Salmon Jam organizers look ahead to 2022

Copper River Salmon Jam festival grounds at Mt. Eyak Ski Hill. (July 18, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

The 2021 Copper River Salmon Jam festival was a little different, with music performances held in the open air rather than enclosed under a tent. Some of those changes may persist into 2022 and beyond, organizers said.

Other changes included the cancellation of the traditional beer garden, where patrons buy tokens for beer or wine. In past years, the beer garden raised more money than ticket sales, and has been a major source of revenue for Cordova Arts and Pageants. However, holding an open-air beer garden in compliance with liquor licensing laws would have been impractical, organizers said. If the beer garden returns in the future, it will no longer be held in a tented area next to the concert stage, they said.

“There’s a lot of things that were good to be forced to try so that we could see their effectiveness,” said Kate Morse, program director for the Copper River Watershed Project. “Even if we bring the beer garden back, never will we have the audience under the tent with the band, because being able to project the music into the natural amphitheatre of the Ski Hill was the best sound we’ve ever had.”

Held July 12-17, this year’s Salmon Jam took place during a COVID-19 outbreak that pushed Cordova’s active case count to 43 and prompted Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Alaska, and Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer to cancel planned visits.

Throughout the planning process, festival organizers monitored case counts and kept in regular communication with Cordova Community Medical Center medical director Dr. Hannah Sanders, Morse said. Many of this year’s changes were made in an attempt to reduce virus transmission, such as the decision to hold children’s “Small Fry” educational activities in different locations around town and on different days. If Salmon Jam were staged again under similar circumstances, Small Fry events would still be held in different locations, but might be held at one time rather than being staggered throughout the week, Morse said. This could make it more convenient for parents to schedule bringing their kids to multiple events, she said.

From front, Rick Bray, Will Brown and Jason Pallas perform at Mt. Eyak Ski Hill. (July 18, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

The festival’s concert event, held on July 16-17 near Cordova’s Ski Hill, enjoyed mainly clear weather. Initially, organizers planned to use the Cordova Jr./Sr. High School gymnasium as a backup venue in case of hostile weather. However, as virus transmission increased, organizers decided that the event would have to be canceled altogether if weather didn’t permit holding it outside.

“We weren’t going to be responsible for convening any large groups inside,” Morse said.

Morse remained stubbornly optimistic that clear weather would hold during the event.

“I just believed,” Morse said. “There were so many people that were volunteering their time, that poured so much energy into this, that I just believed that the Universe was not going to take that away.”

Fewer children attended the concerts than in past years, which Morse attributed to the virus outbreak. However, the presence of more children might have given reason for worry about virus transmission, she said. Overall, the concerts drew between 125-140 attendees, with more people attending on July 17 than July 16, organizers said. Though this represented a drop from pre-pandemic years, the event was better attended than many in-person events held during the pandemic. This shows that a cautiously planned Salmon Jam festival can still draw audiences and raise enough money to cover its costs, organizers said.

“It was really neat to be on the hill, and think, ‘If we were not in this case spike, what would the attendance be here?’” said Lauren Bien, coordinator for the festival and education director for Prince William Sound Science Center.

Given that COVID-19 transmission in Alaska has increased since last year, it seems likely that next year’s Salmon Jam will also be conservatively planned for public health reasons, Morse said.

Customers at the Copper River Salmon Jam market peruse festival merchandise. (July 18, 2021) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Despite relatively high attendance, the concert events were apparently not linked to any cases of COVID-19 transmission, and were not followed by an increase in reported cases. Organizers hope that this success will help draw more people next year, they said.

“There was a lot of speculation and there were comments being thrown all over the place about, ‘Why do they still get to have their party?’” Bien said. “I just wish people could have understood that it wasn’t just everyone shoved under a tent… Hopefully the success of this year encourages people to come out, even if we are in the midst of a spike.”

Despite these successes, this year’s festival underperformed as a fundraiser. The event did not lose money, but did not raise significant funds either, Morse said. Morse attributed this shortfall to the effects of the pandemic.

“At the end of the day, it is a fundraiser,” Bien said.