Reconnecting at the First Annual Kindle Northwest Fire Festival

As the last few weeks of summer came to an end, some connections were being re-kindled on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, an annual fire festival was held in this exact spot for many years. But, during the pandemic, life changed, and the flames of the Pacific Fire Gathering almost died out completely.

This year a new festival sparked up just before those embers were entirely snuffed out: the first annual Kindle Northwest Fire Festival.

From Sept.8-11, performers from around the world joined together on the Oregon coast to reconnect and flow with each other, their props, and fire. 

According to its website “Kindle Northwest is a reunion of the circus and juggling community, a celebration of flow arts, a gathering for beginner, intermediate and advanced learners, and a decompression of the summer on the coast as our seasons transition to misty autumn.”

As a newbie, I was not exactly sure what to expect when I decided to attend. It was an odd experience traveling from a place soon to be filled with smoke from surrounding wildfires, to a beautiful boy scout camp—Camp Meriwether—for a fire festival.

Life could not possibly be considered fully lived without experiencing both the good and the bad parts. Celebrating a reunion with the circus and juggling community seemed like a great way to appreciate all aspects of fire, including the parts usually deemed “bad” like wildfires. 

The settings of Camp Meriwether were an excellent backdrop for the event. Located in a temperate rainforest right along the Pacific Ocean, the area has the perfect amount of sun, at least it did that weekend, sand, and trees.

I would be pained to omit that I also appreciated being out of the smoke that’s been surrounding Eugene for a few days! Getting there always takes longer than planned, but eventually, on Thursday, I arrived at the camp excited to experience the unexpected.

Thursday was a day filled with seemingly endless sensory adjustments. 

The camp was buzzing with activity for most of the day from new attendees just arriving, checking in, parking and unloading, to others being shuttled to their final destination, and setting up their chosen place to camp for the weekend.

The opening ceremony was held later that evening before everyone gathered in the main lodge to enjoy a potluck meal.

All attendees were asked to sign an agreement about participant conduct as part of a “radically inclusive community.”  In doing so, Kindle attendees were asked to respect others, use consent, and to be patient, friendly, and welcoming. It is also a drug and alcohol free event. 

The joint meal was just the first of many occasions throughout the weekend to relax, connect, and to feel included. Meals were eaten outdoors and masks were worn inside all indoor spaces and festival goers were required to provide proof of vaccination and a negative PCR test upon entrance. 

I can not speak for anyone else, but I prefer to eat in spaces with less noise and more room to breathe in. Due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and sensory issues, I have a hard time with cacophonous new places and, so, it was great to sit outside and just enjoy being there together. Without all the extra anxiety I feel sometimes when I am trapped, inside, behind doors. 

As the sun set, performers flocked to the sandy beach, relaxing, spinning, flowing, and dancing with fire freely as the sky slowly faded to stars. The “fire ring,” a space to safely spin fire, lit up the surroundings later that night.

The fire ring gave everyone a chance to flow. People brought their props and waited turns to be allowed to dip their wicks while DJs provided a backing beat. It was a beautiful glowing spectacle, unlike anything I’d ever seen. 

Personally, I learned at a young age that I should never play with fire. But there I sat, watching people who not only played with it, but did it carefully, gracefully, joyously, and beautifully. 

Props of all sorts were used in the fire ring from poi and darts, to staffs, dragons, fire fans, and swords. 

Fire safety volunteers were stationed around the ring at all times, keeping a watchful eye, ready to respond to accidents. They were equipped to quickly put out any unattended flame—though I never saw any—and to douse props when asked.

As I settled into my sleeping bag on Thursday night, I couldn’t help but feel wonderfully untroubled and excited to see more in the following days.

Workshops were held on both Friday and Saturday and ranged in variety. People were able to learn new skills,  practice, gain insight into creating non-profits, and learn about edible plants and fungi found in the region.

The feel of the camp the entire weekend was tranquil, relaxing, and friendly. The camp was also oddly quiet during the day as people attended workshops. One afternoon I wandered about the campground and found my way to a private lake, glistening in the sun. 

I can never resist swimming solo in places like that. It was soul refreshing and quiet except for the birds. The water always calms my nerves and lets me disconnect from the never-ending flow of thoughts in my head. Swimming is meditation for me. 

