Salmonfest isn’t about the fish.
Sure, the anadromous fish is ubiquitous throughout the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik, where the three-day festival, which started Friday afternoon, draws in visitors and performers from all over the country and world. The salmon’s tasty, omega-3-laden meat can be found on nearly every food vendor’s menu — vendors who make their journey from across Alaska to dish up plates all weekend long. A salmon’s depiction can be found on almost every available surface, from the stages to the Salmonfest shirts being proudly worn by festivalgoers, some of the threads dating back to the first festival seven years ago, then known as Salmonstock.
Yes, Salmonfest has a lot of fish, but among the crowds of the festival it becomes evident that salmon is the theme, while the festival is really about coming together and celebrating, young and old, Alaskan or otherwise.
Starting Friday and running until Sunday night, Salmonfest swells the small village of Ninilchik with over 8,000 attendees, many of whom spend the weekend camping, in essence building a community around the festival.
“I’m from here, Alaska, but I keep coming back because of the people,” Bennie Olanna of Ninilchik said. “I’ve come to every Salmonfest. All the different people each year bring change, they bring everything good.”
This year’s Salmonfest brought together a wide array of people. Young children could be spotted chasing bubbles through open spaces, before the grass in front of the stages filled with people of all ages dancing or sitting during the musical acts.
Stephen Katz traveled all the way from Brooklyn to attend this year’s festival with his wife.
“The festival has been great,” Katz said. “We’ve been to a few back east, but we didn’t know exactly what to expect. It’s relaxed, laid-back. There is a great variety of music and the people are so nice, everywhere in Alaska, they are all so nice.”
Among the must-see acts on Katz’s list were fellow Brooklynites, Pimps of Joytime, who closed out the Ocean Stage on Friday night. The soul and funk band weren’t the only traveling band of the weekend. The musical duo Rio Samaya made the trip from Argentina. Singer-songwriter Foy Vance originally hails from Bangor in Northern Ireland.
Days N Daze, who will close out the River Stage at 8:15 p.m. Sunday night, made the trip from Houston, Texas, for their first Alaska tour.
“This is our first time touring up here and it’s been great so far,” Whitney Flynn, vocalist, trumpet and ukulele player for Days N Daze said. “We love it, everyone’s been great.”
Away from the stages, a row of educational booths reminds attendees of the festival’s theme with petitions, mailing lists and trivia questions all environmental- or salmon-themed. What are the five types of salmon? Two attendees from Los Angeles fumbled over the answer (king, sockeye, coho, pink and chum), but were still rewarded with trying and left with salmon stickers and some newfound knowledge.
Lotus Edgar, of Homer, spent her Friday manning a station covered in fabric, markers and string.
“We’re making prayer flags for salmon,” Edgar said. “We hang them up in the wind, so the prayers go to the river.”
Above her, rows and rows of flags, marked in drawings of salmon or sentiments about the fish, waved in the wind. She said she had enjoyed volunteering that day, but was looking forward to exploring the festival grounds later.
“I’m out here for the people and the music,” Edgar said. “Just to get away from it all.”
Edgar said her prayer flag just said “be wild, be free.”