Festival celebrates salmon through music and art

Musical headliner Big Fat Buddha, the Alaska Salmon Runs, Small Fry Activities and a myriad of other attractions brought in the crowds for the 2018 Copper River Salmon Jam in Cordova July 13-14.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen kids doing hula hooping on the side of a mountain when it was pouring rain and fighting with Duct tape swords,” said Jeff Espy, a Georgia resident who came to Cordova with his family for the Alaska Salmon Runs. “(It’s just a) different lifestyle,” he added in admiration.

Espy and his family enjoyed two nights of Salmon Jam festivities, plus exploring out the road and Sheridan Glacier, thanks to locals who offered guidance and company.

“People who support this festival are also creating an opportunity for free education activities for kids,” said Cathy Renfeldt, executive director of Cordova Alaska Chamber of Commerce.

Small Fry activities, from fish printing and a salmon filleting demonstration to fish science activities, were free of charge, thanks to the 75 “Spawnsors” from around the state and local community.

“(It) really shows that people are really digging deep to make this happen,” Renfeldt said, acknowledging that the slow start to the fishing season can impact donations and sponsorships. “We try to be really aware of limitations of our sponsors and supporters.”

Festival-goers had the opportunity to learn about sustainable Alaskan fisheries, salmon ecology, and the importance of salmon in the community through hands-on activities and displays.

Salmon Jam is also the annual fundraiser for the Cordova Arts Council, making possible performances by artists from around the globe this past winter in Cordova, including the Irish trio, Socks in the Frying Pan, and the Quebe Sisters.

This year’s Salmon Jam headliner was Anchorage’s Big Fat Buddha, with musicians Matt Brenna, Brad Fidel, Matt “Slodo” Slodowy and Jeff Arms.

Dogtooth & Nail’s Kelly Chudler and Michael Conway, from Oregon, played before Big Fat Buddha, energizing the crowd with politically-driven folk music.

Salmon Jam was the first festival to hire Conway and Chudler after they found it online and applied to perform.

“We planned the whole (two month) tour around this show,” Conway said. “That kinda set our Alaska goal.”

The pair drove up to Alaska from Oregon and played throughout the state prior to Salmon Jam.

“With our lyrics, we’re often talking about personal stories and experiences or groups that we’re in solidarity with,” Chudler said. “With that, we feel our lyrics can be a spark for inspiration or action,” she said.

The last song Dogtooth & Nail played on Friday, Blood Thicker Than Oil, was based on an experience Chudler and Conway had at Standing Rock Indian Reservation during the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance movement, where they stood in solidarity with the indigenous people.

The duo used this tour to learn more about indigenous communities in Canada and Alaska, plus local political movements and issues such as climate change said Chudler.

“Here, we can relate it (to) Stand for Salmon,” Chudler said.

Stand for Salmon is a diverse group of Alaskans who collected enough signatures of registered voters to put an initiative on the November ballot that would update Alaska’s 61-year-old fish habitat permitting law.

While profits and expenses are still being calculated, Renfeldt believes more money was raised this year than last year to provide a source of economic development for the community.

“It’s interesting, it’s mostly non-profits that are all coming together … anything that happens in Cordova … it is by far the most collaborative,” she said.

The 125 volunteers and the Salmon Jam planning committee, by Renfeldt’s estimate, worked more than 10,000 hours on the festival since January.

Partners for the 2018 Copper River Salmon Jam included: Alaska Salmon Runs, Copper River Watershed Project, Cordova Arts & Pageants, Cordova Chamber of Commerce, Cordova District Fishermen United, The Cordova Times, City of Cordova, Mt. Eyak Ski Hill, Prince William Sound Science Center, and the U.S. Forest Service, Cordova Ranger District.

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Emily Mesner is a staff reporter and photographer for The Cordova Times. Reach her at emesner@thecordovatimes.com. Emily graduated from Central Michigan University, earning a degree in photojournalism with a cultural competency certificate. She first visited Alaska in 2016, working as a media intern for the National Park Service in Kotzebue and Denali National Park and Preserve, and has been coming back ever since. To see more photos, follow @thecordovatimes and @emilymesnerphoto on Instagram.