Bears on Ice: A life changing experience

Bears on Ice (BOI) kicks off today with a record-breaking number of 200 gay men travelling to Iceland to take part in the annual men only festival. Among them are Shaun Shaffer from Seattle and Anthony Jackson from Florida who’ve been to it on several occasions and are super excited about attending the event which is taking place for the 13th time. GayIceland caught up with the two and asked what it is that keeps bringing them back for more.

Shaun Shaffer teaches web development for a software company (Ingeniux) in Seattle. There he organizes a bear group (XL Bears), does drag with a group of friends (Glitterbeast), and a few other things.  And now he’s attending Bears on Ice.

Shaun: “Well, Iceland is just so amazing. The country, the people, especially Frosti (i.e. Frosti Jónsson, the main organizer of Bears on Ice). I’ve made so many personal connections and life long friends at Bears on Ice. It’s the best bear event I’ve attended.”

Anthony: “Yeah, its everything. Nature first and foremost. The northern lights. And the people, they’re just so vibrant and friendly. I only go to one bear event and a bear bust in Orlando every year. Bears on Ice is just on a whole other level.”

Anthony has been coming to Bears on Ice every year since 2012 and says it initially blew his mind. “To tell you the truth I wasn’t expecting much, so I was very surprised by how awesome the parties and excursions were and how friendly the bears are – the culture is way different from the American bear events I’ve been to. Frosti also surprised me; he was so attentive to everyone and made sure that the festival was both fun and a learning experience at the same time.”

Shaun, who has been to Bears on Ice six times already – seven if you count this year, agrees. “I have to admit that the main reason I attended the first time, which was back in 2009, was because a friend I met up with in Iceland earlier that year convinced me to come back for the festival. Having previously been to many bear events, I really wasn’t prepared for how much love I’d experience at Bears on Ice. Frosti really put an effort into introducing the country and the culture to everyone. With that I fell even further in love with Iceland. It was life changing!”

“I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the Icelandic LGBTQIAP community blossom over the years. I’ll say it was quite different and shy in 2010, compared to what it is today.”

In fact Shaun says that he liked the concept behind Bears on Ice so much that not only does he attend the festival as often as he can, he also decided to use it as model for a bear event he set up in Seattle. “Yes, I designed my own event based XL Bears on the flow that Frosti set up: “Make friends; experience local flavors, culture and art; get out and see sights, then also party and have fun.” This pattern has spread to many other events around the world, because it’s very engrossing.”

Talking about other bear festivals, is it our imagination or is the bear scene growing – internationally? “It’s more normalized now,” says Shaun. “I mean it’s always been huge, we were just more isolated. We are getting bigger though as bears feel more accepted, it’s easier for them to accept others. Social media are showing everyone what we are up to. They should be jealous. We know how to party, love and generally take advantage of what life has to offer.”

Anthony Jackson, on the right and his partner, Joseph Robles on one of their trips to Iceland. The pair live in Florida but Anthony is originally from New Jersey. He’s a freelance graphic artist and dance music artist and has even made a track with Frosti a.k.a. Bistro Boy called Loving Life.

“I find that the bear scene is actually much larger in Europe than in the U.S.,” Anthony points out. “It’s all very inclusive and I feel good about going to events. Of course you’re always going to get some bad apples – but that’s no reason not to enjoy yourself!”

From what you’re saying it sounds like the bear scene is very friendly and open – and maybe “less bitchy” (in dramatic terms) than the overall gay scene can sometimes be?

Shaun: “Well, I think it’s becoming more inclusive. Definitely more inclusive than the gay community as a whole. But we still have a lot of work to do. Especially in helping minorities and people with differing gender identities feel welcome.”

What about the Icelandic bear scene, what do you think about it? For example, do you think it’s growing as well?

Anthony nods. “Yes. And getting better.”

Shaun: “It’s grown in popularity, for sure and I love that more and more locals are pitching in to help organize the event. The best thing is that despite more popularity it has remained true to its roots. Actually that’s something I like about Iceland in general. How it has managed to stay true to itself. For example by not letting tourism change its identity. Icelanders stand up for themselves, which is something I experienced first hand when I took part in the protests here and for that I’m really proud of them.”

“The bear scene is more normalized now. I mean it’s always been huge, we were just more isolated. We are getting bigger though as bears feel more accepted, it’s easier for them to accept others.”

On that note, what do you think of the Icelandic queer community?

Shaun: “I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the Icelandic LGBTQIAP community blossom over the years. I’ll say it was quite different and shy in 2010, compared to what it is today. Personally I do think it’s a little sad that queer spaces have had trouble staying queer in Iceland, because sometimes it’s good to have a queer escape, but I guess this development is a product of acceptance and normalization.”

Anthony: “Can I be honest? I don’t get a whiff of racism in Iceland. It’s so refreshing. I can be me and no one judges me. Epic!”

Bears on Ice is full of exciting events, including a trip to the Blue Lagoon. Photo/Páll Guðjónsson, courtesy of Bears on Ice.

Going back to Bears on Ice, it officially starts tonight with a greet and meet part and then its going to be packed with all kinds of events; parties, a Golden circle tour, a trip to the Blue Lagoon, a brunch and a main party with top-notch performances. What are your plans for this year’s festival? 

Shaun: “I’m bringing friends over and I’m excited to watch them enjoy the festival. I know I’ll get a chance to meet a lot of amazing new people and reconnect with old friends.”

Anthony: “I’m going do what I always do. See friends, drink and dance. See Frosti and Palli (i.e. Páll Guðjónsson, Frosti’s partner). They are like family to me and my partner Joe. Iceland itself feels like a second home that I always look forward to going back to.”

And after that?

Anthony: “After Bears of Ice I plan to go with two friends who are from Nashville to a bear event in Sitges, Spain, for a week. It will be my first time there. From there we’re going on a days trip to Lyon in France and then to Glasgow in Scotland for four days. Friends in Glasgow invited us to come visit and in Lyon we will be meeting my best friend from childhood, Luis, who I haven’t seen for 20 years. I’m very excited about all this.”

Shaun: “I’ll be hitting many other festivals and throwing some of my own in Seattle with the XL Bears.”

Wow, it really sounds like you guys are having fun all the time! “No, no, of course it’s not always fun and games,” says Shaun and laughs. “My group in Seattle does a lot for the community: fundraising and marching for causes. But we find the fun in those things too, most of the time. Sure, there can be drama as well, but where isn’t there drama?!”

Check out the program for Bears on Ice. And their shop.

Main photo: Páll Guðjónsson, courtesy of Bears on Ice.

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