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The 40th annual Bristol Bay Fishtival celebrates fishing community and way of life

Bill and Eric Hill fished off the Libby McNeil Libby 76. July 22, 2022.
Corinne Smith
Bill and Eric Hill fished off the Libby McNeil Libby 76. July 22, 2022.

A crowd of about fifty people have gathered on a clear, cool morning to see the historic Libby McNeil Libby 76 sailboat launch for a morning of fishing in Naknek. The five-man crew who sailed the restored vessel from Homer, sang the crowd a sea shanty before setting out on the water.

The crowd applauds, and one of the crew yells “Let’s go fishing!"

The sailboat is a piece of Bristol Bay history. Before 1952, mariners fished the bay by sailboat. The double ender is like one of thousands crewed by teams of two, at the mercy of the wind and tides.

A few hours later, the sailboat returns with a smiling crew and three fish caught with a handmade net by Marcia Dale, of the Watsituya Net shop. Onboard were local commercial fishermen, father and son Bill and Eric Hill.

“Launched, it was beautiful, nice and warm. Then it started to rain again," Eric Hill says laughing. "But despite the weather it was just a great time. It was a lot quieter. There's not so many moving parts. It's pretty simple. I mean, I guess simple is all I would say."

His father, Bill Hill says their family has been fishing since time immemorial, and going out in the sailboat was a connection to that past.

“The Elders talk about fishing in sailboats, and many of my family members, all of our family members come from your fishing background," Bill Hill said. "And so this is a part of the history that has been in our family, 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 couple of fish that was reliving a history we'd heard about, but it just is really nice to experience it.”

The arrival of the sailboat coincides with a weekend of events for the 40th annual Bristol Bay Fishtival, a celebration of the fishing community and a way of life, organized 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 the year celebration. And rather than festival, it's ‘Fishtival’, because it's our salmon harvests in our fish that make our whole year go round," Egli said.

The weekend of Fishtival is chalk full of fish-themed events and activities around Naknek, including a bazaar, art, kid’s games like the fish toss, a pool tournament, and the Bear Grass Music Festival with bands performing across venues around town

“So to be able to celebrate with the whole community, whether it's the local residents, or our seasonal industry participants," 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 imagery, as well as pin-up style female figures, with a fish theme.

“Honestly, out of all my shows across the state, this year's Fishtival has been my most successful and the most rewarding, and my most exhausting as well. And I think a lot of the fishermen can agree that this year was nuts," Sopow says with a laugh. "Well, excuse me, the people who fish and the folks who work in the cannery can agree that it was a hard season hard work a lot of exciting energy.”

On Saturday there’s a Parade down Naknek’s main street, led by the fire engine, and followed by cars decorated by local organizations, Tribal governments and businesses. Handfuls of candy are thrown to onlookers.

There’s a parading Grinch dressed in bright orange fishing gear with dozens of stickers stating ‘No Pebble Mine,’ a demonstration against the proposed mining project at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.

The weekend also celebrated the dedication of the Diamond NN Cannery in South Naknek to the National Registry of Historic Places.

Katie Ringsmuth is the Alaska state historian and the NN Cannery History Project director, and says this is the first Bristol Bay cannery to receive national recognition.

"Simply put, the Diamond NN Cannery is historically significant for its association with the Bristol Bay, salmon commercial fishery," Ringsmuth said. "Also the 54 buildings which are still standing, 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 across Bristol Bay this season, people at Fishtival have a lot to celebrate.

You can find the original story here.

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