After Seward and Whittier, we travelled onwards to Ninilchik, which is a little town on the west coast of the Kenai Peninsula. Our reason for being in Ninilchik was NOT because of the town, though. The annual “Salmonfest” Extravaganza was coming up, and we had tickets! But, as always, the “Main Event” would be far less memorable than all the other “stuff” that happens along the way!
BF (Before Fest), we stayed for a couple days in a very nice RV Spot right on the main street, and within an easy walk of all the wonders of the town. Such as the perpetual Garage Sale Yert; to benefit the local Senior Center on the corner. And the Thai restaurant, which was surprisingly quite good and very friendly.
There was an expansive beach overlooking the Cook Inlet and Volcanos across the way, and a Russian Orthodox Church. There was even some live entertainment BEFORE the Fest began. The weekend before the festival we knew one of the performers whom we have mentioned previously in these pages, Mario Carboni, was playing at Ninilchik’s one and only local club. THIS is worthy of some elaboration.
He was playing at a local establishment called “Goody2Shoes Dance Hall and Café.” G2S turns out to be an oversized “yert” style building built by a retired fella, Glen, who came up to Ninilchik from Florida for fishing. Glen fell in love with the place to the extent he bought 150+ acres of land including the piece the Club was on. He BUILT the club, because he liked music and dancing.
This is a NOT an uncommon story up here. People come up for a vacation, and basically just stay – I guess Alaska is like like the Hotel California, but with better fishing! Someone joked to us at one bar or musicfest or another that the airlines really don’t need to even SELL round-trip tickets because if you come, you won’t leave…
Now, that might be an extreme statement – beauty and peaceful meditation may be the main takeaways (or, I guess, anchors) but for us, though we HAVE really enjoyed Alaska, it’s a little quiet and unconnected. We HAVE enjoyed visiting some of the CITIES here, and are looking forward to Salmonfest, which will attract 8,000+ people to the little town of Ninilchik (Pop. 800). Something the locals dread every year, even though they appreciate the economic impact. Having said that, I can certainly see why someone inclined to spend their retirement hunting and fishing would NOT use the second half of their air ticket.
Anyway, Goody2Shoes was quite a place…clearly the locals enjoy coming out for a bit of Two-Stepping to live music. When we turned up at the door, the hostess asked if we had reservations!? In Ninilchik? A club there which holds 50+ should NOT be full, EVER! No, we did not. Well, they were SOLD OUT, and they don’t do standing room, because they keep the dance floor and sight lines open out of respect for their customers. They said we could wait and see if there was a cancellation…
Almost immediately they found a couple 2-tops, one in a back corner. One would think you could not HAVE a “corner” in a round building, but Liz and I sat there so Steve and Kathy could have the 2-top with the better view of the musicians.
We insisted that Steve and Kathy have the better view because Carboni was playing with a COUNTRY MUSIC LEGEND (or so I learned…more of a Blues guy myself…), Norm Hamlett, who played pedal steel guitar for Merle Haggard for over 40 years. The last remaining musician representing the “Bakersfield Sound,” Hamlett is 85 years young (touring continuously since 1967!) and a member of the Steel Guitar Hall of fame! Played for 2 presidents back when that was generally considered an honor and privilege and not an in-your-face political statement! Liz and I enjoy talented musicians in most genres, but Steve and Kathy are Country Music (esp. OLD TIME Country Music) aficionados, and Steve knew well of Mr. Hamlett.
I have to say, the music was EXCELLENT – we enjoyed the virtuosity of the playing, but we REALLY enjoyed the stories told about some of the old time songs played. We eventually DID get 4 places together at a table right in front, due to a cancellation. We even cut the rug a couple times without embarrassing ourselves. While we don’t KNOW the Two-Step, smoothly on display by some local folks, Liz and I know a few alternate options.
