PUBLISHED: 4:24 PM on Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Sitka celebrates Alaska Day with festival
The recommendation for men to grow one's beard out and women to dress in the styles of 1867 seems a little strange, but that's what it's about at the Alaska Day Festival in Sitka.

All around, it's a good day to celebrate for Alaskans. Alaska Day celebrates the anniversary of when Alaska officially became a territory controlled by the United States of America.

The formal commemoration, a flag-raising ceremony, took place at Fort Sitka on Oct. 18, 1867.

Formed by a non-profit organization in 1954 to perpetuate Alaska's birthday, Sitkans celebrate with a week of themed events.

Tickets were up for sale to various events around Oct. 3 with the festival ending Oct. 18.

This year's mantra is "Sawdust and Ice," bringing attention to the role of ice in Sitka's cultural and economic history.

The theme was honored due to the ice and export business, which added another $200,000 to Alaska's sale price from Russia, according to Secretary Betty Conklin, of the Alaska Day Festival Committee.

The American Russian Company made ice in Swan Lake, packed in sawdust and shipped it off to San Francisco.

Conklin, who is in charge of greeting and ball organization, has been doing contributing her work since 1989.

"If you want off the committee, you have to die or find a replacement for yourself!" Conklin said, jokingly.

The Alaska Day Festival Committee meets year round, to plan the events with ten members meeting year round, then another 20-50 at crunch time to pull off the various events and traditions.

Preparations include scheduling activities and logistics, making gowns for the ball, which sometimes takes months.

"We definitely have to 'gear up' then 'wind down,'" she said.

Official greeters in 1860s costume dress equipped with fancy hairdos, hoop skirts and parasols, began meeting visitors at the airport on Oct. 11.

Festivities ranged from a Salute to Sitka's Youth, a road and kayak race, croquet tournament, Archangel Dancers show, featuring traditional Russian folk dancing; contra dance, bicycle hill climb, concerts, Alaska Biathlon, parade and more.

Culinary delights include sweet and savory pie sales, a smoked salmon competition and a dinner fundraiser by the Kaagwaantaan Clan including traditional Alaska Native foods, dance and song performance.

Big events were the 9th Army Band Concert on Tuesday, Oct. 16 and the Alaska Day Ball on Wednesday, Oct. 17.

"My favorite aspect is seeing the people of Sitka enjoy themselves at the many activities. The schools participate, the community as a whole participates, the military participates and elected officials participate (local, state and national)," said committee chairman and assistant military liason Ted Allio.

Another highlight is the beard and bonnet judging, where men grow beards specifically for the festival and women wear traditional bonnets, circa 1860.

The Emblem Club judges the bonnets and Elks Club judges the beards.

"We go through and test them for softness and length, and the scruffiness and give them out prizes," Conklin said.

"My husband started growing it around Aug. 15, he only shaves once a year, after Alaska day."

The Festival is funded through sales of two-dollar Alaska Day buttons, and merchandising (t-shirts, sweatshirts, vests, mugs), which display the current year's theme. Visitors collect the memorabilia from year to year, with collections, going back decades.

"We have also received some private contributions through the years, which have helped immensely. There's a lot of donated time and hard volunteer work. We don't have any paid staff, and we don't have any storage facilities, except committee member's homes," Conklin said.

Past visitors have rounded near 200 to the festival.

"It's a fun time for all because we normally have lots of visitors, and we love to show them our world-renown hospitality. You never know where you may be when you turn around and see a Keystone Kop coming to sell you a button, or a Greeter in 1867 dress gliding by on her way to an event," she said.

The furthest people have traveled specifically for the festival is from China.

"We've had a couple world class musicians visit us, via our New Archangel Dancers. Then Fairbanks, our military, and Washington, D.C., when the Army Generals and Coast Guard Commandants come," she said.

This year visiting international guests were from the International Arts Center in Tokyo, Japan including violinist Megumi Fujita, concert mistress of Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, violinist Tamaki Goto and ballerina and choreographer Rumi Sera. Visiting director Victor Gorodinsky, of the Russian Folk Orchestra at the University of Wisconsin, will be working with local Russian musical group, "SitNiks," during the festival.

Besides the lively action, in conjunction to the festival, the Sitka Coast Guard celebrated their 30th anniversary for the Air Station, and the 50th anniversary for the Auxiliary.

An air-sea rescue demonstration by the Coast Guard and an open house on board a Coast Guard Cutter or Naval Vessel

"They all love it, and we love having them. Our local lodges have military 'feeds' to make sure all the guys get at least three good meals they don't have to pay for," Conklin said.

On Alaska Day itself, dignitaries and representative groups from all branches of the armed forces join in a memorial service at the Sitka National Cemetery and in the parade.

A culmination of the event is the Transfer Ceremony, the re-enactment of the 1867 Commemoration, which takes place on Castle Hill, with the lowering of the Russian Flag, raising of the American Flag and ceremonial music by the 9th Army Band.

"It brings our community (and State) together to remember who we are, and where we came from. Remembering history is a good thing," Conklin said.

"I know most of the people in the state of Alaska don't even realize there is a celebration or what is being celebrated. It just isn't a Sitka thing it's an Alaska historical happening we are celebrating," Allio said.

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