LUTSEN, MINN. -- Wearing ponchos and smiles and smelling of patchouli, members of the Rainbow Family are converging north of here at Barker Lake for their 19th annual Fourth of July peace gathering.
The Rainbows are a mix of middle-aged hippies, homeless people, New Agers, artists, philosophers, Grateful Dead fans, dropouts and curious local people who gather every year in a national forest. They set up camps and community kitchens and try to practice their philosophy that all humanity and all nature are one sharing family.
The gatherings have attracted from 4,300 to 30,000 people who settle for a few days or the whole summer in several square miles of forest. They contribute what they can, eat what they need and help as they are able.
The event culminates on the Fourth of July, when the thousands of participants gather in a meadow to link hands, meditate about peace and harmony and intone the mantric word "om."
"There's just this outpouring of energy," said Robert Heuer of Chicago, a writer who becomes a Rainbow for a short time each year. "There's this harmony, this feeling that is just magical. Your name, who you are, what you do in the world are the most inconsequential things. We just sit around talking, being human beings together. And then people begin going back to their jobs, car salesmen or whatever."
This year's main gathering is in Superior National Forest, two miles inland from Lake Superior. The terrain is very hilly, part of the Sawtooth Mountains that continue into Ontario, 60 miles away. The region has an abundance of timber wolves and deer and a few moose and black bear.
The forest of cedar, birch and maple has been soaked during weeks of rain. The rivers and lakes are murky and still cold. Moss and rotting wood smear into mud underfoot.
Nevertheless, Rainbows who had bedded down in cold, damp sleeping bags and cooked over smoky, wet-wood fires and whose feet had not been dry for days, happily welcome newly arrived family members. Everyone is given a big hug and told, "Welcome home."
"One of the main things we do is offer a home to homeless people and love to troubled people," said a woman who called herself Tala as she added wood to a fire protected from the rain by a blue plastic tarp.
Some Rainbows use just their first names. Others assume colorful pseudonyms such as Grey Bear, Flash, Sparrow, Zeus, Hawk, True Story.
Their clothing also is colorful, much of it very dirty, including 1960s flower-children styles, Andean woolens and flowing India cottons. Zeus, a Greek native, wears robes, a Moslem-style cap and a cardboard sign proclaiming his belief in Greek gods and goddesses. He does not look out of place here.
Eventually, some Rainbows will discard their clothing altogether, a practice that has brought disapproval from local people in previous years, Heuer said.
This year, however, the weather has been too cold and the mosquitoes too fierce. The weather also has generally silenced the all-night music fests that have been a hallmark of other Rainbow gatherings.
As the holiday nears, people who hold regular jobs pour in, Heuer said. Physicians, CEOs, popular music performers, business owners and others -- "zillionaires," according to the less affluent Rainbows -- are expected to swell the ranks from 1,200 to between 5,000 and 10,000 by today.
"This is the only home I've got," said Iris Springflower, a woman of about 35, who squinted timidly as she approached the fire. "I've had a lot of troubles in my life. This is the only family I've got, too."
"True Story," who still suffers the after-effects of 18 months as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, told a circle of Rainbows at a breakfast prayer circle, "I love you all, and that's a true story."
After learning that thousands of Rainbows planned to camp here, many local people voiced concern that the family would cut too much wood, foul the water, leave trash and begin forest fires.
"I'm downstream from all this!" a local resident complained at a recent public-information session with representatives of the U.S. Forest Service and county sheriff's departments. "Everybody's downstream, brother," a Rainbow named Badjer responded. "Everybody."
Forest Service officials seem to have dispelled concerns about ecological problems. The Rainbows generally have left a good record behind them, said Bob Burton, the service's liaison with the group. They use down and dead wood almost exclusively, guard campfires and discourage individual fires and thoroughly clean up when they leave, trying to restore an area to its condition when they arrived, he said.
Burton, who worked in Ottawa National Forest on Michigan's Upper Peninsula where the Rainbows had camped, said that, a year after they left, there was almost no sign that anyone had camped there.
The sheriff's departments of Lake and Cook counties here have sponsored information sessions to dispel rumors that the Rainbows might snatch children off street corners, burglarize homes and conduct satanic sacrifices.
Such things have not happened elsewhere, Undersheriff Harold Paulseth said at a recent session. He did cite an increase in petty shoplifting, gas siphoning and dumpster diving, in which people rifle trash for food items, often wrapped bread. Other than the siphoning, he said, crime at the site consists of what can be expected with a sharp population increase.
"We all have the capacity to be imperfect," said Mark Osthus, pastor of a nearby Lutheran church, during another session attended by a dozen Rainbows. "I guess we're pretty tolerant. We've got people way back in the woods who are a lot more unusual than most of these people."
County and state health department officials are working with the group to ensure safe water supplies and avoid an outbreak of dysentery such as the one that affected several thousand Rainbows three years ago in Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. They carried it to 27 states, according to federal health officials.
The communal kitchens -- elaborate pole-and-tarp shelters with wooden counters and shelves and industrial-size cooking pots -- are arranged neatly and have bleach-water jugs for handwashing.
One kitchen, called the Love 'n' Ovens, features 55-gallon drums packed with mud and stone and topped with smokestacks. They put out hundreds of pies, muffins and loaves of bread distributed daily throughout the encampment.
In another communal kitchen, Andy, an Austrian in his twenties from Montreal, sipped coffee as he awaited boiled millet, corn bread and fried potatoes.
"Out there, people walk around like zombies," he said. "They're not listening to their own heart song, you know. When you hear that, you open up and things just flow in. So many people live on this planet, and we need a lot of healing. But all you can do is make yourself a better person."