There’s plenty of T-shirts, few available hotel rooms (at inflated prices) and an abundance of both thrilled anticipation and stern insistence on obeying rules related to COVID-19 as Juneau prepares for its first in-person Celebration in four years beginning Wednesday.
“I think everything is going on schedule,” said Lee Kadinger, chief of operations for Sealaska Heritage, on Friday. “It always gets a little frantic as things get closer.”
The biennial Alaska Native gathering that’s among Alaska’s largest cultural event will mark its 40-year anniversary during four days of dancing, workshops, food contests, canoe races and other activities. The theme this year is “Celebrating 10,000 Years of Cultural Survival,” which organizers say is fitting as the thousands of participants are finally able to gather in the wake of the pandemic, which resulted in a virtually-only event in 2020.
But Kadinger emphasized participating means first and foremost adhering to the “no-exceptions” policy requiring face masks and proof of vaccinations at events even though “we understand that may impact people from attending.”
“That’s for the safety of our children and the safety of our elders,” he said.
Celebration officials are closely tracking local COVID-19 infection rates, which spiked upward in early May, but have been declining since, Kadinger said.
It’s possible this year’s attendance at Celebration will be less than the 4,000 people participating in 2018, but there are no firm estimates, he said. But he expressed confidence the number of people experiencing the event will continue rising as has happened since its inception, thanks to TV and online coverage.
“While there may be fewer people attending Celebration, I can unequivocally state the number of those who watch and engage with Celebration will increase,” Kadinger said. “It’s been that way since 1982.”
The Celebration web page at 360 North (www.360north.org/watch-360-north) got 5,041 page views during live streaming in 2018, according to Kathy Dye, a spokesperson for Sealaska Heritage Institute.
“That does not include the people who watch the statewide TV broadcast, which aren’t as easily quantifiable as website traffic,” she added. According to figures supplied by KTOO in 2018, about 250,000 people watched the program 360 North during Celebration in 2014.
This year’s Celebration will also be available on ARCS channel in rural Alaska, according to Dye.
Coming to town
People who are coming to Juneau for Celebration, especially those familiar with it from previous years, generally have arranged lodging or other places to stay, both event organizers and local tourism officials agree. But for arriving travelers with no accommodations, whether for Celebration or not, finding a place is likely to be a difficult and pricey undertaking between Wednesday and Sunday.
“We’ve been booked up since 2020,” said Samanda Nauer, a front desk employee at the Driftwood Hotel, one of the lodges closest to Celebration’s main activities. “We’ve just been rolling over everybody’s reservations.”
Nauer said those who booked in 2020 are being charged the same rates this year. But a search of online booking sites suggests people still looking for lodging won’t be as fortunate.
Six locations listed vacancies for the duration of Celebration at travel information website kayak.com on Friday afternoon, ranging from $235 a night for a private “Alpine Suite” to $774 a night at Silverbow Inn Hotel & Suites. There are considerably more and cheaper options for the same four-day period the following week, including a (possibly less-fancy) Silverbow room available for $277.
A search for Airbnb options in Juneau on those dates was somewhat more encouraging, with nine available options at midday Friday ranging from a campsite from $76 night to a “not-elegant” one-bed apartment $150 to a seven-bed cabin for $190 a night that (whoops) actually “is located 40 miles north of Juneau in Taku River and is accessible only by personal boat, float plane or helicopter.”
Liz Perry, CEO of Travel Juneau, said all of the hotels and similar lodging in Juneau before the pandemic are still operating this summer, but some bed and breakfast owners have opted to retire or otherwise cease operations. She said an event of about 3,500 to 4,000 people – or the number attending Celebration in the past – essentially fills Juneau’s guest bed capacity, but doesn’t expect many visiting participants to be without either lodging or another place to stay.
“The dancers, the artists, the other people who are incoming, they’ve generally figured things out,” she said.
Outside travelers arriving for other reasons during Celebration have occasionally found themselves out in the cold, so to speak, but with “Juneau being a long-haul destination that happens pretty rarely,” Perry said, since people tend to plan trips well in advance.
Making art and memories
Among the returning participants is Jno Didrickson, a former Juneau artist who moved to Turkey in 2016, but has returned for every Celebration since to sell his hand-tooled silver bracelets and other crafts as a vendor. He said this year’s preparations and plans during Celebration aren’t any different than those since he moved aboard.
“Normally, I show up a month or two before and set up as much as possible,” he said while working on bracelets at the Haa Shagoon Native Art gallery downtown. This year he arrived “no joke, on April 1.”
Didrickson said his interest in Celebration goes beyond merely selling his crafts, because “there’s a demand (there) for community service and that’s what these are.”
“I get to collect stories and I get to hear history, and that’s what keeps me coming back,” he said.
Another artist participant is weaver Wooshkindein Da.áat Lily Hope, who’s also written a children’s book titled “Celebration” that will be featured during this year’s event. She won’t be among the official vendors, since “I have five children and nine hours of sitting and selling artwork…keeps me from being able to participate,” but she is hosting a weaving workshop at her downtown studio Wednesday and will keep it open the other days of Celebration in the expectation “plenty of smart people on social media know we’re here.”
“I will have Celebration streaming on the big-screen TV so we can just weave and not miss anything,” she said.
Other Celebration-related goods will be plentiful, as official event organizers started the planning and purchasing processes about a month-and-a-half earlier than usual to ensure merchandise and other items arrived in time, Kadinger said.
“The T-shirts all arrived yesterday,” he said.
Even though there may not be as many people at this year’s Celebration, organizers ordered the same number of T-shirts as in 2018, Kadinger said.
“Perhaps there’s not as many people, but it’s been four years since we had one in person,” he said. “The T-shirt is kind of that memorable iconic item you get each year.”
Ticket sales will begin Monday from 1-4 p.m. in the lobby of the Walter Soboleff Building, and continue from 1-4 p.m. Tuesday at Sealaska and Wednesday at Centennial Hall from noon-9 p.m.Payment is by credit card only, IDs and vaccination cards are required and wristbands will be placed directly on the people using them at the time of purchase. The festival’s website states lost or removed wristbands will need to be repurchased.
The weather forecast calls for rain most days, but Kadinger said organizers are monitoring the marine forecast which so far calls for light winds and thus outdoor events shouldn’t be significantly affected.
“We’ve had a few years where tents blew down the street,” he said.
Regardless of rain or sun, or experiencing events in-person or virtually, Kadinger said he expects the full spirit of Celebration to shine through for people experiencing it.
“The ability to enjoy Celebration is being wherever you are,” he said.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org.