What was once the celebration of a homestead community and its improved quality of life, Soldotna’s Progress Days has become the Mardi Gras of the Kenai Peninsula, “Alaska’s Playground.” From a parade that started with most everyone being in it to over a hundred entries consisting of decorated floats, horses, vehicles and marching bands competing in eight categories for Chamber of Commerce recognition and awards, to a two day rodeo that this year drew more participants and spectators than ever before. Progress Days now is the official host of the Alaska State Dutch Oven Championships which this year offered cash prizes for winners in three age group categories; Adults, Juniors ages 12-17 and a new Junior Mini age 6-11. The fourth annual chain saw carvers Saw Fest, created by champion carver Scott Hansen moved to Soldotna and gave thousands of visitors the chance to see this Alaskan art form up close and personal.
The venue for the festival this year moved from Soldotna Creek Park to Soldotna Little League park which seemed to enhance the festive atmosphere and participation as visitors were able to watch a rehabilitated eagle from the Anchorage Bird Treatment & Learning Center soar into the ski, circle low over the crowd and land atop a spruce tree for all shutters and cell phones to click away. “The venue was ideal for parking as well as allowing for visitors to participate in all the activities from the rodeo to the free Hobo Jim concert, watch the wood carvers and Dutch Oven cookers and see the eagle release up close just by walking a short way,” said January Yaeger, Soldotna Chamber of Commerce event coordinator. “This is what it’s all about,” said Dave Dorsey of the TLC following the eagle release, “When the eagle came to us from Sand Point he had a halibut hook in his right wrist and he couldn’t fly and hunt and eat properly so he was starving to death when he was recovered by Fish & Wildlife and flown to us by ERA. We got him March 5th and we fixed everything we could, he’s doing fine now and it’s a thrill for us to release him back into the wild where he should do just fine,” Dorsey told the Dispatch.
The weather was by all reports the best in the 54 year history of the festival with calm winds, clear skies and temperatures in at perfect short sleeve and sandals temperature in the low seventies. “Everything was perfect this year and went smoother than ever. The weather has a lot to do with it and we thank January for that and will expect the same next year, but from the largest turn out of weenie dogs in twenty years to the corvette club coming down from Anchorage it was just a perfect year and we thank all our staff, sponsors and volunteers for making it such a perfect festival,” said Soldotna Chamber executive director Michelle Glaves. Parade winners this year included Credit Union One for Best Overall entry, First Student for the Business category, Elks Lodge for Organization, Aurora Dancers for Marching entry, Josiah Martin Bicycle category, Soldotna Equestrian for best horse entry and Jeannie Sather best Individual entry. When the more than 800 ballots were counted in the People’s Choice Award for the Saw Fest Championship carving first place went to the Eagle Totem of Eric Berson, 2nd place was Scott Hanon’s Totem, 3rd Derrick Stanton, 4th Carmen West with her Rabbit Hold totem and 5th was Jamie Roxenberger.
The winner of the Alaska State Dutch Oven Championship this year was the team of Molly Noyes & Stephanie Ferguson “Buns in the Oven” taking a $500 first prize and the right to compete at the International Championships in Utah later this year, Dan and Connie Starbuck took second. In the Junior cook-off taking first place was Ben Wilson and Deric Lewis and second was Nicole Kreider and McCathy Musgrove. Winning the first ever Junior Mini Dutch Oven competition was Will and Luke Anders with Brittany Lewis and Charlotte Williams coming in second. For more Progress Days photos and results go to www.peninsulaclarion.com.