Some come for the music. Some come for the food. And some come for the experience.

Whether your motivation is smoked salmon on a stick, soul music or just soaking it all in, the American Folk Festival has turned Bangor into a destination. For one weekend in August, there’s nowhere better to be in Maine than the Queen City.

“We always have that map up in the festival, where people put pins up noting where they’ve come from,” said Heather McCarthy, the festival’s executive director. “Maine and New England are covered, of course. Then there’s the rest of the Eastern Seaboard. The data summary we do each year says 10.6 percent of festival-goers come from other states, and 0.8 percent are international. They really come from all over.”

Today’s Poll

Will you attend The American Folk Festival this weekend?



McCarthy estimates that more than 125,000 people will flood the Bangor Waterfront this festival weekend, which kicks off at 6 tonight with a performance from the Lost Bayou Ramblers.

Some will pile into the car and drive; some will team up with friends and take motorcycles. A few will come by water; many will come by bicycle. Festival-goers from previous years will remember hang gliders and unicyclists.

There are lots of ways to get to the American Folk Festival.


For three years, Bangor resident Dennis Hill has, over the course of the festival weekend, led volunteers from the second section of the Anah Shrine Temple in Bangor in parking more than 3,800 cars at Bass Park. It’s a big job, but someone’s got to do it. The Shriners stepped up to the plate.

“It’s our major fundraiser for the year. It requires a lot of work and a lot of people,” Hill said. “At this point, we’ve gotten it down to a pretty well-oiled machine. We know what we’re doing.”

Hill sees lots of license plates come through each year. Most are from Maine, naturally, but plenty are from the Northeast and beyond.

“Lots of New York, lots of Massachusetts,” Hill said. “Last year we saw more Canadians than before. A couple from Ohio last year came in a camper, and said it was their fourth year coming. That was kind of neat.”

The biggest challenge in squeezing all those cars into that space is trying to multitask.

“We’ve got six people taking tickets, selling tickets, and there’s always more people coming in,” Hill said. “A lot of people that have handicapped plates say they’re really glad we’re here. We’ll get a golf cart and run someone who can’t walk the distance to the buses. It’s a nice feeling.”

Hill and his fellow Shriners get a chance to check out the festival when they take a break from parking cars. In all, he said, the weekend is a highlight of the summer for all involved.

“Oh, it’s a blast,” Hill said. “There’s lots of water and sun block. It’s really fun.”

Pedal power

That big yellow tent at the corner of Broad and Washington streets looks like a cool, shady oasis — but in reality, it’s just another parking garage. Instead of cars, though, the tent holds bicycles. Lots of bicycles, from sleek Bianchi road bikes to kid-sized Huffys. Each year, hundreds of festival-goers choose to park their cars and take their feet off the gas pedal in favor of putting them on their bike pedals.

“The bicycling community in Maine is a fun bunch. It’s a welcoming bunch,” said Allison Vogt, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, the group that helps coordinate the bike parking at the festival. “We’ve seen growth all around, from the Common Ground Fair to the folk fest. With all the growing concerns about the environment and saving money and being healthy, it just makes sense to ride your bike.”

Bangor resident Steve Ropiak is in his sixth year running the bike-parking tent. An avid cycler, Ropiak has seen a steady increase in the number of cyclists taking advantage of the bike tent. Last year’s close to $4-per-gallon gas prices helped a bit, though not as much as he expected.

“I think $10 a gallon gas would help a lot! Everyone would be riding their bikes everywhere, if that happened,” Ropiak said. “But barring that, we’ve seen a slow increase over the years. There’s such a great community of cyclists in Maine. People take advantage of the Park and Pedal sites, which are great for any level of rider.”

Ropiak gets to see firsthand the kinds of folks who ride their bikes to the festival — from families with young children to spandex-clad long-distance cyclists. While he estimates the majority of riders come from a 10- to 15-mile radius of Bangor, Ropiak has seen riders come from as far away as Belfast and Ellsworth.

“We see all kinds. We see hard-core bikers, and we see Mom and Dad on their road bikes and the kids on their Stingrays,” Ropiak said. “We get a lot of tandem bikes and bikes with a tag-along on the back. It’s a really great way for families to do something fun together.”

Vogt hopes to see more large events in Maine take the initiative to offer Park and Pedal sites and valet bike parking. The Bicycle Coalition of Maine works with state and local governments not only to ensure that bikers have safe opportunities to ride, but also to make sure fairs, festivals and public spaces are accessible to bikers of every stripe.

“I’d like to see something at the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville, or the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland,” Vogt said. “In San Francisco [leaders] passed a law that any event that brings more than 2,000 people in needs to have bike parking. We could do that in Maine.”

If by sea

Interstate 95 and U.S. Route 1 are filled each festival weekend with cars streaming in from all over, but the closest highway to the American Folk Festival is a natural one — the Penobscot River.

For obvious reasons, boating or paddling up the river to the festival isn’t quite as popular as driving or riding. But there are people who do it, according to Bangor Harbor Master Gerald Ledwith.

“We usually get some folks taking little cabin cruisers up the river and docking by the festival,” Ledwith said. “To put it in perspective, the Folk Festival and the Fourth of July are definitely my busiest times of year.”

Hamlin’s Marina in Hampden most years gets boaters reserving spots at their docks, just a few miles down river from the Bangor Waterfront. General manager Dan Higgins books boaters each summer, though he said this year hasn’t been quite as busy as previous years.

“We get lots of transients calling up and reserving space,” Higgins said. “None of those big boats have this year, however. I don’t know if it’s the economy or what. Probably some folks will come up last-minute, though.”

Brad Ryder, owner of Epic Sports on Central Street in Bangor, said each year he has seen canoes and kayaks make their way up the river over the course of the weekend.

“I’ve observed a number of kayaks and canoes on the water during performances, especially by the Two Rivers stage,” said Ryder, who is also a member of the festival board of directors. “The area under the bridge, by the Sea Dog and Aubuchon Hardware, is accessible for paddlers to pull their boats up during high tide.”

Ryder cautioned, however, that the Penobscot River could be a tricky one to maneuver for the inexperienced paddler.

“It’s so lovely to look at, and seems so calm, but as benign as it looks, it’s really got quite a powerful current. People forget it’s tidal,” he said. “You’ve definitely got to be careful. But it’s a great perspective from which to see the festival, absolutely. The fact that it’s on the river is part of the experience.”


Avatar photo

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.