Iron River is a small city of about 1,100 people in northern Wisconsin. But, at least five times that many people recently traveled to the area to make it their temporary home. They’re known as the Rainbow Family of Living Light. The loose-knit group has been meeting every year in a national forest since 1972.
This year, the group chose the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest for the height of their gathering on the July 4th holiday.
About 20 minutes south of Iron River, cars with license plates from almost every state in the nation lined Canthook Lake Road within the national forest. Some people traveled thousands of miles just to get this point. It’s about another hour by foot – at times in the rain – to get to the meadow. At mid-day, that’s where hundreds joined hands in a vast circle to meditate and pray for peace.
The meadow hummed with the sounds of people chanting “om.”
After a while, the crowd erupted into cheers and celebration. People danced and played music. They hugged one another, saying ‘I love you’ to those they met. Many wore tie-dyed clothes and some had elaborate costumes like a rainbow-colored jester carrying a flat disco ball. A few wore nothing at all.
Karin Zirk came from San Diego, California, for the July 4th celebration.
“(There’s) so much emotion and love that’s here,” said Zirk. “We did this om. It’s like we found a way to bring peace down to Earth for at least one day.”
The gathering means different things to people. But, love, peace and unity seem to be a common thread that knit them together. Geoffrey Carpenter of Baltimore, Maryland, who goes by the Rainbow name “Jonah,” said it’s a welcoming community.
“If you want to be a nudist, that’s cool. If you want to be a train punk, that’s cool. If you want to be Hare Krishna – anything. It’s all kind of wide open,” said Carpenter. “For me, it just feels like a large no-judgment zone.”
Feather Sherman has been helping with Rainbow Gatherings for years. She lives on the road in her ’93 Subaru. Sherman said the gathering is significant because people need to come together and save the Earth from environmental harm.
“We are killing ourselves as a human species and everything else going with it,” said Sherman. “So, it’s vital. It’s important that we come together and work for world peace and harmony and learn how to get along.”
The Rainbow Family has to learn to live together because it has no official leaders. They rely on one another for things like food, water or medical supplies. People can donate during dinner circles at night to help fund expenses. Sherman said some members take part in the Rainbow Family’s spring counsel and vision counsel.
“Those who choose to would like to counsel about where we’re going to go next year, our vision about the future, the projects people are doing, but especially for the gathering itself, maybe some critiquing about how things could go better,” said Sherman.
Sherman said that includes things like working with the U.S. Forest Service to restore the landscape after gatherings. But, some locals were skeptical of the Rainbow Family.
Back in Iron River, cashier Abby Nelson at O’Brien’s C-Store said some people were leery of the Rainbow Family.
“I haven’t seen anything bad happen. I know there’s some people – like the police have been getting involved,” said Nelson. “And, some people are being pulled over for like drugs and stuff…. A lot of people don’t want drugs coming into Iron River.”
Bayfield County Sheriff Paul Susienka said they had about 30 arrests during the gathering – mostly misdemeanors and a couple felony drug charges. He said cooperation between federal, state and local law enforcement helped things go smoothly.
“Our expectation is that people come and enjoy themselves, but cause no harm to the community,” said Susienka. “I think that’s a reasonable request.”
Susienka said most people went along with that. Rainbow Family members said there’s always a few bad apples with any group. Zirk said they always end up embracing local residents.
“And, they end up embracing us – no matter their political beliefs, their religious tradition,” said Zirk. “When you lead with love, you win everyone over.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service wouldn’t say whether the Rainbow Family won them over. But, if there’s one thing they have in common, she said it’s a love for the land.
SONG: “Drum Circle” from Rainbow Spirit
A person dressed in a Gumby costume holds a sign saying “Love One Another” at the Rainbow Family gathering on July 4, 2019. (Danielle Kaeding/WPR)
Feather Sherman lives on the road in her ’93 Subaru and helps out with Rainbow gatherings. (Danielle Kaeding/WPR)
A calendar outlines daily events during the Rainbow Family gathering that ran from July 1-7. (Danielle Kaeding/WPR)
Hundreds of people hold hands during what several called a religious ceremony as members of the Rainbow Family meditated and prayed for peace at noon on July 4, 2019. (Danielle Kaeding/WPR)
A sign hanging from a tree warns people not to use oak trees during the gathering in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest on July 4, 2019. (Danielle Kaeding/WPR)
Cashier Abby Nelson at O’Brien’s C-Store in Iron River said some locals were leery of the gathering because of the presence of drugs. While checking out, one gentleman said he thought the Rainbow Family brought “nothing but trouble.” (Danielle Kaeding/WPR)
Law enforcement monitor the exit and control traffic on Canthook Lake Road, which leads in and out of the Rainbow Family gathering. (Danielle Kaeding/WPR)