I still haven’t tried a sensory deprivation tank yet, but I am very curious. I have always found comfort when I dull my auditory ability with water. Instead of hearing everything else, I can hear myself, my breath, my heart beat. It’s strangely soothing. 

While I calmed my nervous system, others were busy learning in the workshops.

Attendance at the workshops was voluntary. Back at the camp, people often discussed which ones they didn’t want to miss, where to meet to take one together, and what they learned after they returned.

  • Four individuals balance juggling pins of various colors on their chins and foreheads. One, facing the camera, has their left leg up in the air for balance. They're standing on very brown grass away from a group of people sitting down a little ways away. In the background, green shubbery and trees mark the perimeter of the field.
  • Three dark figures, obscured by shadow against a bright sunny day, maneuver staffs around their bodies.

Each late afternoon, as the workshops came to a close, people scattered to their camps. Everyone busied themselves with preparing meals, sharing stories, speaking glowingly about what they learned, and some continued to practice. One afternoon, as I returned from watching the workshops, a few people were gathered around the tent camp area practicing cracking a single-tailed whip. The sound was startlingly impressive when done properly. 

Finally everyone prepared to continue “flowing” later that night in the fire ring.

Flow art also includes props that glow in the dark and light up. So before the ring would open for fire spinning, glow artists would gather in the ring, jugglers included!

It was a pure optical delight to watch as they manipulated and danced with their props against the silhouettes of the trees and on the beach. I was mesmerized by it.

Each prop glowed in a different way. Some props would change colors, some wands had programmable sequences that would change the projected image when spun fast enough.

Some performers had glowing hoops they would juggle. Some jugglers tossed glowing pins to each other and welcomed others to join in. 

While the glow artists flowed, the fire ring slowly filled with excitement as people grew in their anticipation to dip their wicks, light their fires, and spin.

As the last fire pit crackled to life, the line to enter the fire ring began forming. Once the first wick was dipped and lighted, the glow artists moved out of the fire ring to give space to the fire performers.

Fire spinners naturally give each other ample space to flow in. As the flames burned, the spinners and dancers would move from one end of the ring towards the other in an un-choreographed dance with the fire and music. The next performer would take up space as others and their wicks burned out — a constant wave of beautiful fire dancing. 

A photo at night of at least three performers in a circle. Most are obscured by the darkness of night but the one in back is illuminated by the rods of fire they are waving and flowing around.
A ring of fire performers during the 2022 Kindle Northwest Fire Festival at Camp Meriwether. [Courtesy of Vitz Photos]

Each night I would travel to my bed utterly content, and feeling like I, too, was glowing.

The festival included a Saturday night gala. At roughly sundown, the audience gathered at the camp’s ametheathre and the resident artists delighted the crowd with a stunning stage show.

The line-up included flow and juggling performances by YumYum, Devin Tucker, Jean-Souleymane Mandiang, Josie Marks-McQuade, Mike Hayataka, and Vojta Stolbenko.

Hoop flow artist Hayataka wowed the crowd with his stunning skills.  A master of the hoop he dazzled the crowd with their flow skills including some stalls that one would not think possible. Hayataka carefully stalled the hoop on the tips of their fingers, mid air, and walked the hoop from their fingers one at a time, until it stalled perfectly balanced on the performer’s arm.

Mike Hayataka, wearing a black shirt with rainbow pocket, leans backward while a violet and white hula hoop balances on the meat of their forearm.
Mike Hayataka, a hoop flow artist, performs during Kindle Northwest Fire Festival’s Saturday Night Gala on Sept. 10, 2022. [Courtesy of Vitz Photos]

Between the acts, the entertaining MC Zoe Shugart, would keep the crowd lively, laughing, clapping, while introducing the next artist. Arlene Smith and Juniper Anderson joined the stage with Shugart providing the crowd with a bit of comedic relief while the next performer prepared to go up next.

With a sudden flair, the 2022 Fire Performer of the Year, Allie T, sparked her fire performance of the night. 

She lit her drums from the top of the amphitheater and heated up the audience as she powerfully rose to the stage. From there, she set aside her drum and manipulated a fire hoop and fans simultaneously. It was thrilling. 

Allie T, wearing a black sports bra-type top and black shorts, thrusts fire upward past their head while a hoop, with fire at the ends, falls below.
Allie T., the 2022 Fire Performer of the Year, performing during Kindle Northwest Fire Festival’s Saturday Night Gala on Sept. 10, 2022. [Courtesy of Vitz Photos]

Each act was perfectly timed to music, providing the added effect just at the right moment, sort of like thunder from striking a hot, spinning flame or throwing a fireball dart.

