By Aaron West

The Bulletin

For one week in August, the population of Crook County will more than double when tens of thousands of people converge to see a total solar eclipse.

A solar eclipse festival scheduled for Aug. 17-23 — the biggest organized event in Crook County history — is expected to bring about 30,000 people from all over the world to Big Summit Prairie to marvel at the celestial event that will last, start to finish, for approximately two and a half hours on Monday, Aug. 21.

“It’s one of the only times that thousands of people will be focusing on the same thing,” said Kevin KoChen, who is organizing the event, dubbed Symbiosis: Oregon Eclipse.

“No one goes to their tent or buys a cheeseburger when the moon is blocking out the sun. All amplified music will be turned off; it will be a total group consciousness.”

During the rest of the festival, when the music will presumably be turned on, KoChen said attendees will be camping at the 55,000-acre private ranch in the middle of the Ochoco National Forest and can basically do anything they want. There will be seven music stages, two stages devoted to workshops, another two for yoga, and numerous other ways to spend a week dedicated to an event so rare, it only shows up four times on astronomical charts between 1901 and 2099.

“We’re providing an immersive environment for like-minded people to come and engage with each other,” he said. “We’re building a community where people can bring their own gifts and experiences and share them.”

For anyone who isn’t sure whether KoChen is describing a university career fair or a gathering where thousands of people and families, many of them naked, come to party, learn about herbalism, ritual performance, and yoga, and dance to more than 400 live bands and DJs, he added clarification.

“It’s a place for people to be themselves,” he said. “They can get weird.”

A celestial-focused mix of Burning Man in Nevada, Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee, and a really big science fair, the Symbiosis website says the gathering will be a “consortium” of 11 other international arts and electronic music festivals. It’s the biggest festival ever hosted by Symbiosis Events LLC, the gathering’s parent company that KoChen owns with his wife, he said.

Mike Ryan, emergency manager for the Crook County Sheriff’s Office, said it will also be the biggest event happening in Central Oregon on the day of the solar eclipse.

Dozens of organized gatherings will be taking place in Deschutes, Jefferson, and Crook counties that weekend, Ryan said, and more than 100,000 people are expected to visit the area. But Symbiosis’ event is the only one that had to dig a well in order to get enough water to attendees.

“The permit requires 12 gallons per person per day,” Ryan said. “That’s about 360,000 gallons per day. Six days at that volume — that’s 2.1 million gallons.”

The festival is actually so big that KoChen is returning to ask Crook County commissioners at their April 19 meeting for a revision to the mass gathering permit the company received in June of last year. The original permit allows for 15,000 people to attend the festival, but with ticket sales surpassing 20,000 and counting, an amendment is necessary.

“We’ll establish a new attendance cap and take a review from various agencies about amending the conditions and requesting a greater refundable deposit, if necessary,” said Crook County Community Development Director Bill Zelenka, who described the size of the festival as “significant” and said the county will probably cap attendance at 30,000.

According to the permit, Symbiosis LLC has until April 1 to submit detailed festival plans to the county for review. These plans will go over details such as water supply, sewer facilities, drainage, food services, alcohol services, medical services, fire protection, security and traffic, Zelenka said. The $25,000 deposit, which will cover any traffic control or overtime that local law enforcement has to put in, has already been paid to the county.

Despite the size, Ryan said he has confidence the event will go off without a hitch.

“We feel quite comfortable with it,” he said, noting the organizers have plans to provide one security officer for every 100 people. “We’re not going to have law enforcement in there — it’s a whole city and we just don’t have the capability. It’s a contained event, once you enter you can’t leave, so they’re policing themselves. They’ve got a pretty good history of doing it.”

Patrick Lair, public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service, said that the agency doesn’t have any authority over the event since it’s on private land, but USFS officials are aware of the festival and fire danger is their biggest concern “by far.”

“Aug. 21 is the peak of fire season, so it’s very likely that fuels will be incredibly dry,” he said. “You add 10,000 of people in the mix and it makes everyone nervous.”

No campfires will be allowed at the event, the mass gathering permit states. Lair said that Symbiosis organizers are currently working with Oregon Department of Forestry and the Oregon Office of State Fire Marshal on a fire safety plan and the company has hired fire crews to be on standby during the festival.

It’ll be the third eclipse-themed gathering the company has organized — a celestial festival series that was born when KoChen went to an eclipse event in Turkey in 2006 with a couple of friends.

“Immediately we started searching when the next eclipses would be and we started working on festivals,” he said.

Previous gatherings the company organized in California and Australia proved to be successful, so KoChen said he began to look toward Central Oregon — one of the best areas of the country to view the eclipse.

In 2013, KoChen said he made contact with Craig Woodward, who owns Big Summit Prairie, after the Crook County Parks and Recreation District suggested the ranch as a possible festival location.

Woodward wasn’t familiar with producing events, KoChen said, so he was invited to Oakdale, California, where Symbiosis was putting on a festival.

“It’s not something he would normally go to, I don’t think,” KoChen said.

Woodward wasn’t immediately available for comment.

The company and Woodward eventually worked out a deal, which involved Symbiosis providing various improvements to the ranch — like digging the well and grading parts of the property — as well as paying Woodard for the use of the land. Also, the contract has the company staying for more than a week after the festival ends to clean up.

“We always leave the grounds much better than how we arrive,” KoChen said. “After the event our team will be out there picking up trash for days. The site is used for cattle grazing, so it’s not like a pristine wild land. But we’ll still remove all the evidence of the human gathering.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7829,

awest@bendbulletin.com

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