When Iron River resident Patrick Dooley first heard that the Rainbow Gathering was coming to the nearby national forest, he said he wasn’t “completely comfortable” with the group.
But, as he learned more about the group – like the “why” behind the gathering — he was put at ease, he said.
“Their big thing is celebrating peace ... I would think that there really shouldn't be too many bad things,” said Dooley, who is the general manager of Iron River Foods.
The Rainbow Gathering is expected to draw upward of 10,000 people to the nearby Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest during its official run date from July 1-7 — nearly 10 times the 1,123 full-time residents of Iron River. Like Dooley, many residents say they’re now more welcoming and understanding of the Rainbow Family. But some locals still hold concerns about the increase in police presence and possible “bad people” they say come with large crowds.
Some say the town’s skeptical tone shifted after a town hall about the gathering in Iron River allowed a handful of area residents to air complaints and ask pointed questions to law enforcement and gatherers. After the town hall, more residents are embracing the group — and even attending the gathering.
Since the first day she learned about it, Saya Kangas, 17, said she’s welcomed the gathering and its participants. But opinions held by other Iron River residents, she said, are divided along age lines.
“I think the younger you are here, the more accepting you are because that’s kind of our generation,” she said during an interview on Wednesday. “And then the older people (are) kind of judgey.”
Because many of the town’s younger people are more open minded, she said, they’re more willing to head out to the gathering. She’s already been to the site, she said.
“What are the odds that it’s in Iron River, Wis. of all places? It’s only going to be here once in our lifetime, so let’s go check it out,” Kangas said.
Other young adults from the town also voiced curiosity, which they say is drawing them to the gathering.
Nic Jatzo, 18, and Henry Espinoza, 20, said they were initially hesitant about the group. But when they met members of the Rainbow Family and saw them around town, their worries dissipated.
“I never really judged any of them. I was just kind of scared from the stories,” Jatzo said. “After I met them I was like, ... ‘they ain’t so bad.’ But everyone’s just trying to make them look worse than they are.”
Jatzo has been to the gathering a handful of times because he was curious how they lived in the woods. “They all just seem like really nice people. (They) just want to show the love and peace — like us,” he said.
Mary and Mark Murphy were also intrigued by the gathering. “We're interested to see … what it's really like,” Mark Murphy said.
The Rainbow Gathering is known for its counterculture associations. Participants build a community of thousands in a national forest each year that includes kitchens, a stage and a children’s area — but there are no leaders nor committees in charge.
Craig Johnson, of Iron River, said he’s staying away from the gathering because of the “riff-raff” that comes when along with large numbers of people. But he’s ultimately in favor of the gathering because he thinks “their basic thing is a good deal,” he said.
“I think the gathering’s mostly good. But when you get a big gathering like that, the bad comes with it,” he said. “They open it up. It’s not by invitation.”
Jennifer Hoegen, a cake decorator at Angie’s Bakery, said she’s not concerned about the number of people who are heading to the area because they stay in the forest.
“I feel like they're peaceful people that, you know, just want to do their thing,” Hoegen said.
Others aren't so sure. Wendy Biggerstaff, an area resident, said the gathering is a “burden” on the community because of the needed increase in law enforcement. She said she’s also concerned that the area isn’t prepared for potential problems resulting from a large gathering of people.
“It’s hard to imagine that many people wouldn’t do damage to the forest,” Biggerstaff said. “I’m not like a crazy tree hugger, but … this is where we live, you know? That’s part of the reason we live here. We love this kind of stuff.”
Those living next to the gathering say they’re not deterred by the large event happening in the northeast area of the approximately 2,300-square-miles forest.
Susanna Carroll, 64, has walked to the gathering from her house. She plans to visit again with her husband and friends on the Fourth of July, on which a large prayer for world peace occurs — the pinnacle moment of the gathering.
“Can you imagine standing in a meadow holding hands with 5,000 people and praying? That’s a once in a lifetime (experience),” she said.
While Carroll isn’t changing any aspects of her daily life as the gathering goes on nearby, one neighbor is.
Jane Strom also lives a few miles away from the gathering. Because of the influx in traffic, she said she’s planning to stay at home more.
“I'm not really concerned (or) afraid of them … (but) that many people coming into a small area ... the traffic is just a concern,” she said.
Strom wishes the community was notified earlier about the gathering because it would have allowed for an earlier town hall and more questions, she said.
“(It would have) just give us a little security or comfort of what’s happening,” she said. “I just felt like we weren’t informed enough to know this was happening.”
As for prepping Iron River Foods for a possible increase in customers, Dooley said he’s not too worried. It’s fully staffed and stocked to capacity because of the Fourth of July holiday season anyway, he said.
He still wonders if the size of the group will pose problems, he said. But with the increased patrols and forest oversight, Dooley said he’s not worried.
“I don't feel like we're being left alone to figure out our own logistics,” he said.
Like many others interviewed by the News Tribune, Carroll, who lives near the gathering, noted the increase in police presence. She said it's unnecessary because they're mainly "messing with people," which she heard from members of the Rainbow Family when she visited the site.
Bayfield County Sheriff Paul Susienka said at the town hall that the increased patrols are to help manage the event and its possible impacts.
“In my position, we have no choice but to see it through,” Susienka said at the meeting. “We’re going to devote whatever resources are necessary to protect our community.”