BELFAST, Maine — You know all that hard work you just did? All the hauling, the assembling of tents, the hammering, the picking up and putting down? Now undo it, and then start planning how to do it all over again next year — but bigger and better.
This is the routine for Maine’s festival organizers and volunteers, who dedicate significant chunks of their lives to painstaking planning and preparation, punctuated once 12 months or so by frantic bursts of setting up, troubleshooting and tearing down.
To spotlight the vital but often little-noticed seasonal work that revs up the midcoast in summertime, my colleague Alex Acquisto and I are taking turns at trying our hands at mucky, sweaty or simply odd jobs for a day.
The dozens of festivals that pop up in communities across the state during summer months play a key role in that vitality, bringing out locals and visitors are looking for a chance to get out and enjoy Maine’s fleeting warm weather.
I volunteered to roll up my sleeves and help set up one that was close to home, the Maine Celtic Celebration on the Belfast waterfront.
When I walked from my apartment to the Belfast Common on the morning of July 14, the activity was just starting to pick up. In about eight hours, hundreds of people — thousands over the course of the weekend — would descend on the park to celebrate Maine’s Celtic roots. But in the morning, there was little indication that an event of any size or substance would be happening in just a few hours.
A few vendors at the top of the hill were setting up canopies and arranging food trucks and trailers. A crew from Whitecap Builders was screwing planks and boards together to assemble the mainstage on Front Street. Down the hill in Steamboat Landing Park, a team from Wallace Events was unloading a flatbed truck loaded with all the gear needed to erect a 60-foot tent that would hold another large stage on the lower level of the festival grounds.
After a little wandering around, I found Dave Malay, a volunteer who oversees the festival grounds, playing a big role in the setup process.
“Looks like we’ve got some work ahead of us,” I said.
“There’s a lot crammed into just a few hours, and it will be a little frantic at times,” Malay answered, shoving his cellphone back into his jeans pocket. Malay, a former dairy farmer in Piscataquis County, moved to Belfast five years ago.
Today Malay is a hospice care provider and said part of what convinced him to settle in Belfast were events like the Celtic Celebration and seeing how deeply invested people in the community were in seeing these events thrive.
“Ready to get to work?” he said, leading me from Front Street down to Steamboat Landing.
The first task of the day was sectioning off the grounds for the Highland Heavy Games, in which participants practice the ancient Celtic tradition of throwing heavy objects as far as they can — because they can.
Throughout the weekend, competitors would throw heavy lead weights overhead trying to vault a tall bar, toss tree trunks called cabers end over end and heave the more recognizable shot put.
Needless to say, spectators have to be kept at a safe distance with events like this going on in an open field, so we needed a barrier.
Malay handed me a hammer and I started pounding wooden stakes into the ground — later these would support an orange mesh fence, but the mesh hadn’t arrived yet. Given the nature of my career and the fact that I’m not a homeowner, it turns out I’ve fallen out of practice with a hammer.
What should have taken a half-dozen good strikes seemed to take twice that and a couple of hammer falls I grazed the edge of the stake and connected with more of my left hand than I was comfortable with. No injuries to report.
While working on the fence, I met Steve Ryan, 63, and his 19-year-old daughter, Belle. Steve started volunteering six years ago at the festival, and he and Belle later joined the committee.
Belle serves as emcee for the annual kilt competition and is well liked for her high-energy, upbeat, borderline inappropriate, narration of the event.
“We have a lot of fun with it,” she said.
The Ryans, Malay and I hauled a set of aluminum bleachers into place near the fence so spectators could watch the heavy games from a safe position. In the background, a jackhammer pounded away, driving metal poles into the ground that would hold a 60-foot tent in place. The big tents like this one are handled by professionals.
The Ryans disagree over how tough this work is. Steve argues that the hardest work is the preparation and organization and that the setup itself, while sometimes frantic, isn’t too taxing. Belle says all the running around and moving things around and assembling of tents is the hardest part. I think they’re both right.
The committee meets regularly throughout the year, organizing more than 100 volunteers, tracking down musical talent, lining up vendors, demonstrations and events.
