The Secrets of Doe Bay

Almost all secrets are dying to be shared. Beans want to be spilled, and any living cat will use all of its earthly and unearthly powers to get let OUT of the bag. Doe Bay Fest, the annual four-day indie music festival on Orcas Island in Washington State, was built on secret handshakes and lives on in whispers and knowing glances. Once you’ve been, you’re part of the club forever. And you’ll want to tell everybody about it.

Doe Bay Fest is nearly impossible to get to. It’s at the southernmost tip of a horseshoe-shaped island at the end of a long ferry ride that swells with adventurers each August. You’ll most likely be stuck in the ferry parking lot for hours watching the big white boats slowly leave and slowly return carrying other, earlier people. And here’s the first secret. 

Secret #1: Make a ferry reservation and get there early. Yet each year the lines do move, the cars get on, and off, and the tiny eco-resort on the southern tip of Orcas Island in the San Juan archipelago, sandwiched between the American Pacific Northwest and Canadian British Columbia fills with eager concert-goers, families, artists, farmers, hipsters, bakers, candlestick makers… and then there’s Joe.

Secret #2: This is Joe’s party. Joe Brotherton bought Doe Bay in the 90’s and turned it from a dusty little hippie commune into a well-run eco-resort operating all year but coming fully into bloom for four days each August. You’ll find Joe’s big white boat at anchor out in Doe Bay, bobbing up and down. And you’ll know when you meet Joe because he’ll be wearing an untucked, unbuttoned white linen shirt and a white hat embroidered with the word “Joe”. He’ll have a silver cup in his hand and a big grin on his tanned face.

Secret #3: We are all family. Doe Bay is like a family reunion. Most of the bands stay through the weekend. You might go for a swim in the bay and pop up next to the drummer from last night. Or a guitarist may dance with your toddler. Kids are everywhere, shoeless and adventuring and safe. The food vendors are great, little pop-ups and farm stands from the island, and all lines are short. They hang bunches of lavender in the port-a-potties. Kids are blessed by smiling hippies, then sleep on picnic blankets while their parents dance the night away. Coachella this is not.

Secret #4: Camping is great, but not camping is also great. Our Doe Bay crew includes two other families. As we’ve added children, renting a big house close by where kids can nap and big meals can be whipped up has made more and more sense. After a day of dancing barefoot everyone can use a good shower and some clean jammies.

Secret #5: Relax; it’s going to be great. There are other secrets too, surprise midnight concerts under the apple tree, organically-grown slogans that work like secret handshakes, magical silver cups for purchase that can hide any adult beverage as you wander around with no questions asked, so many winks and nods. This year, the 10th anniversary of the festival, even the lineup remained a secret until the night before the music started. In the wrong context, asking people to fork over hundreds of dollars for tickets and campsites without knowing the name of a single band playing would sound arrogant, presumptuous. But Doe Bay Fest, like all great clubs, is built on trust.

Doe Bay Fest sells out every year of course. It used to take longer because the only way you could get a ticket was to visit the island between the months of April and June, stay overnight and buy the tickets at Doe Bay’s front desk/general store yourself. They’ve relaxed the rules since, but the limiting factor of available campsites keeps the attendee list short and the tickets scarce. As the festival heads into it’s second decade and the Doe Bay club gets more members, the secret is bound to get harder to keep.