Soldotna’s annual Progress Days festival held true to its name this year, with individual events keeping things fresh by making some changes from years past.
Returning for year 57, Progress Days features a weekend full of activities to celebrate Soldotna’s past as well as where it’s headed in the future, including a parade, rodeo events, and this year a celebration in downtown Soldotna called Market Daze. Some events, like the Sawfest Chainsaw Carving Competition and the Alaska State Championship Dutch Oven Cooking Contest, embraced the meaning of progress by switching things up over the weekend.
For the first time since Sawfest has been absorbed into Progress Days, the carvers eagerly sliced and whittled away at cedar logs, secured by Eric Berson, owner of The Dreamer’s Woods in Sterling. Berson also spends time carving in Washington, where cedar is plentiful, and said he offered to order some logs for the competition while making his usual requests.
“It’s nice and soft … beautiful wood,” Berson said. “It’s rot resistant and bug resistant … it’s getting harder to find big wood up here in Alaska that isn’t rotten. The spruce have been beetle-killed so long that you find a good, you know, a big-sized log and it’s cracked and rotten.”
Several carvers praised the quality of the cedar Saturday, a wood not many Alaska carvers get to work with often.
“As far as a carving medium, it’s unbelievable,” said Jamie Rothenbuhler, of Wasilla, who was competing again after some time away from the event.
Cedar requires only a light touch, makes for quicker carving and allows competitors to get more detailed in their work, said Scott Hanson, the original creator of Sawfest. His large bear carved against a tree stood tall among the other masterpieces Saturday.
Since there was already a separate, smaller tree growing out of his log, Hanson said the decision of what to make came easily.
“The log did speak to me,” he said with a smile.
Just across the way at Soldotna Creek Park, the Dutch Oven Cooking Contest took on a different tone than in years past.
With only three teams entered, Sally Oelrich said the competition was more laid back.
Cooks took time to chat with visitors, explain their processes and share recipes. Ray Wall and Brian Smith of Anchorage had extra recipes for their three dishes on hand to give away, as well as a sign up sheet for when they ran out.
Each team spent the better part of Saturday morning maneuvering around piping hot ovens and plumes of smoke while baking, cooking and sneaking the occasional peak at their competitors’ progress. Father-daughter team Rod and Chelsea Hutchings, also of Anchorage, worked together for the first time in the adult competition — having just turned 18, Chelsea competed in the junior level until this summer.
“We’ve practiced for like, the last two weeks doing these a couple times. Bread’s our worst thing,” Rod Hutchings said with a laugh. “We do not do breads. This is our first time in competition to ever make bread.”
One of the biggest threats to a successful meal made with a Dutch oven is wind, said Rick Oelrich, Sally’s husband and teammate.
Wind blows across the charcoal and takes away its heat, he said.
“You can adjust for almost (anything,) but it takes checking and so on,” said Sally Oelrich, who has been working with Dutch ovens in some form for about 30 years.
The Hutchings team protected their charcoal with aluminum covers wrapped around it and pinned together.
This year Anchorage-based bird rescue non-profit Bird TLC released their fifth wild eagle at Progress Days.
Although missing from the schedule last year due to lack of an eagle, this year’s release starred Bumper, a 3-year-old eagle that Bird TLC rescued from a dumpster in Unalaska and named for the abrasion injuries from his attempts to escape from the dumpster.
“Nobody’s sure why he was in there,” said Bird TLC volunteer Dave Dorsey. “Someone must have thrown away a perfectly good eagle.”
Although in past releases volunteers from the audience have opened the eagle’s transport box, Bumper was released by two local law enforcement representatives — Lt. Dane Gilmore of the Alaska State Troopers Soldotna post and Soldotna Police Chief Peter Mlynarik — as well as Senator Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) and KSRM radio general manager Matt Wilson.
Tammi Murray of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, who organized this and past eagle releases, said she’d decided this year to dedicate the event to law enforcement officers, recognizing those recently killed in the Lower 48. The release was preceded by a moment of silence and a speech by Micciche.
After participating in his first eagle release, Gilmore said he was “just glad everything went alright.”
Also new to Progress Days this year was the Market Daze, a joint effort between the business owners of Mountain Mama Originals, Artzy Junkin, Where It’s At and more in downtown Soldotna.
The market celebration included a beer and wine garden, live music, vendors, arts and crafts and kids activities. Festival organizers also added a youth calf-riding event to the rodeo for riders age 0–16.