Iceworm Festival flourishes despite big freeze

Bill Howard named Citizen of the Year; CHS senior Ria Smyke crowned Miss Iceworm

The Iceworm marches down First Street. (Feb. 1, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

The ice worm spends its life burrowing through glaciers, something this year’s Iceworm Festival participants may relate to. Snows that buried vehicles, threatened the Copper River Highway with avalanches and halted air travel made a complex event even more challenging for organizers to pull off.

A Jan. 31 ceremony announcing Cordova’s designation as a Coast Guard City was canceled, as VIPs from the Coast Guard, the Alaska Legislature and the Governor’s Office found themselves snowed in.

“To try to hit that bullseye again, I don’t know if it’s possible,” said Lt. Cmdr. Collin Bronson. “Our big chance was thwarted by the weather, but all good Alaskans are aware that’s how it goes.”

The Coast Guard plans to recognize Cordova’s designation as a Coast Guard City with a media event, Bronson said. A sign and plaque are also planned to be installed at the Cordova Center.

While overall snowfall this winter has not been especially high, that snowfall has arrived over a shorter period than typical, said Ken Jones, owner and operator of Cordovan Snow Removal LLC. The mild winters of recent years may also have made this year’s weather seem more severe than it is, he said.

But, like its namesake, Iceworm Festival crawled along undaunted. The festival opened Jan. 30 with educational exhibits by the U.S. Forest Service and with the Bidarki Iceworm Classic Basketball game held at Mt. Eccles Elementary School. Cordova Historical Museum hosted a photography competition, as well as a display of vintage festival merchandise stretching back to the ’80s.

The festival’s most ceremonious night arrived Jan. 31, with the Iceworm Variety Show. Performances included a rendition of Lenka Kripac’s “The Show” by Mt. Eccles Elementary School student Everleigh Mills, a sign language rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a piano duet by Thomas and Isabelle Nothstine and a performance of ABBA’s “Mamma Mia!” by members of the Stage of the Tide theatre group. The event was emceed by Mt. Eccles Principal Gayle Groff, who portrayed ’60s media personality Sonny Bono, and by Cordova Community Foundation board member Rob Eckley, who appeared in character as an expansive-minded hippie.

The variety show also served as an opportunity to recognize Cordova’s most accomplished citizens. Scouting leader Bill Howard was awarded Cordova Citizen of the Year, and the Cordova Community Foundation presented grants for the Mt. Eccles swimming program and for Cordova Jr./Sr. High School’s participation in the “Close Up Washington, DC” civics program. Cordova’s most hirsute residents were also recognized in the Iceworm Beard Contest.

Cordova Jr./Sr. High School senior Ria Smyke was selected as Miss Iceworm, receiving a $2,500 scholarship that she plans to put toward university expenses. Miss Iceworm candidates are nominated by high school faculty for their good character; industriousness, scholastic and community achievement, creativity, and motivation, according to Iceworm Festival guidelines. This year’s candidates were unusually strongly qualified, said Smyke, who had also competed in previous years.

Saturday, Feb. 1, the final day of Iceworm Festival, was cold but clear. The morning began with a group prayer at the Fishermen’s Memorial, led by clergy from different organizations. Nearby, preparations began for the Iceworm Survival Suit Races. While previous years’ races have included as many as 12 teams, this year drew just five. Team “No Name”, originally planned to open the race, cancelled, possibly due to the unavailability of air transportation to Cordova, said Survival Suit Races lead organizer Dana Smyke.

After a month’s preparation, Smyke was pleased that the races ran smoothly and avoided any safety mishaps. The event gave residents a valuable opportunity to familiarize themselves with their survival suits, Smyke said.

“I hope people had fun and it wasn’t too intimidating for them, and they got hands-on practice,” Smyke said. “If, God forbid, the day should ever come that they need to put it to use, they’ve done it before and they may feel comfortable doing it.”

As usual, the toughest part of the races was keeping the damp and freezing participants around long enough to receive their prizes, Smyke said. This year’s prizes included practical goods like travel mugs, insulated gloves, belts from Copper River Fleece and cans of Trident Seafoods salmon.

Weather remained fine for the Iceworm Parade, which included a variety of 1960s-themed displays, such as an elaborate float by Children’s Pallas modeled after the Mystery Machine van from “Scooby-Doo.” The following evening remained clear for the traditional Iceworm Fireworks Extravaganza, an event facilitated by Lantis Fireworks and Lasers and community volunteers.

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