A crowd of about 50 gathered on a clear, cool morning to see the historic Libby McNeil Libby 76 sailboat launched for a morning of fishing in Naknek. The five-man crew who sailed Homer’s restored ship sang a sea shanty to the crowd before heading out on the water.
The crowd cheers and one of the crew shouts “Let’s go fishing!”
The sailboat is a piece of Bristol Bay history. Before 1952, sailors fished the bay from sailboats. The double ender is like one of thousands of two-man crews, at the mercy of the wind and the tides.
A few hours later, the sailboat returns with a smiling crew and three fish caught with an artisanal net by Marcia Dale, from the Watsituya Net store. On board were local commercial fishermen, father and son Bill and Eric Hill.
“Launched, it was beautiful, beautiful and warm. Then it started to rain again,” laughs Eric Hill. “But despite the weather, it was just a great time. It was much quieter. There aren’t that many moving parts. It’s quite simple. I mean, I guess simple is all I would say.”
Her father, Bill Hill, says their family has been fishing since time immemorial and sailing was a connection to that past.
“Elders talk about sailboat fishing, and a lot of my family, all of our family come from your background as a fisherman,” Bill Hill said. “And so that’s part of our family history, but that we’ve never had the chance to experience. So being able to jump on a sailboat, throw a little piece of net in the water and catch a few fish that were reliving a story that we had heard about, but it’s really nice to experience it.
The sailboat’s arrival coincides with a weekend of events for the 40th annual Bristol Bay Fishtival, a celebration of the fishing community and a way of life, hosted by the Bristol Bay Borough Chamber of Commerce in Naknek .
LaRece Egli is the director of the Bristol Bay Historical Society and one of the organizers.
“It’s just a wonderful end-of-year party. And rather than a festival, it’s ‘Fishtival’, because it’s our harvests of salmon in our fish that keep things going all year round,” Egli said.
Fishtival weekend is filled with fish-themed events and activities around Naknek, including a bazaar, art, children’s games like fish throwing, a pool tournament and the Bear Grass Music Festival with bands performing at venues around town.
“So to be able to celebrate with the whole community, whether it’s local residents or our seasonal industry attendees,” Egli said. “All together, after a long season of working shoulder to shoulder, it’s just a magical time to be able to celebrate.”
Artist Kitty Sopow returned to Fishtival to showcase her latest artwork, classic Alaskan images, as well as fish-themed, pin-up style female figures.
“Honestly, of all my shows across the state, this year’s Fishtival was my most successful and rewarding, and also my most exhausting. And I think a lot of anglers can agree that this year has been crazy” Sopow laughed, “Well, excuse me, people who fish and people who work in the cannery can agree that it’s been a tough season. I’m working a lot of exciting energy.”
On Saturdays, there is a parade down the main street of Naknek, led by the fire truck and followed by cars decorated by local organizations, tribal governments and businesses. Handfuls of candy are thrown at onlookers.
There’s a Grinch parading dressed in bright orange fishing gear with dozens of stickers reading “No Pebble Mine”, a protest against the proposed mining project at the source of Bristol Bay.
The weekend also celebrated the dedication of the South Naknek Diamond NN Cannery to the National Register of Historic Places.
Katie Ringsmuth is the Alaska State Historian and Director of the NN Cannery History Project. She says it is the first cannery in Bristol Bay to receive national recognition.
“Put simply, the Diamond NN Cannery is historically significant for its association with Bristol Bay, the commercial salmon fishery,” Ringsmuth said. “Also the 54 buildings that still stand, and how they continue to hold the stories of the underrepresented cannery workers who contributed to the industry.”
With each season, there are more stories. And with a record harvest in Bristol Bay this season, the folks at Fishtival have plenty to celebrate.