Motorboats, sailboats, kayaks and paddle boards spaced out across Lake Windermere stretched to the glittering horizon as Brett Kissel performed a lively free concert from philanthropist W. Brett Wilson’s lawn on Sunday evening.

“We were especially proud of the fact that, partly because the RCMP were here, the boats kept their distance,” Wilson said.

The biggest boat party ever on Lake Windermere — and possibly the biggest boat party in the country — was more than an attempt to raise people’s spirits months into the ongoing pandemic, he said. It was at its core a strategic celebration to unite Alberta visitors with valley residents following months of tensions between the two groups.

“I was able to get support from a few other Calgarians to fund all the costs of Kissel,” Wilson said, adding the show was essentially “a gift from Calgary to the valley.”

He was surprised and impressed with how many boaters attended the event, which was performed live and broadcast over the airwaves at the same time so the spaced-out boaters could listen from a distance.

“(People) came, they celebrated and they participated so it was one of the best things I could imagine that we could do for bridging the valley with the locals and the seasonals and the people who are here just to be part of the community,” he said. “We all get tired of some of the noise when people are taking pokes at each other about short-term residents versus long-term and all that stuff. We’re all here to celebrate the valley, and we all love the valley.”

Invermere’s mayor, Al Miller, gave a big thumbs up on the dock and said he’s “putting out the welcome mat” to invite visitors back to the valley after asking them to stay home earlier in the pandemic. “People have been really searching for something to celebrate. People are generally starving for something like this,” he said.

The event was more than a celebration and a unifier; it was also a fundraiser for the Columbia Valley Community Foundation’s (CVCF) COVID-19 response fund. By the concert’s end where both famous Bretts jumped off the dock together, they had raised over $130,000 for the CVCF.

Caitlin Hall-Sharp, CVCF’s new executive director, told the crowd the funding is crucial for the community as many non-profits are expecting a second surge in needs as government funding dries up and as the pandemic continues. Chatting with the Pioneer at the end of the night, she said food security, sanitization and mental health are a few key issues that will need continued funding as the pandemic stretches on.

“I’m going to be the first to acknowledge that I went through depression and severe anxiety in mid-March to early April. I struggled. I spent time with a professional. I looked at medication and options and supplements,” Wilson said. “There’s no shame in having a mental health issue. The only shame is on those who judge the people who have a challenge, and there’s been more than a few people here tonight talking about mental health challenges.”

Some of the funds raised through the concert will go toward supporting mental health in the valley, he said, adding: “One of my core causes in the work that I do has been mental health issues.”

Kissel told the crowd he was excited for the new decade and for the international tour he was about to embark on when the pandemic cancelled his big plans.

No matter how bleak things look, “better days are ahead. We know that for a fact,” he said. It’s a sentiment echoed in one of his popular anthems that promises: “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.”

Both Bretts will be back in the valley soon for a sold-out private golf tournament fundraiser for the local food bank.

And another boat party will likely pop up. “I’m going to do this again. That’s almost a given,” Wilson said. “This was extraordinary.”

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