Sometimes when you travel you can’t help but think about home.
That was the case for me recently when fly-fishing for sockeye and attending the three-day-long Salmonstock Festival in Ninilchik, Alaska, with my in-laws (woe is me). Billed as “three days of fish and music” and benefiting efforts to protect salmon from such threats as the Pebble Mine project, the event resembled our own free concert series here in Steamboat, which wrapped-up Friday with The Infamous Stringdusters.
Like back home, the three-stage, outdoor event featured similar-caliber performers, including Lucinda Williams, Hot Buttered Rum, Great American Taxi, Tim Easton, Keller Williams and Ozomatli (Note to local organizers: Book these guys for next year — they rock).
It also drew revelers young and wrinkled, from kids in strollers to salmon-fishing septuagenarians, all there to have a howling good time, just like we do at Howelsen Hill. (“Don’t worry,” my wife advised when we arrived. “You won’t look old.”)
Like our beloved concert series, the event also boasted beer and craft tents, people sitting on blankets and a river within a stone’s throw of the entrance gate.
But differences also surfaced like steelhead slurping salmon eggs in the nearby Anchor River. But most noticeable was my anonymity.
While in Steamboat, you know virtually everyone, here I was just another salmon in the stream. As such, this required breaking out long-underused social strategy.
At events in Steamboat, you rarely talk to strangers. Here, I found myself looking at ballcap and T-shirt insignia for common ground as an ice-breaker — a sports team, place I’ve been, or even an outdoor brand I fancy. But even that was difficult at time, with shirts reading “2nd annual Qutekcak Native Tribal Run” and “Algaaciq 10K.”
Thankfully, just as in Steamboat, everyone’s good-naturedness made it easier. Every single attendee looked like he or she just went fishing, climbed a mountain or did something else Alaskan. They looked approachable and like they knew how to survive.
This rang especially true when the obligatory rain came. Well-versed in waters from above, they didn’t let it rain on their parade. They embraced it, perhaps better than any other audience could ever do, breaking out the rain gear and dancing in the puddles (you’ll likely never see a better assortment of foul weather gear at a concert anywhere).
There also were other differences on the fashion front. XtraTuf rubber boots replaced flip-flops, worn with shorts, dresses and everything in between, and wearing long pants under skirts was in for the ladies. Most men also enjoyed a higher facial hair count than the average concert-goer, fish tattoos commanded more necks, and you didn’t look like a dork for wearing your sunglasses at 10 p.m.
Contrasts emerged on the concert grounds, as well. Belying the festival’s fish friendliness, the main stage featured artwork of two giant salmon circling a guitar. Flanking each side were giant, rusted-iron sculptures of salmon with torches firing out of their mouths. A salmon chariot pedaled by kids offered rides for two bucks, Vote for Salmon flags flew off the fence posts, and instead of Frisbees it was salmon puppets flying through the air. A “small fry” play area was even set aside for the kids.
Unlike our Cruisers and Hungry Dogs, vendors hawked such crafts as Howling Wolf Furs and Octopus Ink Clothing and such foodstuffs as salmon burgers, caribou brats and halibut kebobs.
But it was the music that was the great common denominator, and in the end, that’s all anyone really needs to feel at home.
Perhaps the biggest reminder of Routt County came when former local Keller Williams took the stage and broke into a song about living and skiing in Steamboat, some 20 degrees of latitude away. While his encore delayed Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools from taking the stage, it brought me from Cook Inlet and Mount Iliamna all the way back to Cook Subaru and Mount Werner.
And it made me realize that, even when you’re near Homer, Alaska, there really is no place like home.
Eugene Buchanan is the magazines editor for the Steamboat Pilot & Today.