Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 7:50 PM on Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Karen Berger & Steve Mccasland: elders of Homer Mardi Gras

Kachemak Color

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer


Photo by Michael Armstrong

Photo by Michael Armstrong, Homer News Karen Berger, left, and Steve McCasland pose with Buddy the bear.

For the past 15 years parading down Pioneer Avenue for Homer Winter Carnival have been a gang of celebrants dressed in purple, green and gold, the traditional colors of a New Orleans Mardi Gras. While many towns in Alaska celebrate winter carnivals, Homer might be the northernmost city in America with a Mardi Gras Krewe, the Krewe of Gambrinus Social Aid and Pleasure Club. The founders of Mardi Gras, Homer style, are a couple who grew up in Texas, Steve McCasland and Karen Berger, owners of the Homer Brewing Co.

"There isn't any place that does it like they do down here," Berger said of other Alaska carnivals.

While they take credit for getting it going, it's more than them.

"We are just the elders of the group," Berger said. "It is its own force. It grew up and took on a life of its own."

Mardi Gras groups in Homer date back at least to 1993 when New Orleans native Bob Folse and Brother Asaiah led a band known as the Paradoxical Love Warriors in the Winter Carnival parade. Their own tradition started with "a mess o' crawfish" in 1995, when McCasland and Berger managed and lived at the Ocean Shores Motel. They ordered crawfish from Breaux Bridge, La., and commenced to shucking mud bugs. McCasland hauled out a box of beads he'd collected from New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations as a young adult and gave them out.

It turned out McCasland had carried those beads all the way from Kilgore, in eastern Texas, where he grew up, to Dallas, Seattle and Alaska. Berger also grew up in Texas, in Sherman in north central Texas. McCasland had kin in northern Louisiana.

"When I got in trouble in Texas, I went to Louisiana," McCasland put it.

Berger's dad was a traveling Bible salesman who never seemed to be around on her birthday — that would be Friday, Feb. 25 — during Mardi Gras season. It took her a while to figure out her dad happened to be in New Orleans then.

McCasland and Berger met at a hotel in Dallas where they both worked. Berger hadn't really planned on falling in love, but one thing led to another, particularly after Berger went to Seattle with McCasland for his sister's wedding. Berger had been planning on getting out of the Big D — she just didn't know where that would be. When she saw Seattle, she knew that was her way out of Dallas.

"Do you mind if I go with you?" McCasland said he asked Berger when she said she was moving north.

Berger had a 20-foot sailboat on a trailer.

"We loaded it up with Mardi Gras beads, National Geographics and all our worldly possessions," Berger said.

They stayed four years in Seattle, marrying Feb. 23, 1991, and then in October 1992 decided to come to Alaska.

"It wasn't a really good idea," Berger said. "It was a really bad idea until we got to Homer."

Like many newcomers, all it took was driving around the corner on the Sterling Highway and seeing the view from Baycrest Hill.

"We went, oh my God, this is it," Berger said.

In 1993, the couple started working at the Ocean Shores Motel. When new owner Michael Warburton bought it, they were jobless and homeless. That's when they started the Homer Brewery, first at a rented Ocean Drive spot and now in their own building on Lakeshore Drive. They also worked other jobs. Berger was the classified queen at the Homer News and McCasland washed dishes at Café Cups.

The carnival season runs from Jan. 6, Epiphany, to Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. Since Lent falls 46 days before Easter, and Easter is the Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox, carnival varies in length. The local carnival starts off an Epiphany party with red beans and rice at the brewery. It ends with the Mardi Gras party, when a King Cake is served. Tradition is that whoever finds a king statue in the cake throws the next year's Mardi Gras party.

In 1997, Homer's Mardi Gras celebrants built the first float for Winter Carnival, then run under the Homer Brewery banner. In 2002, they finally found a name, the Krewe of Gambrinus, after the patron saint of beer and brewers. Tired of winning the little prize for best for-profit float as the brewery, the Krewe of Gambrinus entered as a nonprofit by donating its winnings to a charity and shooting for a $400 prize. The ploy worked; yet again the Krewe won and this year gave the prize to the Friends of the Homer Library.

In 2007, the Krewe became the Bossy Pants band and the Bossy Panties drill team, led by Jen King, Jane Beck and others. Buddy, the Homer Brewery stuffed bear, dresses up in his Mardi Gras finest and joins the parade.

The Krewe's carnival season now includes Mardi Bowling, when it rents the Kachemak Bowl and people come in costume, rehearsals and a craft night. Moving away from cheap plastic beads made in China, the Krewe is going all organic. This year at craft night they strung colored wooden beads from South Africa.

Unlike New Orleans Krewes, the Krewe of Gambrinus is less exclusive.

"You don't get invited, but you're always welcome," Berger said.

The Krewe has grown to about 75 people now. On Sunday 45 of them went over on the M/V Tustumena to Seldovia for a short Bossy Pants parade downtown. This weekend Ray-Jen Cajun — Ray Garrity and Jen King's band — goes to Juneau with some of the Krewe.

"I'm exhausted," Berger said of the carnival season. "It's silly fun, community spirit."

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. armstrong@homernews.com.