In any Alaska town it's easy to find a contingent of locals who advocate for the protection of wild salmon.
But in Ninilchik last August it was hard not to find someone with salmon on the brain as more than 3,000 Alaskans and Outsiders flocked to the small town of about 850 people for the inaugural Salmonstock put on by the Renewable Resources Coalition and Foundation.
However, the event, which featured scores of musical acts, performers, art exhibits, beer and other festival wares spread over three days, was more than a run-of-the mill festival.
Melissa Heuer, deputy director of the Anchorage-based Renewable Resources Coalition, said the event's goal -- celebration, awareness and avocation for the protection of renewable salmon runs -- was perhaps best illustrated by one festival-goer in particular.
The guy had a big grin and waders still wet from fishing, she said.
He came straight "from enjoying the resource to celebrating the resource and while he was there, he took action," Heuer said with a laugh.
Since its opening run the first weekend of August last year, the event's popularity has grown as word has spread across Alaska and the Lower 48 prompting its organizers to start planning this year's festival early. Heuer said folks were asking about the next year's event the day after the first ended.
That added attention has grown with the signing of several national music acts for this year's event -- Leftover Salmon, Robert Randolph and The Family Band, and Ozomatli in addition to Todd Snider, Clinton Fearon and Great American Taxi, among others.
Tickets went on sale April 1, and Alaskans and Outsiders have already snatched up hundreds, Heuer said. This year, the Renewable Resources Coalition expects between 5,000 and 7,000 people to attend the festival, which, backed by a recharged website -- www.salmonstock.org -- and an active Facebook page, has become the group's largest organizational endeavor.
"To get to work on a cause that you believe in and then to get to tie that into a festival with great music and really supportive Alaskan people behind you, it doesn't get much better than that," Heuer said.
Besides just the growth in popularity, Heuer said she was most excited by growth of the message behind the festival.
"We made a really conscious effort to make sure it was a celebration of wild salmon as well as the opportunity to take action to protect all of the things that provide a good ecosystem for wild salmon," she said.
Lara McGinnis, who manages the Kenai Peninsula Fair and Fairgrounds in Ninilchik where the event will be hosted again this year, echoed that sentiment.
"I would definitely say the mission was successful," McGinnis said. "It was 'Come for the music' and the culture definitely took."
McGinnis went as far as estimating the event and its message went "viral."
"I have family members and people that I went to high school with down in the Lower 48 Facebooking me and asking 'Can you send me a 'No Pebble' bumper sticker?" she said. "So yeah, it's viral. I have friends in California and Alabama and even back east saying, 'Send us those bumper stickers.'"
However, Heuer made clear the festival wasn't just a branch of that growing trend. The notion that the organization and festival are simply riding a wave, or are just part of the latest national environmental fad, isn't accurate, she said.
The event's roots remain firmly on Alaskan shores, she said.
"We did this for Alaskans by Alaskans," she said.
Another example of the festival's impact can be seen on the Colorado band Leftover Salmon's new album "Aquatic Hitchhiker" set for release on May 22. The album's art was designed by famous Alaskan artist Ray Troll and depicts a hitchhiking sockeye with a guitar case featuring Salmonstock and anti-Pebble Mine stickers.
"With a guitar case you just stick on all the places you've been and why wouldn't a salmon have Salmonstock on his guitar case?" Troll said by phone from Ketchikan.
Troll, who was one of the several people who helped nurture the Salmonstock idea to fruition, volunteered his artwork for the logo and poster and also performed live paintings with artist Memo Jauregui at last year's event. Troll said he thought the event was generating "a lot of buzz" on the Peninsula and in other Alaska cities and expects it to keep growing through the years.
"Salmonstock is going to be huge this year," he said. "I think it will be. Last year was an experiment and it worked beautifully."
Heuer said Alaskans are all some how affected by salmon and it's important to be positive about wanting to protect it.
"But instead of saying, 'No this and no that,' and being negative, to be able to go out and do a positive message ... everybody was ready for that," she said. "Yes, let's celebrate what we have, let's be proactive."
That message was captured by an aerial art project consisting of more that 400 people strategically placed in the mud and muck to form a giant mural of a salmon with the message, "Keep it wild." A similar display is planned for this year, Heuer said.
"It wasn't like a Lower 48 deal," she said. "It was very much an Alaskan event. I think that really got across. I didn't hear a negative thing from anybody. I think the community in Ninilchik was really happy and are happy we are coming back again this year."
McGinnis said she did have some "trepidation" when she booked the event last year, but was happy the group ran an "amazingly respectful show." Although there was a small contingent of Ninilchik residents who weren't thrilled to have the population of their town triple for the weekend, 90 percent of the local thought was "How wonderful," she said.
"It was such a perfect event," McGinnis said.
Brian Smith can be reached at email@example.com.