From straight out of dream, SpaceFairy stunned the audience with an act that felt straight out of a dream using antlers and masks as an interpretive way to process the masks of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

SpaceFairy, wearing a white mask and holding two others underneath their legs, bends down and forward while fire, attached by horns, portrude from behind their sides.
SpaceFairy performs during Kindle Northwest Fire Festival’s Saturday Night Gala, on Sept. 10, 2022. [Courtesy of Vitz Photos]

After that Drag Performer Johnny Nuriel commanded the stage and put on one hell of a show with a large folding fan. Better than I could do in platform heels, they skillfully demanded the attention of the audience and teased their senses with their take on sensual, flirty, and fun fire.

Johnny, wearing a shiny emerald green gown and gorgeous facepaint, poses with their right arm outstretched behind them. Their mouth is open like they're screaming. In front, held by their other arm, is a seven-pronged fan-like contraption with red hot fire at each end. The Kindle Northwest banner is in the background.
Johnny Nuriel performs during Kindle Northwest Fire Festival’s Saturday Night Gala on Sept. 10, 2022. [Courtesy of Vitz Photos]

Other fire performances were given by Dresden Blue & Sterling Bishop, Sabrina Seybold and Joe Good, also known as AtomicFlow.

These duet ensembles drew silent commissary from the crowd with elegantly timed fire darts, fire poi, and ropes meant to symbolize the push of pull of isolation and social distancing and the joy of coming back together again after.

Rager Rabbit closed the house down with their fire performance. As she finished, the crowd erupted with cheers and applause truly appreciative of the incredible performances. 

After the gala people wandered down to the fire ring or off to the beach. I found a spot and sat at the fire ring for a long time talking to other observers and watching the fire dancing in front of me.

Rager Rabbit, wearing a corset-type top is brightly illuminated by the fans of fire they hold in front of them.
Rager Rabbit performs with “fire fans” during the 2022 Kindle Northwest Fire Festival at Camp Meriwether. [Courtesy of Jason Surh]

Later, I decided to trek down to the beach to see the stars. Away from the DJ and fire ring, more performers were found playing next to the ocean. From a distance I watched people spinning fire in silence, under the stars, as the waves rolled in. In that moment, though completely alone, there was no other place that I desired to be.

Every aspect of the festival was filled with people laughing, smiling and having a truly wonderful time. One festival goer explained that Kindle is “summer camp for adults” and it did have that nostalgic childhood summer camp like feel. 

Soon the only buzzkill that would distract from the peaceful weekend was the noise from the nearby ATV riders. 

Kindle is a community minded event supported by partners and volunteers. Ticket purchasers were asked to volunteer to help out for one two hour time slot. Shifts working in the parking lot, the kitchen, and in other capacities were available to choose from.

Partner organizations include Guardians of the Vibe and the Seattle Flow Arts Collective.

Guardians of the Vibe provide education and training on consent and bystander intervention. They helped to shape and mold the participant conduct agreement and are on hand to help de-escalate and provide community safety. 

“Guardians of the Vibe has the primary mission to educate and catalyze the full public spectrum on consent and bystander intervention. We consider consent to be an overarching public health need and believe everyone deserves a comprehensive education in this important concept! An informed, consent-minded public creates a viable public safety net where we empower and stand up for each other in times of need. In a society that is built on power imbalances, patriarchy, lack of education, and White supremacy, we are often not taught the necessary skills of how to create healthy boundaries and respect the boundaries of others. Which is where we come in!”

The Seattle Flow Arts Collective advances flow arts in the Puget Sound Region by fostering “flow journeys with events, training, outreach, and other opportunities for growth, play, and connection.” 

They offer skills and safety workshops for beginners to advanced performers. The website hosts an event calendar with schedules for workshops, flow events, stage shows, and more. 

The Seattle Flow Arts Collective strives to connect artists with the community, build lasting relationships, and to pay their artists a fair and liveable wage to ensure that flow artists never lose their flame.

An individual, wearing a maid-type dress and leggings, is on their knees. They are laying backward and up spewing a huge, bright ball of fire above them.
A performer breathes fire during the 2022 Kindle Northwest Fire Festival. [Courtesy of Jason Surh]
Mary Bell

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