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Story Last modified at 2:22 p.m. on Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Just grin and Bear Paw it Hard work's over as 26th annual festival gets underway

BY MATT TUNSETH
Alaska Star

photo:News

Golden Wheel Amusements worker Jeff Okuley sprays down a railing outside the bumper cars in anticipation of Bear Paw, a five-day Eagle River festival of fun that began July 6 and runs through Sunday, July 10.
STAR PHOTO BY MATT TUNSETH

As his fellow workers put together the final pieces of the Ferris wheel behind him, Golden Wheel Amusements employee Jeff Okuley sprayed and buffed the outside of the bumper cars already set up in Eagle River Town Square.

"We're getting everything so it's beautified," Okuley said as the carnival company – and much of Chugiak-Eagle River – prepared last week for the day when the fun and games would begin.

That day has come.

Bear Paw, the annual festival of arts, entertainment, games, crafts and community fun, began yesterday (July 6), with the Bear Paw Awards luncheon hosted by the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce. Things really get going today, with the opening of the carnival and the Bear Paw Pageant tonight at Chugiak.

For a full schedule of events, visit www.bearpawfestival.org.

Chamber events director Merry Braham said a year's worth of planning goes into the festival, which runs through the weekend and includes the grand Bear Paw Parade at 11 a.m. on Saturday, July 9. The theme for this year's 26th event is "Operation Bear Paw," which Braham said is fitting because so much community effort goes into the festival.

"It is an event that requires mass mobilization, so it is definitely an operation unto itself," Braham said.

Braham said the regular chamber staff, along with an intern and two volunteers, has been working nearly round-the-clock to get everything ready – from hauling boxes of festival programs all over town to lining up enough fish for Saturday's always-entertaining Slippery Salmon Olympics.

"There's a lot of events that we do year to year that are just old-time crowd favorites," Braham said.

Braham said the original idea behind the festival – back in the mid-1980s – was to bring people into Eagle River as a way to generate revenue for local non profits.

"Now it's taken on a life of its own," she said.

Because the festival aims to get people out and about, Braham said all of the entertainment and festival events – from the parade to the 5-kilometer race to the Teddy Bears on Parade – are very reasonably priced.

photo:News

Workers put the finishing touches on the Ferris wheel ride last week as they prepared for the 26th annual Bear Paw Festival. The Golden Wheel Amusements carnival, which is set up at Town Square Park in Eagle River, began today.
STAR PHOTO BY MATT TUNSETH

"Everything is free," she said. "We're like a fair without a gate."

The fact that people can just go from event to event without having to spend any cash also makes it difficult for festival organizers to get a handle on just how many people will take part in the five-day fun fest.

"It is hard to say," she said.

However, Braham estimated that if the weather's nice on Saturday, as many as 8,000 people could line the parade route down Business Boulevard. As far as the total number of festival participants, Braham said that number is surely in the tens of thousands.

Although the festival is free, Braham said folks who want to help it continue can support Bear Paw by purchasing a commemorative pin or T -shirt.

"And tell your friends," she said.

Among the new events this year that Braham is excited about is "Bear Paw's Got Talent," a talent show where anyone is welcome to hop on stage to showcase their own unique skills.

"If they sing, dance, juggle, mime, if they've got a clean comedy routine – this is family entertainment, after all – they can come on down and show us what they've got."

Braham said putting on an event like Bear Paw wouldn't be possible without the efforts of hundreds of community members who pitch in.

"We have tons of volunteer folks that help us do this," she said.

Braham, who was a member of the chamber when the first Bear Paw was held in 1985, said event organizers never imagined their little arts and crafts festival would turn into the area's biggest happening of the year.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would turn into this major event it has become," she said.

While the festival now takes a year's worth of planning to pull off, Braham said she and the rest of the festival organizers wouldn't stay involved year after year if it wasn't for one big thing.

"We just have a great time," she said.

Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or matt.tunseth@alaskastar.com



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, July 6, 2011.