Founder Lloyd Romaniuk reflects on the early days of Ear Falls’ music festival
BY CLAIRE CUDAHY
The circumstances that brought about the first Trout Forest Music Festival in 1996 might best be described as serendipitous.
In fact, the seed of the idea was planted way back in 1980 when a young Winnipeger named Lloyd Romaniuk found himself living in Lac Seul and working in the bush.
“The first day working on the Trout Lake Forest, I said to myself, what a beautiful place to have a music festival,” recalled Romaniuk, who grew up riding his ten-speed bike to Birds Hill Park every summer for the Winnipeg Folk Festival.
“Everybody that I brought forth this idea with said, ‘You must be crazy, it will never work here in Ear Falls.’ So it was kind of shelved for a lot of years.”
Fast forward to 1996 at the Winnipeg Folk Festival where Romaniuk was volunteering. He met a woman named Yvonne Lewis who came back with him to Ear Falls.
That same summer the couple had a visit from a friend in Winnipeg, Rich Wheeler—a visit that would finally bring Romaniuk’s festival dream to fruition.
“He sent us a handwritten poster with a green crayon saying, ‘Party at Lloyd and Yvonne’s place. Invite other musicians,’” said Romaniuk. “He would come visit me in Ear Falls twice a year, and whenever he would show up, we would pack the joint. My little home in Ear Falls would have about 40 people listening to music. Unplugged music.”
Before they knew it, more people were invited. One friend suggested they call it a festival and give it a name. Another proposed the idea of holding it at Pakwash Provincial Park.
In roughly five weeks, the arrangements were made for the inaugural Trout Forest Music Festival.
“We had 107 paid customers and 137 volunteers,” said Romaniuk. “We dug ourselves into somewhat of a precarious position. We didn’t have enough money to fulfill our commitments.”
But from this setback was born a Troutfest tradition.
“Backstage we started passing around the beer for people, and we had this bonfire happening. Well, Rich and I started playing music. I played the harmonica; he played the guitar,” described Romaniuk. “Pretty soon some other people joined in and we had a nice beautiful jam. Then we started passing the hat. Guys were tossing in 50 bucks, 20 bucks, 10 bucks. Lo and behold, everybody got paid.”
“This jam when the stages turn off and the performers play with the amateurs and people interact—it’s been going on for 20 years.”
Despite ending on this positive note, the second year almost didn’t happen because an agreement couldn’t be reached with the park.
“At the Winnipeg Folk Festival, their executive director asked me how the festival was going for year two. I said it’s going fallow. He reached out and touched me and said, ‘Don’t. Do Something. Have year two.’ So I went home after, and with eight weeks I turned the board around,” said Romaniuk.
“We had a one-day festival in September on a sleety day on the shores of the English River. We made a whopping $47. From there, we got on our feet. We found our legs and we carried on.”
In the years to come, funding and support from the Department of Canadian Heritage helped the fledgling festival settle into its new home in Ear Falls.
Though attendance has increased over the last 20 years, Romaniuk—who has since stepped back from organizing the festival—thinks the “small northern flair” of Troutfest has remained the same.
“One of the key philosophies and objectives is to unite people from all walks of life. So it really drops the barrier between performer and festival goer. Accountant, lawyer, dentist, labourer, waitress—we’re all just people getting together for music in the woods.”