Always a music fan, never a music festivalgoer. That’s been my M.O. since I was old enough to attend.
Call me crazy, but the prospect of paying an arm and a leg to camp out in a muddy field for three days with limited access to clean bathrooms, all to get jostled around by hundreds or thousands of other people trying to get the same obscured view of the stage as you, has never appealed to me. The fact that I’m 5-foot-1 and need a pair of shoulders to perch on to ever get a good view of a band probably has something to do with it.
When the lot of covering the annual Salmonfest in Ninilchik fell to me last year, I can’t confess excitement.
To be completely honest, growing up in rural northern Michigan did not provide me many opportunities to become familiar with music festivals or the culture surrounding them. The few I have experienced have been on a small scale, and so unique to the communities they were in that I had nothing with which to compare them.
So naturally for the past two years my question has been: What makes Salmonfest so special? What makes this gathering of music lovers any different or more worth jostling in front of the stage with than any other?
Walking through the gates into Salmonfest for the first time last year as a relative festival newbie, I wasn’t sure what I was about to immerse myself in. Part of me expected a sea of girls in cutoff shorts and flower crowns, glued to their phones, while another part expected a gathering of Alaska’s oldest and most bearded residents somberly handing out flyers on salmon advocacy.
Luckily, neither of those scenarios came true. I found myself not knowing where to look first. At this point, I’d like to take a moment to pay homage to the festival food, which deserves its own mention based on sheer variety, not to mention its quality.
After I managed to contain my excitement over what is quite possibly the best grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever tasted, I was able to look around and see just what I had been missing about festivals all this time. The musicians are friendly, keeping up a running conversation with the crowd as they go from set to set. At Salmonfest they come from our backyards and from all over the country.
The vendors know each other, a few of them having hawked their wares at Salmonfest since it began in 2011, formerly Salmonstock.
The musical acts continue to evolve, blending the bread and butter of bluegrass and country with contemporary styles and even performance art. Watching a fire dancer juggle flames mere feet from my face to the tempo set up by drums and a violin had to be the highlight of this year’s festival for me.
And while the “salmon causeway” has its own space in the festival, its advocates and educators are just as friendly as everyone else. They don’t seek to draw attention away from the bands everyone has flocked to see, but rather to use the infectious heightened buzz of emotions surrounding the festival to incite people to care about the event’s namesake.
Salmonfest has proved to be an eclectic mix of music lovers from far and wide and concerned advocates trying to harness the power of a music festival to direct attention to their causes. As one organizer put it to me this year, music festivals bring with them a lot of love, emotion and camaraderie — it only makes sense that some would seize the opportunity to spread some of that love around to the salmon.
For me, this is what makes Salmonfest such a unique and down-to-earth experience. In one corner you have protesters raising awareness about mines, fracking and other threats posed to one of Alaska’s most beloved resources — in another, a guy dressed in a sleeping bag with holes cut in it gets his face painted before rushing off to the next act.
Salmonfest isn’t a three-day, free-for-all lovefest and it’s not a soapbox for fish. It uses the energy drummed up through music lovers coming together and channels it toward goals of conservation and environmental mindfulness.
As long as the festival can retain that balance, I think it’s safe to say it’ll have a loyal returning customer in me.
Maybe next year I’ll even swap my camera lens for a flower crown. Crazier things have happened.
Reach Megan Pacer at email@example.com.