Soundwaves On The Lake: An Alaskan Music Festival

The sun has set on summer in Alaska, but, for the moment, let’s take a look back to warmer, wetter, more melodic times. Specifically, Soundwaves on the Lake.

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Soundwaves on the lake: An alaskan music festival

Words / Dustin H James

Photos / Clyde Hewitt


The sun has set on summer in Alaska, but, for the moment, let’s take a look back to warmer, wetter, more melodic times. Specifically, Soundwaves on the Lake, a music festival that takes place on a lake 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. And, yes, you need to take that literally, as an actual floating music festival.


As you’re turning your thermostats up and eagerly thinking ahead to warmer adventures, you can forget about Coachella right now. Sure, at Coachella, Kanye West sometimes descends from the sky and a holographic Tupac has been known to make surprise appearances. But let me ask you this, “when was the last time you saw a paddleboarder transporting his pizza box on top of his head at Coachella?” Oh, that’s right, you didn’t. You know why? Because Coachella doesn’t even have water. They just have a grassy field, which is so freakin’ typical these days at music festivals. I guess when you’re at the top, like Coachella is, you don’t have to strive to be different. Just add another weekend and call it good, right? Well, leave it to three friends from Fairbanks to push the festival paradigm forward by thinking outside the box — and not just the pizza box.  


“The sky is the limit,” says Soundwaves organizer Chad Young.

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Young, 32, grew up as part of the Harding Lake summer community that live just outside of Fairbanks. One day, in 2014, he was talking to his buddy Jerry Lee Sadler and told him, “dude, we sit here with 15 boats tied together in the middle of the lake, one boat playing music, and we have the greatest time ever.”


They talked to another Harding Lake local, Fred, and Fred built them a 20 foot by 20 foot floating stage for bands to play on. They borrowed some speakers and some random guy’s soundboard, which no one knew how to work, and put that on another dock, which was anchored down by brake drums.


The infrastructure was ready and all that was left was a name. By this point, Jerry Lee’s sister Sierra had come onboard to help. The trio decided to call the whole thing Soundwaves on the Lake.


About 100 people showed up that first year and the advertising was all word-of-mouth and some jenky fliers that Jerry Lee, 26, and his sister Sierra, 29, helped make. There were two bands, a classic rock cover band and a blues group.


“It was just a shitshow, but it all worked out,” Young says.


It was after that first year that the Soundwaves crew, consisting of Chad and the Sadler siblings, Jerry Lee and Sierra, really came together and started pushing the festival forward. They started promoting it through Facebook and used Kickstarter to help fund the costs. They sold branded Soundwaves gear to those in attendance, which doubled to 200 from the first to second year. By the third year, it reached 500 people with three bands playing.


Having a music festival that takes place on a lake is not without its issues. The main one being weather. Organizers have to book the bands in advance, and they always set the date as the weekend after the Fourth of July. The first two years weather pretty much cooperated. This last year saw a torrential thunderstorm come in faster than a bullet train during the last half hour of the scheduled music. Everyone bolted.


“As far as plan B goes for this event, that’s the biggest problem we have. We’re learning every year as we go on with this, but our biggest problem is the weather. We have options like [Sierra] said with the tent [covering the band]. Okay, well, we can get everything under a tent, but for everybody with their boats on water, they don’t want to sit out there. I mean, the diehards will. So far that’s our biggest problem and we’re gonna figure it out,” Young says.


According to Jerry Lee, the typical Soundwaves attendee wants, “to be able to lay back in a floaty and for it to be sunny and you’re jumping in and out of the water.”


They’re working on solving all of these problems, one at a time. For the third annual Soundwaves, they partnered with Bingle Camp, which gave them access to a beach they used for food trucks, bathrooms, road access and parking. Because of Bingle Camp, Soundwaves is now a hybrid water and land festival.

For the organizers of this Soundwaves, the most important thing is their Harding Lake community. They can’t pull it off without them. When go-time comes around, Jerry Lee has a group of about 20 people he is constantly coordinating through text messages, he calls it the Lake Rats. Other people in the area will just stop by and start helping if they see a tent going up. If there is any money left over when all the costs have been accounted for it gets donated straight back into the community, to the Harding Lake Association.  


The festival is free, they don’t charge for tickets. However, the locals still find ways to help out financially. Just days before this year’s festival, the organizer were spending an afternoon out on their boat when a random guy rolled up on his jet ski and handed them $100. “This is from the Henry family,” the guy told me, “we’re really excited for next week.” That’s how Harding Lake gets down. 

What does the future hold for Soundwaves? According to the organizers they could see the festival becoming a multi-day event with camping and better bands.


“We want people from the states to be like, ‘hey, we got to get to Fairbanks, Alaska, there’s this lake party that all these crazy bands are going to.’”


Sure, Fairbanks is in the nether regions of the north and its summer season is short. But it is the Land of the Midnight Sun and the locals know how to really live it up before the cold, dark winter sets in. Hence, Soundwaves on the Lake. After three years, the festival has really found its place up here in the arctic. It’s different, it’s free and you can bring your dog.  

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