Return of the Salmon brings good food, good friends

Posted: Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The idea to visit Alaska began over a game of cards with a childhood friend, but when Ben Keenan and his wife, Oma, came to Soldotna, it was love. Originally from Tampa Bay, Fla., the Keenans built a house and have been back every summer since 1996.

“Once you get here, you’re hooked,” said Keenan, who arrived with Oma — Dutch for grandma — in March this year. “We used (the house) for a motorhome stop-off, but we put the motorhome up for sale,”

The Keenans were two of the 286 residents, volunteers and community members who came together to celebrate their community by dining on barbecued salmon and roasted corn at this year’s Return of the Salmon event at Heritage Place assisted living facility in Soldotna on Monday evening.

“We wouldn’t have anything like this in Florida,” Kennan said. “It’s great to have something like this for people in nursing homes. It’s fascinating how nice they take care of elderly people.”

Sponsored this year by the Rotary Club and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the event began as a brainstorm by John Nelson, a board member and volunteer. Nelson said the event serves to bring together people from all walks of life who depend on the salmon as a major resource.

“(The event) is a celebration of elders,” he said. “The residents really look forward to it.”

One resident, Virginia Arnold, pink fuzzy hat on her head and watermelon wedge in hand, agreed. Originally from South Prairie, Wash., Arnold came to Seward in 1944 as a cook for Don’s Cafe. Living and working in Seward for 27 years, Arnold survived the 1964 earthquake.

“It was scary,” she said, adding that she cooked for the army during the earthquake’s aftermath.

Elise Bell, originally from New Zealand but now a resident of Kasilof, said she volunteered here because of her husband.

“The residents have been through a lot,” she said. “They have a neat background.”

Community and its many facets was also a musical theme at this event. Nelson said this is the first year the local Kenaitze tribe participated in the event.

Members of the Kenaitze group, Heartbeat of Mother Earth Drums, sat in a circle and sang traditional songs, keeping time on a circular drum at their feet. Julie Hadden, a mental health counselor for the Kenaitze Indian Tribe Nakenu Family Center, said the group was founded through the tribe as a sober support social activity for adults.

“(It) represents a good message of unity,” she said.

Salmon is symbolic of that unity. Harley Semaken, a Kenaitze tribal member and drummer for the group, summed the fish’s importance up in these words: “Salmon means a source of life and food. For some people it’s a way of living,” he said.

Many of the volunteers are family members of some of the residents living at Heritage Place and see the event as a testimonial to the level of care residents receive there. Irv Carlisle, a Rotary club member and Soldotna resident since 1974, provided the corn for the event. He said his aunt lived at Heritage Place for a while and was impressed with the care she received there.

“She lived in Anchorage since the ’40s,” he said. “(Her) doctors said we have the finest place on the peninsula.”

Originally from Anchorage, Carlisle and his wife drove down to Soldotna almost every weekend for five years until a near-collision prompted them to stay.

“We came down here and made a living and we’ve never been sorry,” Carlisle said.

It’s Ken Laing’s fifth year roasting corn for the Return of the Salmon. Owner of the Anchorage-based company Corn Roasters of Alaska he said he is really impressed with Heritage Place.

“The people that work here take care of their seniors,” he said, adding that any left over corn will be roasted for the resident’s lunch.

When asked to give her culinary opinion on the food, Arnold gave a broad grin.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she exclaimed.

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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