“I really like to see things grow and find new ways to bring people down here,” Malay said. This year, the big new addition brought clanging steel and clashing swords to the festival for the first time. The Society of Creative Anachronism, a group dedicated to recreating scenes from 17th Century Europe, descended on Belfast, bringing armored sword fights, archery, chainmail-making demonstrations, and, of course, elaborate costumes. The group has about 30,000 international members.
With the fence posts up, I made my way back up the hill to where the Whitecap crew was setting up the main stage. There I ran into Eric W. Johnson, who was setting up the stage’s sound system. He was unloading a trailer filled with sound equipment and scaffolding meant to hold speakers flanking either side of the stage.
We hauled the scaffolding sections from the trailer and assembled them next to the stage, mounting the heavy speakers atop the scaffolding. The breeze off the harbor served as merciful relief from the heat.
After the scaffolding was up, I saw a truck drive into the Steamboat Landing field to drop off the mesh for the heavy games fence. I headed back down the hill, and joined Malay and Anthony Diaferio, 24, of Brooks, who is Malay’s daughter’s fiance.
Together we unrolled the mesh fencing and secured it to the post with zip-ties. Diaferio told me he planned on taking part in the cheese roll, one of the festival’s biggest — and most unusual — attractions.
“I’ve done it the past three years, and I touched the cheese last year. I’m gonna get it this year,” Diaferio said. The roll was scheduled for Sunday.
After the fence was up, there was some concern that it had left too much space for the heavy games and not enough for viewers and artisans who would be setting up tents, canopies and tables on the other side. Ultimately, the fence stayed where it was.
The movement was constant, jumping from one task to another, then coming back to finish a job that you had to set aside momentarily. By noon that day, my phone’s health application had logged more than 10,000 steps, and my legs began to notice just how steep the Belfast Common hill really is.
After five hours of work, things were pretty well set for the first day of festivities later that afternoon. I headed home.
“This is why you do it all, so you can just take it all in and watch people enjoy their weekend,” Malay said.
Saturday featured Celtic musicians, a fireworks display funded by the city, the kilt competition and a dog show geared toward dog breeds originating from Celtic countries, ranging from tiny terriers to Irish wolfhounds tall enough for a saddle.
I returned to the festival Sunday afternoon, just as Malay and Diaferio were getting ready to set up the course for one of the festival’s main attractions — the U.S. National Cheese Roll Championships. The contest is a sight to behold. Dozens of participants grouped into brackets based on age and gender barrel down a steep hill with reckless disregard after a wheel of cheese rolling just ahead of them. Falls are frequent and dramatic.
A pile of hay bales had been delivered that morning, and we stacked them in a line at the bottom of the hill to serve as a barricade that would stop the cheese wheel from rolling too far. The twine binding one of the bales slipped when I picked it up, causing the bale to break apart and fall into a mound on the grass.
“You owe me $3.50,” Malay joked.
People started lining up along the ribbon barrier on the hill for prime seating an hour before the roll started. I walked the hill a few times, looking for any stray rocks or dog droppings that might ruin someone’s fun as they barrelled down the slope.
Belfast’s roll isn’t quite as extreme as events that are common throughout the United Kingdom, which often are held on hills that are steeper, more dangerous and unmowed. On the bright side, Belfast’s roll is tame enough for children to participate in their own bracket.
When the final roll of cheese made its way down the hill, a group of men clashed into a pile trying to tear it away from one another. Diaferio got a hand on the cheese for the second straight year but despite his confidence came out of the pile without a cheese wheel.
After the final roll, the crowd surrounding the hill thinned, and Malay and I circled the grounds, pulling down the ribbon barricade and pulling up stakes.
Throughout the day, the bands and highland games competed for attention. Frantic fiddle reels and the fleet feet of step dancers against the grunts and heaves of strong men and women tossing massive logs in Steamboat Landing Park below. People walked past carrying fish and chips, dough boys, and lemonade doled out by festival vendors.
As the afternoon wore on, people started to filter out. I puttered around the venue in a golf cart to help collect trash bags that were filled to bulging. In the morning, cleanup would begin in earnest.
Monday afternoon, there would be little indication that any of this ever happened, aside from the counting of bills left in donation boxes and the more interesting responses to the question: “What did you do this weekend?”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.