I am pretty sure Steve and Kathy enjoyed the evening, and the chance to talk to Hamlett. Carboni and Hamlett were also playing at Salmonfest, but the atmosphere seemed likely not to be intimate in any way with little chance for such interaction. (That turned out NOT to be true!)
Our next Alaska Challenge was securing an adequate Salmonfest camping site for RV WHERE YET and Casper, which is Steve and Kathy’s white Foretravel Coach (which also resembles but is NOT called Ahab’s White Whale). We had purchased the “5 Day Camping Package” with our Salmonfest Ticket; and we KNEW we were in trouble almost immediately.
What do the Chinese say — Problems are just Opportunities in disguise?
In the middle of said “opportunity” we weren’t so sure…
Based on an email, Steve and I had separately gone over a couple days early to observe the preparation of the camping area. We were both “concerned” to put it mildly. It was CLEAR the camping area had been recently cleared out of some woods and a field. It was not even Gravel; Steve and I were CERTAIN that we would both become permanent residents of Ninilchik if we parked in these areas, as our Homes would sink to the Axles into the soft, unimproved surface. Especially if it rained.
We were “supposed” to turn up at noon on Wednesday, when the camping areas opened. Worried about what we had seen, I drove the Jeep over at about 10:30, hoping to talk to the staff and see what we could work out that would be safe, safer or at least safe-ish for us. I met a prince of a fella named “George.” This is not his real name, but I don’t want to get him in trouble. Of course, that would assume that the Big Honchos at the festival read our blog, which is unlikely bordering on absurd, but still…
Anyway, George said “Let’s go look at some options” and jumped into the Jeep with me. We drove to the camping area, and he showed me several groves, which would have been EXCELLENT if we were in a tent or a VW Bus or even a small Class “C” Motorhome. Secluded, idylic, etc. I expressed our concerns about WEIGHT to George (30,000lbs for us and fully 40,000 for Steve), and he nodded and said he COMPLETELY understood. He said this was the first year that Salmonfest had offered camping options for RVs, and frankly the organizer had underestimated the size and number of Coaches that would be arriving. The Organizer had also completely forgotten he had offered 5-night camping options, which we had purchased.
AND, notwithstanding the 5-day thing, we weren’t supposed to even turn up until 3:00 on Wednesday, George said, so we were a little early and they were even MORE unprepared than they would be at the appropriate time. I showed George the email that had CLEARLY said 12:00, and he smiled sheepishly. About 30 minutes later, another email arrived, correcting the authorized arrival time, but George was thankfully not going to turn US away just because we actually READ the email we had received!
I said we really just wanted to work with them..we were not being demanding or obnoxious. Neither WE nor THEY wanted us stuck in their camping area. Our bus has higher clearance and a bit more rugged suspension that Casper, but if either of us got stuck on the way in, we’d block access for the thousands of others expected later. George said he knew – we were sort of a trial run, being early (he smiled), and we could help them sort out what they needed to do for other coaches. He also said he had TOLD the organizer that the RV option would produce 5% of the revenue and 80% of the aggravation. The smile was because it wasn’t even check-in time yet and George was already NOT saying but thinking “I told you so!”
All the authority, but none of the charm.
At about this time, the Ninilchik Version of the Chickenstock Parking Nazi came over on an ATV. He ASSURED US that the ground would support our vehicles based on his 25 years of moving heavy equipment around Alaska. I said, with respect, we did not doubt his experience, HOWEVER he seemed reluctant to ensure us he personally would get us pulled out of the ground if he was wrong and we were right. He seemed aggravated. And, he said, he did not know George and was about to throw us all out, because we WERE early, after all (never mind the email we had received…).
George said not to worry – the Parking guy did not realize (yet) that he actually worked for George because, since we were early (George smiled again), it was before the organizational meeting that introduced Boss-George to his minions!
