The first two families that landed on Ninilchik’s shores in the mid-1800s could never have imagined a gathering like last weekend’s Salmonstock. However, when it comes to supporting future runs of Alaska salmon, a long-time staple of Ninilchik diets, they undoubtedly would have joined the crowd of 5,000 immersed in three days of “fish, fun and music” presented by Renewable Resources Foundation.
Booked as a “celebration of fish and music, and the people who depend harmoniously upon them,” the festival also is “about the power we have in protecting our resources and our livelihoods,” according to the foundation.
The festival has a decidedly “protect Bristol Bay” atmosphere, with more than a few anti-Pebble sentiments expressed.
How does that relate to live music, dancing, eating, laughing and camping?
It inspires, educates and brings people together in a positive light, said Anders Gustafson, the foundation’s executive director. “A lot of political battles go on for a long time. It’s taxing for people to maintain their momentum. This is just one of those things we can do to bring people together and create a community around salmon. And we try to put on a good show.”
Responsible for providing the music, Jim Stearns of Homer gave it his all to create a good show. Beginning in the 1980s, Stearns’ company provided catering and hospitality services for the Grateful Dead and other big-name bands in the rock world.
“(RRF) had been trying to put on a big festival for awhile and they caught wind I was someone who knew how to do it,” said Stearns of Homer.
Two years ago, Stearns pulled in a few favors to get bands to play at the first Salmonstock.
“It’s very difficult when you’re starting something new, especially in a weird location. Bands’ agents are wary,” said Stearns. “But I was able to immediately get two or three bands I’d worked with and that set a foundation for the first year.”
Stearns was committed to make Salmonstock a success.
“You have to make that statement. It’s kind of a subtle vibe you put out, that you’re serious about this, not hedging your bet, going all in,” he said.
His approach has paid off. More than 50 bands signed up this year to play on Salmonstock’s three stages. Careful choreography kept the air filled with music and the crowd dancing. Marty Dread adapted his reggae lyrics to fit the Alaska setting. Representing “Musicians United to Protect Bristol Bay,” North Carolina recording artist Si Kahn sang from his CD, “Bristol Bay,” which was written at the request of Bristol Bay fishermen. Headliner Brandi Carlile told the Saturday night crowd about her father’s dream to catch an Alaska salmon.
“It’s one of the best shows we’ve ever done, without question,” said Stearns. “It’s certainly in the top five of any I’ve ever been the leader of.”
Feedback from musicians confirmed Stearns’ observations.
“Brandi Carlile called us up and they play hundreds of shows a year and have for many years and she said it was one of the top five events she’s ever played,” said Stearns. “There’s a symbiosis that happens with the crowd and the acts that takes things to a whole different level. That’s what she said. It was the overall vibe of the event.”
As he has in the past, Michael McGuire of K-Bay Caffee towed his not-so-easily-moved mobile coffee stand from East End Road to Ninilchik to serve coffee during the festival. The effort was worth it, said McGuire.
“It was so awesome to be part of Salmonstock and be a part of the cause and saving our salmon and protecting our water and loving each other, loving being in Alaska,” said McGuire. “That was the spirit. It was a giant love fest. Everybody who attended seemed to be on the same page.”
Michael and Martha Murray of Homer had a booth with some of Michael’s artwork and some of Martha’s sewing and jewelry.
“We both are in favor of protecting the resources,” said Michael Murray. ”I’ve been a deckhand and done a little commercial fishing and my wife grew up in Tununak, a subsistence community, and lived a subsistence lifestyle until she left there. It’s really important to us that those resources remain.”
Dan Haesche of Colorado said coming to Alaska had been a lifelong dream. Natalie Low of Soldotna said she was at Salmonstock to see friends and enjoy the music.
Mike Schuster of Ninilchik said he was there in support of Bristol Bay, in opposition to the Pebble mine and, with a laugh, added that he was there to see more women than he’d see until the next Salmonstock.
Working in Seward for the summer, Colorado resident Kayla Premack spent Saturday afternoon enjoying the music of Colorado band Head For the Hills. Olivia Zimmerman of New York was in Alaska for the summer to do an internship on renewable energy and heard about Salmonstock soon after arriving in the state. When asked if it measured up to what she’d heard, Zimmerman said, “So far, this is great.”
Artist Apayo Moore of Dillingham displayed her art with a salmon focus and T-shirts with eight gold salmon representing the eight stars of the Alaska flag. It was her first time to participate in Salmonstock, but not her last, she said.
Sally Powell, a potter who divides her time between Chugiak in the winter and Ninilchik in the summer, pointed to her salmon designs, the nearby stage and the performing musicians and said, “This is my passion. I love this.”
Proceeds from the festival, when there are some, will go to Renewable Resources Foundation.
“There’s a lot that goes back into making a festival happen,” said Gustafson. “We’ve yet to make money, but are hoping this year we make it profitable.”
The success of Salmonstock isn’t measured in dollars and cents, however.
“Are people fired up? Are we seeing people out doing things, being recharged? Are we seeing people leaving the organization or coming toward it?” said Gustafson. “Our’s grows every time we do this. We have new, more members. We keep marching on.”
“I’ve always had a little special part in my heart for it,” said Gustafson for the small community originally established as a settlement for Russian American Company pensioners who were expected to develop an independent, subsistence lifestyle. “As it relates to Pebble, Ninilchik is uniquely situated. It’s the closest venue on the road system that looks straight across at Iliamna and Bristol Bay. You can’t throw a festival in the bush, but Ninilchik is still within striking distance.”
Speaking with a voice hoarse from the weekend, Gustafson added his thanks to more than 200 volunteers who helped make Salmonstock a success, to “sponsorships and people who have believed in us over the years. I’m incredibly grateful for all the help and support. And to Ninilchik for letting us come to their town. I hope we left the peninsula a brighter place.”
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at email@example.com.