Troupes of teddy-toting toddlers trampled to and fro Friday afternoon in Eagle River, their adult minders running raggedly behind. It was the Teddy Bear Picnic, and Eagle River's Bear Paw Festival was officially off to a roaring start.
For much of Friday morning and afternoon, children and their favorite stuffed bears (or lizards, or doggies or Spongebobs) took over Eagle River Town Square Park, turning the grassy hill into a playground of imagination and fantasy. Games, music, magic, face paint and stories kept the wide-eyed children bouncing from place to place, stuffed companions tucked firmly beneath their elbows.
Amidst the chaos buzzed a battalion of busy adults volunteers all cooking hot dogs, reading stories, running games and doing whatever it took to make one of the festival's signature events a success. Retired kindergarten teacher Diana Mucha read children's stories at the picnic. She said helping out with Bear Paw is as much an Eagle River tradition as the 26-year-old festival itself.
"Everybody does their part, right?" Mucha asked.
That's the attitude that makes Bear Paw what it is, according to Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce executive director Susie Gorski. Gorski said if there's one thing she hopes people take away from the festival it's a sense of community.
"You think back about small towns and fairs in the old days, and I'm sure it felt like this," Gorski said.
Tens of thousands of people descended on downtown Eagle River for this year's four-day festival, including huge crowds who turned out for Saturday's main event, the Grand Parade. The weather was cloudy, but little or no rain fell during the festival, which included events ranging from the Miss/Mr. Bear Paw Pageant Thursday night through the Slippery Salmon Olympics Saturday to the Running with the Bears race on Sunday afternoon.
This year's theme, "Operation Bear Paw," was a nod to the area's military population, as well as the logistical challenges that go into planning the area's largest community event. Gorski said the entire Chugiak-Eagle River community from churches and service organizations to police, politicians and community volunteers did their part to make sure the festival was a positive experience for all involved.
"It's not one group, it's everyone," Gorski said. "That's the beauty of it."
Gorski thanked all the festival volunteers, a group that she said can be counted on year in and year out to make sure Bear Paw works.
"A number of us have been doing this for so long, it's like working with your best friends," Gorski said.
Anchorage's Ma'o Tosi, an Anchorage community leader who runs the AK Pride youth group, brought his wife and five kids to the festival on Sunday. Tosi said he brings his family to the festival every year.
"There's not a whole lot of options in Alaska for the whole family, so we've got to take advantage while we can," Tosi said.
Gorski said the family-friendly nature of the festival is part of its charm. She believes Bear Paw should be a time each year when everyone can get together and find a reason to celebrate the things they have in common.
"The one thing we have in common is the ground that we're standing on," she said. "We may disagree with each other on everything else, but we all share the same space."
Down and dirty
It wasn't all good, clean fun at this year's Bear Paw. But then, it's hard to stay too clean in events like the Slippery Salmon Olympics and a contest for smelliest sneakers.
Eagle River's Mason Bennett, 15, won the Odor Eaters Rotten Sneaker contest with a pair of shoes that looked like they'd been through war. His toes hanging out the front, Bennett explained just how he came to trash his sneaks so thoroughly.
"I just walk in them," he said. "I just seem to have the natural ability to disintegrate shoes."
Chamber events director Merry Braham said the smelly sneakers were among the worst she's seen in her years judging the contest.
"They were a seven out of seven," on the smell scale, she said.
Jack Walters and Ben Rinckey, both 11, had some smelly business of their own. The two Ravenwood Elementary students placed second in the Slippery Salmon race, an event in which one teammate hauled a dead salmon (and a Coke) down a short course before handing off to his or her partner. Races were run tandem-style, with teams fighting each other in a tournament-style duel to see who was fastest with a fish.
Walters and Rinckey said they employed a go-for-broke approach to get into the finals, running the length of the course during each heat.
"The grip was important, and running instead of walking like everybody else," Walters said.
In the finals against Americorps volunteers Matt Ferdya and Kyle Johnson, however, the duo's fearless style proved to be their downfall.
"That's why we slipped a couple times," Rinckey said.
Neither was disappointed with second place.
"We didn't even think we'd make the semifinals," Walters said.
As they wiped salmon slime off their hands and clothes, the boys said they were anxious to get on with more Bear Paw action.
"We'll have some fun, go on some rides," Walters said.
"And play some games," Rinckey added.
"Yeah, play some games," Walters finished.
Work well worth it
Not everyone was at Bear Paw for fun and games. The festival also attracted dozens of vendors, many of whom return to hawk their food, gifts and games year after year.
Jack Smith and his wife Ally, of Eagle River, run Alaska Funnel Cake Factory with their son and daughter-in-law. The family's business got its start at Bear Paw 17 years ago, Jack said, and the festival is a highlight of their summer.
"We get to see everybody we haven't seen all year," he said.
The family sells funnel cakes at other events across Alaska during the summer, but they've got a special place in their hearts for Eagle River's festival.
"Bear Paw's always our favorite," he said.
Wasilla's Tim Crary was making his first appearance at Bear Paw with his family-owned business, Country Life Carousel. Crary said he started the pony ride company as a way to pay for his kids' expensive pets.
"We have five kids and five ponies actually six ponies," he said. "Our kids love ponies, so we had to figure out a way to pay for them."
As he watched two of his sons work to set up the ride Sunday morning, Crary said running the pony rides is a lot of work, but he said he doesn't mind because of the company he gets to keep.
"That's the payoff, getting to spend time with your kids," he said.
No place like home
Next year's Bear Paw theme is still a closely guarded secret, Gorski said. However, she said planning is already underway for the festival, which will include the same fun and games and maybe a few new ones that have made the event such a hit over the years.
She said the goal for next year will be to put on a festival that makes people feel like they're part of one big family reunion in the heart of Eagle River.
"Some people are with us for a short period of time, and our goal has always been to make this their home while they are here," she said. "This is their Alaska hometown, and we want them to remember us wherever their journey takes them."
Contact Matt Tunseth at 694-2727 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, July 13, 2011.