Locals and visitors alike went just a little bit wild last weekend — wild, that is, about the Copper River Wild! Salmon Festival, held at the base of Mt. Eyak on July 15-16.
When it comes to celebrating in a community all about fishing, a festival centered around salmon is the perfect fit.
From dumpster painting to fish printing, dancing to the bluesy rhythm of Bobby Walker and the Roadsters, or having faces painted and sampling delicious creations from our community’s creative cooks, to running marathons on the old Copper River Railway railroad bed, the annual festival has come a long way and has something for nearly every Cordovan to see, do, or eat.
Salmon Jam, as the event was known in 1999, started up as a homegrown music fest in the warehouse out at the old Orca Cannery.
“The caretakers out there, Dean and Kate, came up with the idea,” said Alyssa Kleissler, this year’s music events organizer. Kleissler didn’t know the founders’ last names. She said she’s helped out with Salmon Jam and the festival since its inception, in one form or another.
She fondly recalled who jumped in to help make the original Salmon Jam a reality.
“Linden O’Toole took the lead on music,” Kleissler said. “Rion Schmidt made our mascot Twanda, the big paper mache fish, and helped out. The following year Dean and Kate left. Lisa West, from KCHU at the time, didn’t want to see the idea die, so she contacted me when I was the then-president of Cordova Arts and Pageants, to see if we’d like to partner up and continue it. The festival has morphed through a lot of combinations, but 14 years ago, Kate Morse spawned the idea of its current format and it works.”
The festival format combines Salmon Jam, the Alaska Salmon Runs, Small Fry Arts and Education and the Taste of Cordova into one long weekend of food, fun, music, running and hanging out on the hill at Mt. Eyak.
Kate Morse, program director at the Copper River Watershed Project, has served as festival event coordinator for nearly 11 years.
Morse said she helped to pull together Salmon Jam and the Alaska Salmon Runs, and added the education, arts and crafts events, to help round-out the festival-feeling, and officially named the weekend the Copper River Wild! Salmon Festival.
“Salmon Jam was originally a stand-alone event, as were the Alaska Salmon Runs,” said Kristin Carpenter, executive director of the Copper River Watershed Project and Alaska Salmon Runs Event Coordinator since 2006.
“When the Copper River Watershed Project got started, we did several resource assessments of what assets the community has on which it could build economic development,” Carpenter said.
“One recommendation was to combine a few events on one weekend to make enough of a draw for folks coming from Anchorage and Fairbanks for a three-day weekend,” she said. “The idea was that people would come for the festival, but also might spend a day exploring Cordova’s great trails or go for a kayak paddle.”
Live music and the opportunity to dance, see comedy acts and listen to poetry are big draws for people to head up the hill to Salmon Jam, and the bands and acts in this year’s line-up were no exception.
Salmon Eye, Lydia Jacoby, Hunter Merritt, Emilie Springer, Comedian Larry Goodale aka Pastor Funny, Jonah Hennings Booth, Jason and Enrique, Jammin’, The Delta Magpies, Bobby Walker and the Roadsters, Chris Corrao, Linda Crider Family and Friends, Malani Towle, Julie Ann Bailey, Until Dawn, Fisher Poet Steve Schoonmaker, Jenny Baker, ke Kukui Foundation, Forward Momentum, and Big Fat Buddha performed on Friday and Saturday nights.
Marita Kleissler, Alyssa’s sister, is this year’s event coordinator, and she said that this is the biggest party she’s ever thrown.
“I’ve been helping with this event for 12 years,” Marita Kleissler said. “My happiest moment at Salmon Jam this year was seeing the generation of dancers.”
Marita isn’t the only one who digs seeing everyone dancing together, regardless of age.
“My favorite part of the festival is the multi-generational dancing that is a part of the highliner acts,” Morse said, “Late night you’ll find elementary, high school and college (kids), adults through retired folks enjoying live music!”
Alaska Salmon Runs
Runners come from all over the country to participate in the Alaska Salmon Runs, an event conceptualized by Cordova Elder and resident Irene Webber, 30 years ago. This year included competitors participating from Vienna, Austria; Shanghai, China; Saint Martin and The Maldives, Carpenter said, plus folks from Cordova and all over Alaska and the United States.
“A lot of people are looking for a fun or unique place to run a race and see it as a way to explore another community,” Carpenter said.
“I don’t think they traveled to Alaska specifically for the Alaska Salmon Runs, but I do think they came to Cordova because they were making a trip to Alaska, and this weekend fit in with their travel plans,” she said, speaking about the folks who attended the races from faraway lands.
