Before last weekend, it had been at least five years since I’d been to Hay River. It was the fall of 2014 when I came down to do some work for News/North and I had fond memories of running along the river and going down to the pumphouse almost every night to make a fire on the beach or just to dip my toes in the water.

So, when I got asked if I wanted to fill in at The Hub this summer for Paul Bickford, I jumped at the chance. Little did I know at the time, I was picking the best time of year to come. And not just because the weather is warm and the sun never sets. But because Hay Days was expected to be in full swing during my first week here.

As a music lover, I couldn’t have been more pleased. Of course, if I had come a few years ago I might have missed out on my first Hay Days experience because the festival didn’t run 2016. Thankfully, the Rotary Club stepped in to revive the festival in 2017.

The four days I spent covering Hay Days both as a journalist and a spectator made me grateful the club did just that.

This year, the festival had a budget of $150,000 and it was clear the money was well spent.

For starters, they managed to bring in an excellent mix of talent both local and from out of town. While country music might not be the biggest thing on my playlist, it was clear from the reactions of the 19 and older crowd that Garret Gregory was a true crowd pleaser.

Welder’s Daughter performed a set that got the crowd dancing on the final night of Hay Days on July 6. Cody Punter/NNSL photo

And of course, who doesn’t love fan-favourite Welder’s Daughter, a band that never fails to get people out of their seats and onto the dance floor.

Not even Saturday’s foul weather, which led to the main event being moved into the arena, could dampen the mood. While covering the Keith Broadhead Memorial tournament the day after the Shaker, I heard all kinds of people raving about how amazing the music was.

But the true strength of the festival goes beyond getting good headliners. The number of workshops for both youth and adults was impressive. After showing up to a few of them to take pictures, I can safely say that they left smiles on the faces of a lot of kids and a few grown-ups too.

Mandy Morris leads a workshop for youth to prepare them for a show at Hay Days on July 4. Morris would end up leading the youngsters during a performance on the main stage on Saturday afternoon. Cody Punter/NNSL photo

One of the things I enjoyed the most was seeing how involved everyone in town was in the festival. It’s not just about beers and music but family and community.

This was certainly apparent on the Thursday night, when Linda Duford led a chorus of over a dozen fiddlers and guitar players in a performance in front of parents and other relations. The reaction of the crowd that night was just as excited as the dance floor at the arena on Saturday, albeit a little less rowdy.

The moment which best sums up Hay Days perfect mix of family fun and late night dance-offs for me was seeing Bill Morris getting invited up on stage to sing with his son’s band The Sociables at the Back Eddy on Friday night.

Morris had flown up from Ontario to Hay River for the first time so he could play with his son, before driving back down south together. It was something on his bucket list and seeing the crowd react to their performance by signing along in unison was such a beautiful sight.

All that’s to say it may have been my first Hay Days, but I sure hope it’s not the last. And I’m sure everyone in town feels the same way.