Steve is, in fact, a musician; I struggle to play the radio
We seemed to be at an impasse. Surely there were other spots – and we were NOT the only or even the biggest/heaviest that they were going to need to park. George had come up with 2 unapproved as of yet options, and he went off to talk to folks about them. One immediately turned out to be a non-starter because it was in an area reserved for vendors and musicians. Steve is, in fact, a musician, though not playing at Salmonfest, and I struggle to play the radio; So we could not find a way to bend that rule. The final option was right across the street in a gravel lot. Seemed IDEAL, frankly. George talked to some folks some more, and said that is where we should go!
the tone was ominous…
I returned by Jeep to the RV park, and Steve and I fired up the buses and moved. We pulled into that lot AT NOON, per the original email and awaited George or someone to park us. I walked into the festival office, since all the official parking was being done elsewhere – we figured might wait awhile for someone to help. I explained where we were to the office staff, who said immediately, “You’re early….” 😉 Showed them the email which by now was readily available on my phone…Then they started whispering to each other, and making phone calls. They said they would send someone, but the tone was ominous.
George eventually came over and apologized. The spot he had thought would work for us turned out to be already committed to others (handicapped parking, actually). George offered to refund our camping money, but I reminded him there was NO PLACE ELSE for us to camp (every other spot within 20 miles was sold out); he’d have to also refund our festival tickets, and anyway WE WANTED TO STAY.
Eventually the festival organizer himself came over to discuss the situation. As a last resort, he said maybe we could park farther back in the same lot, away from the Handicapped spots. I could hardly believe it! After all the angst, this was PERFECT for us – very close to the gates of the festival (even closer than the official camping area), but away from the 8,000 attendees and all the other campers. Offering us the opportunity to escape the crowds if we needed, for example, to sleep occasionally! We agreed IMMEDIATELY. Relief all around!!
The moral of the story is to smile and be polite and gracious and flexible and rely on the overall desire of most people to do the right thing! An important reminder in today’s fractious society.
By being polite, flexible but insistent, we had landed a PRIMO spot for us while accommodating the festival’s difficulties in managing the whole RV scenario. And EVEN BETTER, later a women came by with her dog and asked if she and her husband and, through pictures she would take and send, her daughter could tour RV WHERE YET. She was fascinated by the vintageness. Julie and her husband, Paul turned out to be the OWNER OF THE BUILDING whose lot we were parking in! The Festival Organizer was actually renting the downstairs of her building for himself, and had asked (begged? Paid? We don’t know, or care!) her to let us park there.
We invited her over and said she was welcome in our home ANYTIME!! We assured her we would be the BEST tenants she could ever have, being old and quiet in our oldness. In return, our “Landlady” turned out to be one of the best parts about Salmonfest! She, in turn, invited us to lounge on her deck, away from the madding crowds but still well within earshot. We did that at one point; basking in their gracious hospitality.
Turns out that Julie had never been to Salmonfest, despite living across the street. We wondered WHY it was her first, but assumed it was because, like the residents of New Orleans who LEAVE when Mardi Gras descends, the 800 or so residents of Ninilchik get the hell out of Dodge when the hordes arrive.
Unless they are making money selling them stuff; the latter a reminder that more people in Alaska made fortunes mining the miners ( selling stuff to prospectors) than actually mining gold!
The reason this was their first was actually quite unexpected. Julie said they had another home in Homer, but no more. It seems, she said, “IT BLEW UP LAST WINTER!”
We asked, “What happened?” She explained that the earthquake last November (or one of the frequent minor ones experienced in Alaska) had apparently broken a line and filled the home with LP gas. A power outage caused a spark and the home blew up. I mean, REALLY blew up. The entire roof departed the premises, landing several hundred feet away. Julie and Paul weren’t there at the time, which is good because they would have been killed for sure.
So, THAT is actually why it happened that they were in Ninilchik for Salmonfest.
If they had been home in Homer, they may have smelled the gas and resolved the leak FAR less dramatically. But, far from being upset at losing their home, she said their insurance settlement was likely more than they could have sold the place for, and they are not rebuilding. Hence they were pleased to be present to host us in her yard!
