Salmonfest 2021 Proves a Pandemic Survivor

Volunteers carry the festival’s giant Chinook salmon through the main amphitheater of Salmonfest on Saturday, Aug. 7, at Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds.

In the midst of a pandemic showing no sign of retreat, some 7,000 people gathered at Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik the first weekend in August to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Salmonfest, the three-day music festival supporting salmon related causes.

The family-oriented festivities, with over 60 bands on four stages, featured a new main amphitheater with twice the space of the old one, to allow all those who wanted to space for social distancing while listening to top musicians, ranging from Greensky Bluegrass, Sarah Jarosz and The High Hawks to Con Brio and the Lowdown Brass Band.

Along with vendors hawking art, jewelry, clothing, pottery and an eclectic array of food, Salmonfest 2021 featured the Salmon Causeway, where guests could learn from various conservation entities more about the importance of healthy fish habitat and related environmental issues, and how to help support them.

In that same environmental spirit, prominent, as always, were signs in opposition to the proposed Pebble copper, gold and molybdenum mine, which a Canadian company seeks to build and operate abutting the Bristol Bay watershed, home of the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. In 2021 alone, harvesters delivered to processors over 40 million fish.

Proponents of the mine contend that it can be built and operated in harmony with the fish, but opponents say the mine would adversely impact salmon habitat.

Salmonfest also strived to be a zero waste event, with containers throughout the festival for guests to deposit plastic and aluminum discards, to become resources for further use.

Executive director Jim Stearns, a music industry veteran, had promised the event this year would meet or exceed all Centers for Disease Control Guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus, and the Delta variant in particular.

The parade of salmon works its way up the hillside of the new Salmonfest amphitheater while the bands play on. Photo by Margaret Bauman.

In addition to providing more space for the overall event, Stearns chose to limit ticket sales to 80% of the usual number, so that the overall crowd of ticket holders, staff, volunteers, musicians and vendors came to about 7,000 participants, instead of the normal 8,500 to 10,000 people.

“What truly kept us going was the joy on your faces, the power emanating from the stages and all the art, smiles, dancing and pure bliss of joining together once again in celebration of our extended festival family, community and, of course fish, love and music,” organizers said in a social media message posted on Facebook in the aftermath of the Aug. 6-8 event. It was, they said, “a magical and memorable weekend indeed.”

The biggest challenge this year, said David Stearns, Jim Stearns son, was the psychological stress of the unknowns, of putting Salmonfest together during a pandemic and keeping participants safe, plus building a new amphitheater and opening an RV site and camping spots on an adjacent 40-acre site. The 500 available spots sold out quickly, and more are expected to be available next year.

While preparations for each Salmonfest begins at least a year in advance, this year was also more challenging because the site of the new amphitheater and all the campgrounds had to be carved quickly from wooded acreage where in the past moose and bears wandered, with bald eagles flying overhead.

The Lowdown Brass Band, one of some 60 musical acts performing at Salmonfest 2021, entertains the crowd at the festival’s new amphitheater. Photo by Margaret Bauman.

Yet in less than two months in advance of the festivities, Stearns and his staff, volunteers and contractors managed to clear the area, create a grass lined amphitheater, built steps into the hillside, with railings made from timber cleared from the area, plus picnic tables and other benches for guests to sit down and enjoy the music. There was also space to accommodate a beer garden, a gourmet seafood chowder stand and a mosh pit in front of the main stage.  Hammocks at the top of the amphitheater guests to relax and enjoy the music.

The Boston seafood chowder, served up with fresh rolls, plus orange pecan brownies, peanut butter cookies and salmon bowls, were the work of chef Andrea Mollenauer of Santa Cruz, Calif., a critical member of the Salmonfest crew who also feeds all the musicians, staff and volunteers.

Meanwhile the bands played on four stages for hours each day in celebration of wild salmon.