Salmon Jam ditches the ‘big top’

2021 brings back festival traditions, no longer centralized under a tent

The Dan Mac Band performs at the 2019 Copper River Salmon Jam festival. As a precaution against the novel coronavirus, this year’s festival will feature music in the open air. (July 12, 2019) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

After 2020’s Jammin’ SalmONLINE, which traded live music for digital lip-sync battles, 2021 marks a return to tradition. This year’s Copper River Salmon Jam festival will include most of the events attendees expected in pre-pandemic years, with one major difference: instead of being centralized under tents at Ski Hill, activities will be held at different sites around town.

Planning for the July 12-17 event began the preceding September, when novel coronavirus infections were mounting, health guidelines were changing week by week, and vaccines were still months from arriving. During the early stages of planning, it was difficult to anticipate what conditions the festival would be held under, said Lauren Bien, coordinator for the festival and education director for Prince William Sound Science Center.

“We’re all tired of doing virtual events, but unsure how to go back to in-person safely,” Bien said, reflecting on the planning process. “Of course, everybody has a different risk assessment. What one person might think is totally OK, another person might be really uncomfortable with. So, there was a lot of back-and-forth, changing plans.”

Some older organizers, being among the first Cordovans vaccinated, were most enthusiastic about bringing back in-person activities, said Kate Morse, program director for the Copper River Watershed Project.

The decision to disperse activities around town, and to do away with semi-enclosed spaces like the large tent used for musical performances, was undertaken primarily for coronavirus safety. However, the decision has also allowed the festival greater flexibility with some of its events, Bien said. Children’s “Small Fry” educational activities, no longer confined to Ski Hill, will take place in environments like the native plant garden adjacent to Cordova Community Medical Center. Fish printing, in which participants create art using paint-covered fish and other sea organisms, will be held near Cordova Harbor, bringing participants closer to harbor wildlife, Bien said.

On July 16-17, Salmon Jam will pursue a “concert in the park” model, where attendees, seated on picnic blankets rather than chairs, will experience the music of groups like Keys on Fire, Red-bearded Mountain Goat and Lateral Lines in the open air. Morse said she was interested to see how Ski Hill’s natural amphitheatre stacks up against the music tent.

In 2020, Salmon Jam’s traditional dumpster painting activity was decentralized, moving from Ski Hill to sites scattered around town. As a result, dumpster artists were able to catch the eye of passersby who might not have ventured to Ski Hill for the event, Morse said.

“It generates the opportunity for everyone to be involved,” Morse said. “The opportunity to engage more people, different people, creates an opportunity to spread the word.”

Spreading events around town did not significantly impact the cost of the festival, organizers said. However, removing Salmon Jam from under a tent puts it at the mercy of Cordova’s sometimes temperamental weather. Activities will relocate to Cordova Jr./Sr. High School if weather becomes too hostile, festival organizers said.

Aside from decentralizing, Salmon Jam’s biggest change this year is the cancellation of its traditional beer garden. The beer garden, in which patrons buy tokens exchangeable for beer or wine, brings in more money than ticket sales, and is a major source of revenue for Cordova Arts and Pageants. However, the beer garden also requires many volunteers to staff, and the space must be set up with clear boundaries so as to comply with liquor licensing laws. Requirements restricting the movement of drinking customers would make an “open-air” Salmon Jam beer garden impractical. During past years, some Salmon Jam organizers have also pushed to do away with the beer garden in order to make the festival more family friendly.

Nonetheless, the beer garden has been a consistently popular attraction during past years. A few potential festivalgoers have already declared that they won’t attend if there’s no beer garden, Bien said.

“It’s the best decision for this year, for a myriad of reasons,” Morse said. “Let’s see what it’s like.”

It remains to be seen which recent changes will be retained for future festivals. Morse said she particularly enjoyed a few of the online features introduced during 2020’s Jammin’ SalmONLINE, such as the photo contest organized by Orca Adventure Lodge, and the lip-syncing contest, which proved popular on YouTube.

Other events planned for this year’s festival include Alaska Salmon Runs footraces and an art workshop at the Net Loft crafting store. Handicrafts and other products for sale will include jewelry by Little Glass Garden, pottery by Heidi Morel, jams and jellies by Sara Tiedeman, macrame products by Sonya Hagmuller and flashy hair ornamentations by Sparkle Sisters. Food vendors will include Paoola Vargas, operating out of the Ski Hill snack shack, as well as the newly established food truck Witch Kitchen, which will serve up potato-jalapeño chowder, garlic butter smash burgers, salmon tartare and other dishes with the help of guest chef Michael Thiemann.

“All the elements of Salmon Jam as we know it are there in some way,” Bien said. “Yes, Salmon Jam may not be the giant festival that everyone knows and loves, but I’m hoping it’s still going to be a really amazing event and, I think, a good break for everyone in the community to come together and celebrate safely.”

Salmon Jam is organized by CRWP, PWSSC, Cordova Arts and Pageants, the Cordova Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Forest Service, Cordova District Fishermen United, Alaska Salmon Runs, the city of Cordova, and the Mt. Eyak Ski Area.