Mendeltna is off the Glenn Highway about 153 miles from Anchorage. You have to watch for the sign, otherwise you might miss it. No more than a few dozen people live there. But on Memorial Day weekend, all that changes, thanks to the Mendeltna Creek Music festival.
For three days, several hundred people gathered at the Mendeltna Creek Lodge, bringing their fiddles, guitars, stand-up basses, banjos and mandos, or mandolins.
Nick “the Dream” Weaver came packing his guitar and ukulele, as well as his bongos.
“It really is a heart-felt experience for me,” says Weaver, an Anchorage singer-songwriter. “I wish life could be like this, just on a regular basis.”
Weaver can be found leading jam sessions at the lodge into the early morning hours, which were a lot more packed this year, due to the chilly weather.
Normally the after-hours singing and playing takes place in scattered pockets at the campground -- with fires crackling, along the banks of Mendeltna Creek, which in the Ahtna dialect of the Athabascan language means “small water to big water.”
The name of the creek has become a metaphor for what happens at the music festival, where musicians rush in like tributaries in search of an outlet.
Their voices, their instruments and their laughter flow into a steady sea of sound.
“I’m a harmony addict,” says Suzanne Hickman, a Valdez singer in search of people she can harmonize with. “It’s magic. When it comes together, you can feel it. It’s an electrical feeling down the back of your neck.”
Billy Williams, Jr. of Copper Center also likes to connect with people through music.
“I think music is one of the best communicators in this entire planet,” says Williams, who frequents the late night song circles. “For that one moment, you’re all human. You’re all on the same level and that’s a very rare thing to find.”
But if Kari Bailey has her way, this experience will be a lot more available to young people. Bailey schedules the groups who perform on the main stage and has pushed hard to showcase the talents of teenagers.
“Everybody is so willing to help each other, to teach each other,” says Bailey.
At the Mendeltna festival, there were a number of family groups spanning at least two generations, like Robbin Hopper, a popular Anchorage folk singer, who has performed for many years as a solo act, but now invites her daughter on stage to sing the sublime harmonies that arise only after years of practice.
“And believe me, kids want to get on the stage,” said Lulu Small, an Anchorage entertainer. “And it’s not because of the music. There’s a feeling that goes with being on the stage and being the performer as well as the participant.”
For kids like Kimberly Hartman, 14, it was exciting to watch strangers get together and make music.
“They were all playing by ear. Like one person would start. It just keeps going around. I thought that was really cool,” said Hartman.
The Mendeltna Creek Festival is now in its third year, which in Alaska folk and bluegrass circles, establishes it as a Memorial Day weekend tradition.
It’s kid and dog friendly. And as far as some are concerned, music in Mendltna is a lot like summers in Alaska. It’s over way too soon.