Malcolm Jolley on a dark and stormy night in Vankleek Hill.

The alarm went off just as we were leaving the hotel in Hawkesbury. My friend Jens and I were confused about where the noise was coming from until we realized it was our phones. We’d received an emergency alert from Environment Canada warning us to “take cover immediately if threatening weather approaches” because of the danger of tornadoes. We looked outside the window where the sun was still shining, shrugged our shoulders and went to the lobby of the hotel to catch a cab to the fairgrounds in Vankleek Hill, where I was due shortly to appear at Beau’s Oktoberfest’s School of Bock.

Maybe we should’ve known something was up on the drive from Ottawa where I had to keep a steady hand on the steering wheel to keep from being blown out of my lane on the 417. Or the text message from my wife, that was a description the weather, upwind in Toronto, as being from “The Wizard of Oz”. We thought it was a funny exaggeration, not a serious prophecy for what the Ottawa Citizen called “A Disastrous Miracle“. And, although we could see lots of very dark clouds in the horizon, we figured at worst, it would be a wet night under the Oktoberfest tents.

The sun was still shining when we reached the Vankleek Hill fairgrounds, I went to Will Call to get my pass and sign in, while Jens bought a ticket (happily, as Beau’s Oktoberfest is a fundraiser with all profits given to local charities). The credit card machine wasn’t working very well and we got held up at the gates. I sent a text to my contact inside saying we would be there in a minute, as I saw that I was now late for the School of Bock talk. Oddly I didn’t get a response.

Jens and I made it to the building on the fairgrounds that always houses the School of Bock, a single story white clapboard building that has a small kitchen, a couple of bathrooms and a large hall, that could seat a hundred or so people at the row of tables set out for seminars. We found organizer Phil Hawkins and my fellow presenter, the cheese expert and sommelier Andrew Laliberté in a despondent mood, and then noticed that the volunteers were taking the paper plates of cheese (we were to present on beer and cheese pairings) for the seminar back from the tables in the hall to the kitchen. What was going on?

Phil went off to do something important, so Andrew explained that the School of Bock was going to happen this evening. The police had contacted Beau’s about the tornado warning and, even if the tornado warning was a false alarm, they anticipated a great storm with lightning. The worst place to be in a lightning storm, he continued, was in a tent held up by very tall metal poles, so the tables in the School of Bock were being cleared to fit more people who needed to take shelter.

Watch Jamie’s interview with Beau’s president Steve Beauchesne here for a detailed explanation of what was happening behind the scenes on the night of the tornadoes and storm.

Andrew was packing up his things. He wanted to get back to the hotel in Hawkesbury before the storm hit, in maybe about an hour. It looked like Oktoberfest was shutting down for the night, and he figured he may as well be dry and comfortable then wait around fairgrounds. Andrew is a sensible man; Jens and I maybe not so much. We contemplated Andrew’s offer of a ride back to the hotel, about 10kms away. If Oktoberfest was truly being shut down, and they had closed the gates, then maybe it was better to wait out the storm in a dry hotel room, and then when it passed we could always go get a bite to eat in the town of Hawkesbury. The night might not be a total write off and, at least, we’d get a good night’s sleep and be fresh for the School of Bock the next day. But that’s not what we did. What we did was ponder our circumstances and decide:

  1. if there’s a tornado coming there’s not much we can do about it in hotel or a fairground building;
  2. even though the gates are shut and some of the buses of university kids from Ottawa have been turned back, there are quite a few people who are stuck here anyway because they are staff or volunteers, or food concession people, or are camping in the surrounding fields; so
  3. since we’re already here and have access to a dry place, maybe we should just sit tight and see if it all passes; because
  4. this is where all the really good beer is.

That’s right: we through ourselves recklessly into the unknown because we couldn’t bear to leave all the Beau’s beer(s) we hoped would be pouring eventually.

Once we decided to stay we tried to help with the clean-up but were really more in the way, so we decided to walk around the fairgrounds in what was literally the calm before the storm. In the food concession tent, all the chefs and restaurateurs were busy wrapping things up to shield their things from the coming rain. We headed to look at the main stage, a little further along, but didn’t make it. The police told us the weather was about to get heavy and everyone needed to get inside a building. (Again, what was really going on is best explained by Steve Beauchesne in Jamie’s interview here.)

Jens and I went back to the School of Bock, one of two buildings reserved for attendees. I suggested we keep to the School because it has a kitchen, and hoped we might get fed by one of the dozen restaurants that had to pack up their tables under a tent. Also, the kitchen had fridges with beer in them: the samples used for the School of Bock seminars. When we got in the door, the place was getting packed, so we headed for the kitchen, which I had access to with my speaker’s pass to find some room and see what’s up. We could here heavy rain on the roof and the wind howling outside.

The first part of the “evacuation” of all the people to the buildings was slightly chaotic, the priority being making sure everyone was safe and sheltered. Jens and I hung out in the kitchen, where we managed to find a glass of beer each and socialized with some of the Beau’s staff who were using the kitchen as a rendezvous, including Phil. The crowd in the main room was getting restless. It was now about 7 o’clock and there was no beer or food. Except… the paper plates of cheese that hadn’t been used for the seminar that Andrew and I were supposed to do earlier. Jens and I sought quick permission, and then found some trays and started to distribute the plates of cheese around the hall. While this was happening, team Beau’s got into action, a table was set up, and beer from the bottles in the fridge was beginning to flow. It wasn’t enough by far, but soon a very waterlogged team of Beau’s staff arrived with the first of many kegs. Then, a call for volunteers: Peter West, the owner of Bowman’s Bar and Grill, and his chef Jordan West (no relation) were going to try and salvage what they could from the storm, including their barbecue and deep fryer and cook for the people.

We got wet. A deep fryer is heavier than I thought and even 20 meters of carrying one with three or four other people takes a while. I also learned that full kegs of beer are very heavy, since Jens and I got happily dragooned into the team that was ferrying the quickly depleted supplies to the kitchen. It wasn’t like we were just going to stand around and watch others work and, besides, it was definitely in our interest to keep the beer flowing. By the time some of the musicians from the bands whose concerts had been cancelled got out some acoustic guitars so people could sing and dance, we realized we were having the best kitchen party west of the Maritimes. When the weather cleared around (I think) 8:30 or 9:00, and the we moved back to the tents, we were pleased for the room to move around in, but a little sad that our own private Beau’s Oktoberfest party was over.

I don’t wish to make light of the terrible destruction the September 21st tornadoes had on the poor people in the Ottawa region and neighbouring Quebec suffered who lost their homes, and I agree that it was a miracle that no life was lost from them. Had a tornado touched down on the Vankleek Hill fairgrounds I shudder to think what would have happened to us in our ramshackle clapboard buildings. But the spirit of Beau’s Oktoberfest was with us that evening, which we won’t soon forget, and me managed to have a very good time in any event.

Postscript: the next day was picture postcard beautiful, with not a cloud in the sky. Andrew and I did our seminar on beer and cheese pairing to packed house, and I spent a few hours wandering the fairgrounds afterwards enjoying festival, eating, sipping wonderfully weird specially made beer, and enjoying myself thoroughly and wondering what Oktoberfest 2019 will bring.