For a 29th consecutive year, the annual Kenai River Festival is expected to bring the fun in the sun — or rain — at Soldotna Creek Park.
Hosted by the Kenai Watershed Forum, the festival runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday, beginning tonight from 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday the festival will run 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday it will run 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The festival dates back to 1991 and has been growing and attracting bigger crowds each year. Perhaps the most remarkable growth is that of its venue, Soldotna Creek Park.
Watershed Forum Executive Director Branden Bornemann is helping to organize the event for the ninth time, and remembers a time when the thought of using the park as an event venue was crazy talk. The area was formerly listed as a DOT contaminated site, a far cry from the present scene of children laughing, dogs playing and music ringing through the park.
“It’s kind of unbelievable, honestly,” Bornemann said. “When I started (helping to organize) the festival, we were backing trucks up to make the stage, and now we have a stage capable of holding musicians and music.”
After bouncing between Kenai and Soldotna in its early years, the festival eventually found a permanent residence in Soldotna sometime in the mid-2000s, Bornemann said.
Bornemann estimates that 8,000 to 10,000 people came through last year, and credited the city of Soldotna and Sen. Peter Micciche for helping bring about the turnaround of the park, cleaning it up and constructing the space that locals now enjoy.
“They had the vision to see the site, right on the Kenai river, this gem of the city, and thought, ‘Let’s make the investment’,” Bornemann said. “I think they’re seeing the fruits of their labor.”
In talking with former organizers and volunteers from the earliest days of the festival, Bornemann said it is clear that what has kept the event in the eye of the central peninsula for 29 years is the mix of fun and education. Music, food and beer are the main draws — with education and the fishing industry on the Kenai River taking center stage.
“Our mission is to celebrate the Kenai River and what it gives our community,” he said. “That has stayed through since its origins to this point.”
Between fish-painting, salmon dissections and more than 40 artisan vendor booths that feature artwork celebrating the river, there is no shortage of creativity and spectacle. Everything from ceramics, photography, clothing and homemade products will be on display.
There will also be at least 12 food vendors throughout the grounds, all of which Bornemann said operate from within Alaska.
“It’s all Alaska,” he said. “We’re pretty committed to that. The “Alaska Made” symbol is certified through the state, and we’ve made sure they’re local, regional or statewide vendors. We’re very proud of that fact.”
The festival music menu includes 12 bands that will play throughout the weekend. Music starts Friday at 5 p.m. with Chris Towne and wraps up Sunday at 3 p.m. with Shamwari Marimba. Other groups include popular Seward ensemble Blackwater Railroad on Friday, Hot Mess on Saturday afternoon and Up A Mountain on Saturday night.
The traditional Run for the River 10-mile and 5-kilometer races will return Saturday morning, with the 10-mile race taking off at 8:30 a.m. and the 5K shortly behind at 9 a.m.
The popular eagle release also returns for another year on Saturday at 1 p.m.
With an entire generation of peninsula families passing through the festival over the previous 28 years, Bornemann touted the event as a can’t-miss bucket-list item.
“It’s a heartwarming feeling that people make this their priority that second week of June,” he said.