“This year we had 256 runners in all events, not quite a record, but a pretty high turn-out for our little town,” Carpenter said.
Ken and Betty Morse are a couple in their 80s who hail from Illinois, and participated in the Alaska Salmon Runs.
“They walked the half-marathon to complete their goal of participating in a marathon in every state, so this was their 50th half-marathon,” Carpenter said.
Cordova’s own Gayle Ranney, 76-years old, also completed the half marathon. Her family and friends couldn’t have been prouder.
“Fred Barnes, Anita Smyke’s 88-year old father, walked the one mile event,” Carpenter said. “Anita told me he was a champion pole-vaulter in the early 1950s, starting out with a bamboo pole and practicing jumping into sawdust pits. He’s very familiar with the track and field world, and was determined to finish the one-mile event this year, which he did in 40 minutes.”
“I love seeing groups of friends, moms with strollers, competitive runners, all come out for a big day of running together,” said Carpenter. “The kids at the start of the one-mile run/walk might have been the most excited to get going, just twitching at the starting line.”
This is what Irene Webber did when she ran the first King Salmon Marathon, alone, in 1986, Carpenter said.
“Her motto “See you on the road!” means just that — as she encourages others to live a healthier life,” she said.
Taste of Cordova
Always considered to be a highlight of the Copper River Wild! Salmon Festival weekend is the Taste of Cordova food competition which took place on Friday evening.
Erica Thompson Clark was the 2016 Taste of Cordova event coordinator.
The culinary competition provides the opportunity for local talent to show off their creative cooking skills, bringing everything from drinks to appetizers, to main dishes, to be taste-tested and rated by a panel of local judges.
Taste of Cordova winners are: Outstanding Locavore category — “Salmon Jammin’ Wild Strawberry and Blueberry Petunia Kombucha,” by Sarah Phillips; Presentation category — “Bourbon Vanilla Custard in Candy-Cap Mushroom Cups, Topped with Middleton Island Rhubarb, Out The Road Nagoon Berries and Wild Blueberries, and Garnished with a Cordova-grown Basil Leaf,” by Toni Bocci; King of Fish category – “Copper River Red Dumplings with Soy Dipping Sauce,” by Caitlin McKinstry; Value-Added category – “Salmon Potato Salad,” by Matt Richardson; and Best in Show – “Jambalaya,” by Kasey Kinsman.
TOC also showcased the, “Inaugural Processor Cooking Demo and Sampling Program” Friday night.
“Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Inc. generously donated several cases of their new Wild Caught Sockeye Salmon Burger Kits, in three flavors; Shiitake Scallion, Cheddar Cheese, and Thai Spice,” Clark said.
“Aileen Allison and her crew from the kitchen of the local Ocean Beauty Seafood plant prepared them, and barbecued and served them for the evening’s TOC event,” she said.
Burning Basket Project
Mavis Muller, of the Burning Basket Project, is an artist who participated in the Copper River Wild! Salmon Festival for the first time. She is promoting her Weaving Watersheds tour.
Her interactive, fractured-heart basket art, titled, “SAFEGUARD of Life & Livelihood,” was installed at the Copper River Wild! Salmon festival Friday. People were invited to write memories, loved-one’s names and positive intentions to the universe on ribbons and birch bark, then tie them to the basket.
“In the matter of a few hours, (the basket), became covered with ribbons of intention and written sentiments,” Muller said. “The woven, fractured heart was symbolically healed to restore and protect the water that connects us as communities, and the wild salmon that sustains. Thanks, every one of all ages, for being part of the art. We’re stronger when we collaborate.”
On Saturday night after 11 p.m., the fractured heart was burned.
“After being decorated with many colored ribbons of intention for the restoration and protection of all water bodies of Alaska and earth, SAFEGUARD – Basket of Life and Livelihood, performed its fiery conclusion at the Salmon Jam Festival of Music and Art,” Muller said.
The Burning Basket Project began in Homer, Alaska in 2004, under the facilitation of artist-naturalist, Mavis Muller.
One Big Party — 2017 will be the 15th Anniversary
Mark your calendars, 2017 will celebrate the Copper River Wild! Salmon Festival’s 15th year. Planning begins now. Morse said it takes approximately 175 volunteer shifts to pull off the big festival weekend.
“We have about 175 shifts that people sign up for,” Morse said. “Some people do multiple shifts. I bet we had about 125 individuals who logged over 400 hours at least – this is a conservative estimate.”