I suppose, before ending the post about Salmonfest, I should actually write something ABOUT Salmonfest! Salmonfest started and continues as a benefit to raise money to support research and efforts to enhance the Salmon Populations in Alaska; and more broadly other environmental activist issues. So, not only good music and a lot of fun, but all for a good cause.
In contrast to how unorganized the First Annual Salmonfest Camping Option was, the Festival operated like a well-oiled machine. As with Chickenstock, it is quite amazing that a small town of 800 can host 8,000 so efficiently and effectively. The music was diverse, and virtually continuous for 3 days from Noon until 2:00AM. Sound was really good. The crowd was enthusiatic. The food options were very good. And, we were parked close but away, so we could escape the hubbub occasionally and easily.
As usual at these things, the “Headliners” were good, but hidden amongst the various other musicians throughout the three days and across 4 stages were some really entertaining folks. “Old Familiars” (people we have seen before this summer) included Cousin Curtis and Mario Carboni (playing again with Steel Guitar Legend Norm Hamlett). New revelations were the Rainbow Girls, Alaska Blues Core, Burroughs Soul and The California Honey Drops. Folks we’d never have discovered if they weren’t sort of “forced on us” under the sparkling Alaska Skies! ALL folks we now follow in hopes of seeing them again if our orbits cross!
For example, the slightly irreverant, funny and VERY talented Rainbow Girls told us about the festival they played in New York, where they had received an advance email saying, “NO POLITICS, NO ACTIVISM of ANY KIND and NO SWEARING allowed.” They are, after all, THE. RAINBOW. GIRLS. What were they going to do then, for their hour on stage? They appreciated Salmonfest, more their style because it is ALL ABOUT Politics and Activism! They said they were on their way to a All-woman folk music festival in the Greek Isles. The ONLY part of that that made ANY sense (Alaska is hardly on the way to anywhere, much less Greece) was that the festival was on the Isle of Lesbos. 😉
And then the Burroughs, who hail from Greely Colorado – NOT (formerly) known to us as the hub of Soul Music! They were HIGHLY horn-heavy, maximum-energy entertaining with a capital “E.” AT one point they did a FUNKED-UP version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Dolly would have been pleased. Or not. Who cares, WE were pleased!
Just enjoying the BEAUTIFUL Alaska Weather (it’s always like this, or so we were told with a wink) and QUIRKY Alaskan People (or is it the other way around) were worth the price of admission! Eating Paella, Falafel, Halibut Tacos and Homemade Ice Cream bars (some more than once!) from food trucks only added to the bliss!
Still and all, I can say that, as with most of our travels, it is the peripherals and the challenges (err…opportunities 😉 ) , vs. the actual, planned activities that are memorable. Salmonfest, which was EXCELLENT in and of itself, was not more memorable than the camping experience in Julie’s front yard! All of that now part of the melange of our life!
One thing we missed though (dammit). The Sunday Night after the festival ended, the musicians went on and on in the parking lot until dawn. Little did we know, during their jam session, Mother Nature managed the stage lighting — THE AURORA WAS VISIBLE!!!! We missed it THIS TIME (Julie had a friend who took the picture), but from now on, I am setting my alarm to get outside for the 1 hour of darkness (and increasing) each night!
And speaking of memorable, Julie’s Front Yard evolved into an almost unbelievable coincidence that you’ll read about in future posts. A coincidence that PROVES if you are kind and open-minded, the universe will recognize this and reward you frequently. I can only assume (Liz and I have NO first hand experience in this approach to life) that if you are NOT kind and open-minded, you get flat tires and engine trouble; things we have NOT had in Alaska AT ALL.
So now it is Onwards And Downwards (to the lower 48)! A bit more of Alaska to come, though. I bet you can hardly wait for the next post!