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Contra Dance Camp
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Bear Hug Chronology

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written by and with the permission of Mark Matthews

In January 1984, a group of Flathead Valley and Missoula contra dancers -- including Lael Diehm, Tamara Blank, Sunni Stolpa Bradshaw and Robert Logan -- gathered for breakfast at the former Old Town Cafe to plant the seeds for the Bear Hug Mountain Festival -- one of the great traditions of the Missoula Folklore Society -- even though MFS didn’t exist at the time.

The previous fall, Robert and some other local contra dancers had attended a weekend-long dance camp at Suttle Lake, Oregon. "We came back totally inspired to energize the Missoula dance scene," said Robert, a current member of the Bear Hug organizing committee.

Over eggs and pancakes, Robert described the experience to the others. Lael Diehm, who had often attended the Weizer Fiddle Festival in Idaho, immediately recognized the energy and good feelings of a folk arts camp. The others became equally enchanted with the idea of organizing a dance and music camp for western Montana.

"We decided to form a committee and see it through, no matter what happened," Robert said. "There was a core group that made it happen." The first Bear Hug committee expanded from those four to include Carla Majernic, Rex Blazer, Gary Morris, and Teri (Vehrs) Morris. Also helping out were Judith Nielson, Susan Garwood, Steve Dagger, Lorraine Ayre, Dave Streeter and Lynn Tuft. Penn Fix, of the Spokane Folklore Society, provided much support and encouragement.

First order of work was to come up with a catchy name. "There were a couple of things that meant a lot to us -- dancing and living in the Rocky Mountains," Robert said. "We struggled for several hours to come up with a unique name that expressed our connection to mountains and bears, and had a bit of whimsy. When Judith Nielson put forth Bear Hug Mountain Festival, we were in immediate agreement. "I especially liked it because of the double entendre."

The next order of business was to find a home. Darrell Fenner, long-time head of the Bigfork 4-H Association, agreed to let the committee rent the 4-H camp at Loon Lake, near Ferndale, a few miles east of Bigfork. The camp included a dozen log cabins and a two-story lodge overlooking the 5-acre lake, with the Swan Mountains as a dramatic backdrop. "Loon Lake was a splendid place for the camp -- when the weather was nice," said Helen Pilling, who joined the Bear Hug committee the following year. "Most of the years it wasn't, and workshops were cramped and cold. But that lake was inviting and intimate."

Darrell Fenner reserved the camp for Bear Hug year after year "at an extraordinary low price," Robert said. "In ten years the rent went up only once. The camp is now named after him, and it is fitting, for we have all benefited from his generosity. He is missed but will always be remembered."

The committee scheduled the first Bear Hug for Sept. 14-16, 1984. Next, the committee set about figuring how to finance the operation. The camp rent cost $200. A caller was paid $200, and two bands, $250 each. Other costs included food, insurance, advertising, etc.. The committee figured $2000 would cover everything.

Camp capacity was 90 beds, but only about 72 dancers could comfortably fit on the dance floor at one time. About 80 participants would have been ideal, but the committee projected about 56 might attend. Based on that figure, they set costs at a whopping $39 for the weekend.

For bands, the Western Montana Folklife Society -- the name on the committee’s checking account -- lined up Seattle accordionist Laurie Andres and the Wild Rose String Band, plus Ron Kane-BIll Hewes String Thing from the Spokane area. Penn Fix was the featured caller, with volunteers backing him up.

Robert Logan used the latest computer technology -- DOS and WordStar -- to print out the Bear Hug flyer. "Who can come?" read the brochure. "Anyone interested in trying their hands or feet at country dancing and old time music. Beginning and experienced dancers are welcome as well as musicians. All dances will be taught from scratch by experienced callers. Singles and couples are welcome."

The logo on the first unofficial MFS tee shirt read: "Thank you for not smiling; dancing is serious business."

The festival helped bring future MFS members together. When MFS board chairman Mike Sweet got wind of the event, he offered to teach a clogging workshop for free. Larry B. Smith volunteered to help with the calling, even though his name wasn’t on the flyer. The committee eventually paid him $25. Planned morning and afternoon workshops included New England squares taught by Penn Fix and Ron Kane, English country dance taught by Larry B. Smith, piano with Laurie Andres and fiddle with Ron Kane. Al and Emily Cantrell showed up to lead a voice and harmony workshop, focusing on cowboy songs.

