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Not Your Usual Food Festival

About Kodiak

Not Your Usual Food Festival

Annual crab celebrations on Alaska's biggest island have far deeper meaning for a fishing community that specializes in the ocean's most dangerous catch.

By: Lynn Elmhirst, Host/Producer,

Quick geography quiz:  What Alaskan island shares its name with one of the world's largest bears?

Did you think of Kodiak?  The island, all 3670 square miles of it, is unforgettable. It's the second largest island in the U.S., with a rich and green landscape that has earned it the nickname the Emerald Isle.

Around 6500 people live on Kodiak, compared to an estimated population of 3500 Kodiak bears.  One bear for every 2 people?  Everyone agrees it's a good news story of a thriving population of a very unique animal.  Kodiak bears, isolated from the mainland for over 12,000 years, are an even larger subspecies of the brown, or more dramatically named, Grizzly bear. 

Kodiak bears are super-Grizzlies, rivaling polar bears for size.  A male often weighs 1500 pounds, standing over 5 feet tall on all fours, 10 feet tall on his hind legs. That is twice as tall as I come in at 5'2"!  That is one big carnivore.  (Experts point out they are actually omnivores.  I don't care if he occasionally has a salad.  That's a big meat eater at the very peak of his food chain.)

The Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge draws visitors, especially for bear viewing, and outdoor activities like fishing.  But the closest the film crew and I got to a Kodiak bear was the stuffed one in the sporting goods store when I went in to buy a pair of rubber boots. 

We didn't take a photo of the Kodiak bear in Mack's Sporting Goods store.  This one is by Nancy Heise.

We were here for the Kodiak Crab Festival, a Memorial Day weekend celebration that kicks off a summer of long days after a dark winter. 

Part Small-Town Food Festival

A crab celebration makes sense for this community. After the U.S made the Alaska Purchase in 1867, Kodiak became – and remains – a commercial fishing center.  It is one of the top three fishing ports in the country, home to 650 boats, including Alaska's largest crab fishing vessels. 

Part of the Kodiak Crab Festival is much like many other small town food festivals: a celebration of the abundance of their local food specialty.  There's a parade, a midway, cooking contests, funny floppy crab hats, and yes!  Eating crab. 

It's odd to see what is in the rest of the world an expensive delicacy treated like a carnival fast food.  You have Never. Tasted. Anything. Like. It.   Fresh out of the sea, boiled, dipped in butter. You're a greasy mess sitting at a damp picnic table in the mist/light rain, and you couldn't have a better culinary experience at a 6-star restaurant in Paris.

Part Memorial

But that is just one side to the Kodiak Crab Festival. If you've watched the TV show, you know Alaskan crab fishing has the highest rate of work deaths.  Most are from drowning or hypothermia when men go overboard. Crab fishing takes place in the winter months when the harvests are prime, but the waters are at their iciest and most treacherous. 

The dangerous work that is entertainment on TV in the comfort of your home is all too real for the residents of Kodiak.  Everyone here knows crab fishermen who have lost their lives crabbing.  They'll tell you the stories.  

The other activities during the Kodiak Crab Festival reflect that reality. 

Members of the Coast Guard base in Kodiak, the largest in the US, demonstrate helicopter / swimmer rescues in the harbor. 

Survival suit races, where competitors vie to be the fastest to put on a cold-water survival suit and swim across the harbor, highlight the importance of survival skills. 

And the most touching part for me: the Blessing of the Fleet, bells tolled for each life lost, and a sailing out of the harbor to cast a memorial wreath on the sea.   

Alaska is rightly famous for the majestic scenery and wildlife, but a visitor's most memorable experiences will be meeting the people and hearing the tales of a lifestyle so different from our own.

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