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Sitka plans Alaska Day despite shutdown

Posted: October 14, 2013 - 12:02am

SITKA — The Army Band can’t make it, but Alaska Day will still go on.

Coast Guard Air Station Sitka has canceled its open house and a planned road race, but the Keystone Kops will still be on patrol.

The Russian Bishop’s House is closed, there won’t be a Coast Guard fly over and the out-of-town National Guard units might not make it in.

But Elaine Strelow and Ted Allio said that, government shutdown or no, Sitka will celebrate Alaska Day.

The budget impasse in Washington has caused changes in Sitka’s biggest annual celebration, but even so, Strelow said, the sky isn’t falling.

Actually there were years when the sky did fall, but the ceremony on Castle Hill went on as usual.

“I remember the years when it snowed and hailed on us up on the hill,” Strelow said.

“But that wasn’t a problem,” Allio quipped.

Strelow worked on her first Alaska Day committee in 1966 and Allio has been involved for over a dozen years. Between their combined 60 years of Alaska Day experience they’ve seen enough scheduling conflicts, government turmoil, last-minute cancellations and bad weather to make this year’s challenges not particularly noteworthy.

“I think some folks when they heard that the Army band wasn’t coming, and I’ve heard ‘oh, the Army band isn’t coming so there won’t be an Alaska Day’ but I’m quick to rebut that attitude,” Strelow said. “We’re still here and our people will still be observing the reenactment of the event.”

Alaska Day, always held on Oct. 18, commemorates the 1867 transfer of Alaska claims from Russia to the United States.

Even if the federal shutdown ends before Alaska Day, the restoration of funding is not likely to come in time for the advance planning that organizations like the Coast Guard and the Army Band need for special events, and the military presence will be missed, Allio said.

“The Army Band, when they come to town, they go into the schools and work in there and give some workshops to the kids,” he said. “We’re pretty much out as far as the military side of things.

“Except the 9th Infantry,” he added, referring to the Sitka 9th Infantry, locals who dress up like 19th century American soldiers for the holiday.

The Alaska Army National Guard was in the process of shipping some military vehicles from Southcentral to Sitka for the parade, and they made it as far as Juneau when the federal government shut down.

“They put them on the ferry and brought them down to Juneau,” Allio said. “And they’re sitting in Juneau right now. They were supposed to get on the ferry this weekend and come over, but if things don’t straighten up they won’t be here. So we’re looking at other ways to mitigate that.”

The absence of the Army vehicles will not cause a complete lack of impressive machines in the parade, because the contractors on the Blue Lake Dam have stepped in.

“The folks out the road are going to bring in one of their big excavators ... so they already want to help out,” Allio said.

The situation is in keeping with Alaska Day’s enduring legacy of improvisation, Allio said.

“A lot of stuff just kind of appears,” he said.

Strelow said that in a few years it’s unlikely anyone will remember how the federal shutdown affected this Alaska Day. More likely, they’ll remember this as the Alaska Marine Highway anniversary year. Allio said this year’s theme for the Sitka celebration pairs nicely with the state’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the state ferry system.

The Alaska Marine Highway is heavily involved in Alaska Day this year, and plans to have a float of the fast ferry M/V Fairweather in the parade.

“They told us they have the Fairweather coming in, but I’m not sure in what capacity. I’m sure they’re not going to put it on their shoulders and carry it into town ‘cause it wouldn’t fit,” Allio said.

Another feature of the Marine Highway golden anniversary celebration will be an open house on the M/V Taku 1 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17 at the ferry terminal. Visitors will be invited to dine on board and tour the bridge. The ferry system has also contributed prizes to be given out during the holiday festivities in town.

“One thing we’re excited about is the return of a melodrama.,” said Strelow. “That for years was part of our schedule, and this year, at last, we’re going to see one that’s been in process for several years. It’s kind of experimental but I think it will be fun.”

Allio said Sitka’s Alaska Day has always been a fluid event.

“It used to be if you didn’t have a beard, you had to have a button and if you didn’t have a button we had a little jail we would put you in,” he said. “We don’t have the jail anymore. If you wanted to put somebody in jail you could sic the Keystone Kops on them and in order to get them out they had to pay a fine or have somebody pay a fine.”

Since then, Allio said, the Keystone Kops have gotten more extravagant and the jail has gone away. Alaska Day celebrators can still be imprisoned but the offense needs to be greater than a missing Alaska Day button, and the fine is typically steeper than $2.

The Alaska Day-related activities are already under way, but will move into high gear next week. Strelow said over the years the festivities have been starting earlier in the month.

“What has changed, notably for me, is the extent of community involvement. We used to be like a two-day thing: the day of the ball and the parade. Now we are about a week long,” she said.

There will be kayak races and a community barn dance among other events this weekend.

Allio said as long as the community wants to have Alaska Day, then the festival will take place.

“The community will be out whether it’s raining or snowing or the sun’s shining. It’s nicer for the folks in the 9th Infantry and the people watching the parade if the weather’s nice but if it’s not they’ll still be out there,” he said.

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