On August 17, 1984, Don Kimmet, of Missoula, was the first camper on the planet to sign up for a Bear Hug festival. By dance weekend, the list had mushroomed to 79.

Bear Hug traditions quickly evolved. That first year, when campers had to wash dishes, Dave Streeter, of Kalispell, led the wash crew in song. On Saturday, the musicians got a chance to strut their stuff after dinner with an hour-long concert before the evening dance.

Later years saw the Saturday evening dinner transform into costume nights with specific themes, ranging from Dr. Seuss characters to Woodstock Revisited.

In 1989, George Pilling began a new tradition by spinning bedtime yarns to sleepy-eyed dancers after the last waltz on Friday and Saturday nights. Fearing a financial loss at the first festival, committee members passed a hat on among the campers on Sunday morning and collected $380. "This money provided a financial cushion for the first four years of Bear Hug," Robert said.

Folks from across western Montana streamed to that first Bear Hug, with a few visitors from Spokane and Idaho. A review of the photos taken that year reveals many faces of folks who still attend Bear Hug. Carla Wambach, Ann Wilsnak and David Orndoff still make the drive over from Helena to attend. As does Neil Brock from Bozeman. But some folks like Missoula musicians Gail Trenfield and John Joyner, plus Susie Winegardner, who moved from Spokane to the Midwest, have been sorely missed the last few years.

During an interview with a MIssoulian reporter who covered that first event, Angie Leprohon, a hammer dulcimer player from Helena, described the festival as "a way of playing that adults don’t usually get to have." Lael Diehm told the same reporter that she wanted "Montana to become a solid folk place on the map, like Oregon and Washington are."

It didn’t take long for that to happen. Over the past 16 years, the Bear Hug roster has expanded to include dancers from all the states of the Northwest, plus California, Colorado, New Mexico, Alaska, New England, the Midwest and Canada. Throughout the years, new volunteers joined the Bear Hug committee as old ones took a break.

"The really cool thing about Bear Hug is that it is a child who has had many parents," Robert Logan said. "It’s personality reflects the tastes and inclinations of many different people."

Different committee members provided different expertise, according to Helen Pilling. "Back in the beginning, we had time and energy to put a big party together," she said. "There were those of us who leaned more towards the responsible side, i.e. insurance, nurses, numbers and such. I have more, than not, been of the party side of things.

KaDe Decker, who joined the committee in the early 1990s, also thought committee perks of reduced or "free tuition, ice-cream meetings, helping to pick the theme, meeting the musicians, callers and story teller, and an early pick of a bunk site" were great, but she knew committee members were often called on to pay a higher price once camp was in session. "Having to help solve problems of no water in the middle of the night, staying way too long on a cold rainy day to solve budget problems, and the rush of endless last minute details that pile up no matter how well all the rest of the planning went," she said. "Little things - but vital to the success of the weekend - meeting delayed musicians at the airport and getting them to camp on time, finding complete bedding for a caller who arrived at our rustic campsite with none, a port-a-potty for a caller unwilling to venture out in the rustic night, and getting the schedule finalized, printed and in the hands of dancers."

It wasn’t until 1986 that MFS took over financial responsibility, planning and execution of Bear Hug from the shadowy Western Montana Folklife Society.

Most of the participants at the first few Bear Hug’s may have been adults playing like children, but over the years, some of those same adults began having children of their own. Now children provide a constant echo of laughter, giggles (and an occasional howl) throughout the weekend. And many young teenagers now dance side by side with their parents. Helen Pilling and Dan’l Moore, who for years furnished and ran the Bear Hug sound system, started the trend. "When we had our kids, Bear Hug wasn't sure what to do," Helen said. "But a go-with-the-flow attitude prevailed and no one minded. Dan’l and I slept in our own tent and me parading around in a 50s-style bathing suit as a pregnant Carman Miranda added to the camp goers curiosity. "It seems over the years we, the committee, have grown into adults and parents (some of us) and but have always been open to creative approaches to new hurdles, laughed at our differences, and respected each others strengths."

1993, Bear Hug’s 10th anniversary, proved a pivotal year. As its reputation for fun and good dancing spread across the country, more and more would-be applicants had to be turned away because of the small dance floor and limited number of bunks at Loon Lake. So the committee decided to move the festival from to the United Methodist camp on the west shore of Flathead Lake after throwing a big anniversary bash at Loon Lake, complete with a portable hot tub, and a special Thursday night dance in Missoula. Not only did Flathead Lake hold more water, but the Methodist camp had more and bigger bunkhouses, as well as a larger dance floor and a separate chapel for the Saturday night concert.

