-brand combat boots, which acquitted themselves well in this environment, and stayed comfortable throughout. I probably walked the perimeter of the lake three times that day, and met a lot of new people, including Shoebocks, the ranger lead and brother of Austin’s own Sodium. I also encountered Tiara, who I knew would be there, and Wulfgar, who I knew might be there. LoF has a mandatory safety meeting for fire performers who want to take part in their fire conclave, so I attended that in the afternoon and signed up to be a spotter. One of my campmates, Earl, had an interactive art project called Earl’s Body Brush, in which he stood naked in front of a bunch of small canvas panels attached to a large frame and had people shoot him with gallons of red, yellow, and blue paint. After the paint on the panels dried, he handed them out as artworks.

That night I spun some fire at LoF’s one significant sound camp, Freakeasy, along with a few other people. There was one older guy, Richard, juggling torches, and I noticed with disapproval that he was having an awful lot of drops. Then he finished and snapped out a white cane with a red tip and I felt like a heel. Later, I spun some fire again back at my own campsite for the folks in Shady Cinema, where I also watched the tail end of Logan’s Run, which I still have never seen start to finish.

Saturday morning I was actually forced out of my tent by the heat, which was a welcome change. I don’t recall doing anything exceptionally interesting on Saturday during the day except for hanging out at the LoF outpost of the Golden Lounge (a well-known theme camp at Burning Man), where I was served a shot of some very fancy aged rum that tasted like good scotch. That night was the night of the effigy burn, so I had to get myself over there for spotter duty. This is an area of special interest for me, since I’ve been in charge of the pre-burn fire ceremony at Burning Flipside. Part of my reason for going to LoF was to learn how another regional operates. They organized their fire conclave somewhat differently than Flipside’s fire procession—some of this is clearly a response to logistical constraints, some of it is probably a matter of local habits, and some a matter of taste.

The fire conclave went well. I didn’t notice any serious issues. After it was done I got just outside the safety perimeter and found myself standing next to Monica, and we chatted as we watched the fireworks display and effigy burn.

One aspect of the way burn night was organized didn’t sit well with me. The effigy was situated on a narrow peninsula on the north side of the lake. This meant that nobody could get a good, close view of it. The fire conclave was on the peninsula, to the north of the effigy. The safety perimeter on the peninsula was at 200′, which was pretty far (too far to feel the heat when it was burning), and probably had something to do with emergency-vehicle access, so for those people at the perimeter, they didn’t get a great view of the effigy and didn’t get the visceral feeling of the fire’s heat. But more than that, a lot of people (a large majority, I think) watched the whole thing from their campsites across the lake, so there wasn’t the close camaraderie and excitement I’d expect at a burn.

After the effigy collapsed and the perimeter was dropped, we were allowed to approach it. Typically, I would circle around the fire a few times, but on this narrow spit of land, it wasn’t possible to make a complete circuit while staying a tolerable distance from the fire and while keeping one’s feet dry. So it’s a good thing my boots are waterproof.

After that, I gathered up my firedancing equipment and went with my Shady Cinema campmates back to Freakeasy for some more firespinning. Didn’t get in as much as I wanted, but had fun anyway. There was also a “monster wheel” race (gigantic homemade big wheels) and a fashion show there.

Sunday was the end of the event. I tried to help the folks from the bus and from Shady Cinema strike camps (my own took very little work). As one might expect, it’s hard to get a busload of hippies to get their shit together in a prompt fashion, and we didn’t roll out until about 90 minutes after the supposed last minute. On our way out the gate, someone flagged us over. Turns out it was the owner of the campground, Don, who thanked us for coming. He said he was happy having us there, which is nice to hear.

I can’t help but compare LoF to Flipside, and it’s interesting to see what’s the same and what’s different. LoF seemed to have a lot more children, a lot less nudity (even on the warm days), and a lot less volume from the sound camps. There’s not as much over-the-topness, but I suspect that’s just a matter of time. Flipside has been around ten years longer, and I get the impression that some of operational details at Flipside were figured out without reference to Burning Man. This may be because either the people who volunteered to handle those functions at Flipside had no experience doing the same thing at Burning Man, and therefore didn’t know the “right” way to do them, or those functions got fleshed out at Burning Man and Flipside after Flipside already existed, so they developed along parallel tracks. LoF seemed, at least superficially, to be following Burning Man as a model in ways that Flipside does not. But on burn night, when I was standing around with some other spotters waiting for things to happen, I got to chatting with a guy named Breedlove, and he told me that for LoF, Burning Man is so big that it just isn’t a useful model to follow. Instead, they’ve looked to Flipside as a model and inspiration for how to run an event. Which gave me great nachas.

All in all, I had fun, the weather being the only drawback. It was nice, as Clovis once put it, to be part of the problem for a change.