One thing connects Maui, Hawaii, to Brighton, United Kingdom, to Fort Bragg, California, to Craig, Alaska: whale festivals.
The Prince of Wales Whalefest in Craig and Klawock might be the smallest of them all but it also might be the most exuberant. It happens every year at the end of March, when winter is just turning the corner to spring and the island explodes with life. With the herring spawn comes all of the creatures that eat them: sea ducks, eagles, seals, sea lions and, of course, whales.
Kathy Peavey had the idea to bring Whalefest to Prince of Wales Island eight years ago when she was working on herring pounds and photographing humpback whales in her offtime. She and a group of her peers had gone to the Sitka WhaleFest a few times. She had an epiphany: why didn’t they do a Whalefest of their own? The group reached out to the Sitka Sound Science Center for help in putting together scientific presentations. Although the Prince of Wales Whalefest is now self-sufficient, the Science Center still sends their researchers, who now consider it a “right of passage,” to contribute to the festival.
This year the event coordinators dipped from their local talent for the scientific portion of the event. Two archaeologists from the Thorne Bay Ranger District, Shona Pierce and Risa Carlson, will be presenting an overview of the area’s cultural background. Their time frame will be 10,000 years ago to present.
“It will focus more on the time before European settlement of Prince of Wales but it will also dabble in the more historic aspect as well, like canneries and logging,” Pierce said.
Carlson is looking forward to giving the presentation since it allows her to get back into the part of her job that she really loves.
“It’ll be emphasizing the part that’s really interesting to us. All the laws and things are very necessary in order to protect our resources, but the really interesting part is to actually go out and find them and study them. That’s the reason we’re here,” she said.
The Craig High School marine biology class will be contributing to the festival science events as well. Peavey, an avid photographer of humpback whales, is lending her pictures for a presentation by student Macy Taylor. Taylor will combine the photography with underwater video from a dive class as well as audio of orcas captured from Peavey’s hydrophone.
“I like to watch orcas but I also like to listen to them,” Peavey said. “We’re going to play some of those sounds for people. It’s really intense when you’re out there on the water. I don’t really know quite how to explain it to you other than that it takes you back to ‘what the heck, where do we all come from?’”
The culture of whales is just as important a part of the festival as the science. Wilfred Lane volunteered to speak on his Iñupiaq culture’s relationship with whales after experiencing last year’s Whalefest. He intends to share his experiences of whaling from his youth, including tales of traveling across the globe with his Alaska Native dance group and his family. He thinks of his time traveling as a blessing and is thankful for the opportunity to share his history and his culture.
Lane wants his presentation to “give them a taste of what Iñupiaq culture is like.” He’s bringing a fur parka and mukluks and intends to give people the chance to feel the skins and furs of polar bear, wolverine, and perhaps even wolf.
Obviously, the festival isn’t just about whales. Peavey has no problem thinking outside of that box.
“It’s really nice that we can actually do what the heck we want. To be honest with you, that’s how we roll down here,” she said with a laugh.
This year’s Whalefest has a humanitarian bent. Ruth Ann’s Restaurant was the community’s largest and longest-running establishment before it caught fire and burned down a few years ago. Ruth Ann Johns had lived above the restaurant and had been a collector and dealer of Rie Muñoz prints. Her livelihood, her home, and her collection are now reduced to rubble.
Peavey said she feels bad that the community hasn’t done much for Ruth Ann since the fire, so she has plans for something special this year. Wednesday night of Whalefest is a combination of music, poetry, storytelling, and the gift of artwork. Peavey and a few of her fellow coordinators will be presenting Ruth Ann with a Rie Muñoz print to replace a small piece of her collection and to give back to a staple of the community. John van Amerongen, a contemporary maritime singer-songwriter, will perform a song he once wrote about the iconic restaurant to kick off the evening of “Whale Spouts and a Little Stout” at the Hill Bar.
The musician van Amerongen has old ties to Craig and to Peavey in particular. He had once written a feature about her and her family for a magazine and the two got to know each other. Peavey and a friend knew that they wanted him to play for this year’s Whalefest, so they used their personal funds to bring him to Craig.
“We don’t have any money. We have zero dollars for this Whalefest,” she said cheerfully.
Peavey and her fellow coordinators consider Whalefest to be a community service. The events are free, including the whale watching tours. She and her peers are more interested in promoting the island’s good side. She wants people to see what she sees: a beautiful, ecologically diverse place with a community that cares.
“It’s not just one crazy person down here in Craig,” she said. “There’s a lot of us that put this on. We all make it work. Everybody’s got their part.”
• Jack Scholz is the Capital City Weekly intern.