"In truth the move to Flathead Lake was a good, adult minded move, but not an easy one for any of us," said Helen. "Perhaps none of us really wanted to admit adulthood."

Susan Morgan recalls committee members struggling with the decision to move. "There was something special - bonding really -- with what happened at Loon Lake because of its smaller size. We were afraid the camp would lose that if we went to a larger camp."

In the end the move to Flathead Lake worked out just fine. The large cabins contained living rooms where campers could relax and get to know each other more intimately during down time. The forested peninsula provided unlimited access to the clear lake waters. Adults and children played all day long on the basketball court and the outdoor ping pong tables. The Mission Mts. provided another dramatic backdrop.

"I doubt there are but few regrets now that the new wrinkles of change have been ironed out," said KaDe. The new camp has only added to Bear Hug’s reputation, according to Robert -- which was already great. "We’re known across the country as a group of fun-loving folks who love to dance," Robert said. "And we take things with a big grain of salt. People know that we are not contra snobs."

This year’s 17th annual Bear Hug Mountain Festival, scheduled for the second weekend in September, will carry on that tradition.

"One cold rainy year at Loon Lake we went through ten pounds of coffee by Saturday afternoon. I had to go to town to get more. I never made so much coffee in my life." -- Susan Morgan, kitchen coordinator at Loon Lake for two years.

"At the first few Bear Hugs there was a masseuse on staff, who happened to be the nurse as well. We also had a time for a talent show of sorts. Perhaps that was just individually motivated during dinners, but it was memorable most of the time....sort of like the waltzes on Sunday morning." -- Helen Pilling

"Because the 10th Bear Hug was special, the organizers held a dance in Missoula on Thursday night before camp. One of the callers was Delores Heagy from Pittsburgh, who called square dances for her whole stint. "Being a contra fanatic, I was very disappointed and was not looking forward to a weekend where half the dancing would be squares. Much to my surprise and delight, the southern squares that Delores taught were the highlight of weekend. She showed us, that if done properly, no one ever walks backward in southern squares and that they are very smooth and flowing. She even showed us how to use and enjoy walking swings. Besides being a great teacher, she was a great entertainer. She was funny and had great energy." -- Jim Senkler, current Bear Hug committee member

Some Bear Hug highlights:

** 1986 -- Not only does caller Pop Wagner teach a lasso workshop -- giving participants a real a-rope-pic workout -- but after the Saturday night dance he conducts a "flaming lasso" workshop on the camp dock. Luckily, no one is injured although they wouldn't have had far to go to put out the flames. Joining Pop on the stage is a new band from Western Massachusetts -- Wild Asparagus.

** 1987 -- As temperatures climb into the mid-90s, Spokanite Patty Worley, Missoulian Wayne Kruse and others sunbathe in the nude on the nearby recreational park dock causing many campers to turn their heads...away.

** 1988 -- Sandy Bradley teaches a waltz workshop with a broken wrist.

**1989 -- After the evening contras, George Pilling begins a Bear Hug tradition by spinning some yarns to an audience of sleepy-eyed dancers.

**1990 -- Larry B. Smith teaches a 3-facing-3 Sicilian circle where the gent stands between two ladies. Just before the center gents progress, they get to turn to kiss each lady on the cheek. But a number of gents wind up in all-gent sets and things get ugly, according to Robert Logan. "My dance began in Heaven since my first sets contained Lois Nathan, Carol Alette, Peg Loughran, and Jessica Davis. But it descended into Hell when I wound up in a threesome with Mark Matthews and Wayne Kruse."

** 1991 -- Ted Sannella, anointed dean of New England contra dancing and successor to Ralph Page, calls at Bear Hug. He describes the committee as "loosey-goosey" but comes anyway wearing a belt buckle big enough to be a tombstone for a dead cowboy. The inscription on the silver buckle reads ‘TED’.

**1992 -- Cameron Stewart calls the old-time square, "Smoke On The Water," while channeling Elvis Presley.

**1999 -- Legendary contra tune composer Bob McQuillan comes near to shedding a tear at least a half dozen times after inspired dancers repeatedly and enthusiastically acknowledge his 50 years of devotion to contra dancing -- not to mention his kind, open-hearted personality.

Created June 2000.
Last modified
June 2005.

Laura Lundquist