Spirits were high and laughs were plentiful Saturday as the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce and a bevy of busy volunteers directed, organized and downright wrangled, horses, dogs, kids, parents and vehicles into the annual celebration residents have come to rely on for the past 49 years -- the Progress Days parade.
"It is going smoothly-- really," said January Yeager, project coordinator for the chamber. "We have 52 entries signed in so far. But there are always those that show up last-minute, so I expect near last year's count -- about 100."
Waving traffic through, crossing off floats accounted for and giving instructions to drivers, Yeager was unflappable and quick to hand off praise to her volunteers.
"It is going great -- and it happens because of the many people and organizations that step up when asked. We are grateful for the volunteers who help make it run so smoothly, the community members who get involved and are in the parade and everyone who comes out to watch it," she said. "It truly is a community event that doesn't stop with the parade. It continues on at Soldotna Creek Park with events, vendors and the city will host a free picnic. It's a celebration of how far we have come."
From activists working the crowd and asking residents to sign a petition for borough term limits to float entries stuffed with candy and tissue paper decorations, this year's theme "Come for Alaska's Golden, Stay for Soldotna's Silvers" gave participants opportunities to show off what they felt Soldotna's progress was or needs to be.
Jackie and Oly Helgevold of Funny River sponsored a float promoting their community and its ties to Soldotna.
"Well, we are all in this together," Jackie said, cracking up. "I mean we support Soldotna and we hope Soldotna comes out and joins in the Funny River celebration happening next weekend. We all live and work together. Let's have some fun together!"
"We managed to hide out for all 50 years of statehood," said Oly, grinning, "but we are ready for progress and hope to grow Funny River area into its own. It's great place to live, with great bunch of people out there."
Dick Hahn, driver for the Soldotna Public Library's float, believes the parade is a great way to be a part of the community.
"I have been a part of the library's parade entries for 13 years," Hahn said, "It's a way to kind of advertise and let our community know we are interested in it."
Hahn, who is chairman of the city's library board and corporate agent for the Friends of the Soldotna Library, said the parade offers residents opportunities year to year to see how it has grown and get involved.
For Sarah McAlpin, new to the area, becoming a parade volunteer was a natural extension of wanting to become involved in a city she fell in love with enough to move to.
"It is the magnificent Kenai River that drew me in," McAlpin said. "God smiled on Soldotna when he put the river here. The 'small town feel' and community involvement made it the right choice though."
For long-time residents Kim Kimball of Sterling and Tammy Faucher of Kasilof, who had joined their families and forces in staking out prime parade viewing places, watching is just as important of an activity.
"I have been coming to the parade for years. The sense of community and gathering with family is what draws me back," Kimball said. "This is fun. And watching the parade and how the town has grown over the years is fun, too."
Progress for Kimball means Soldotna's new bridge.
"That is most outstanding. The town grew in numbers and you were stuck to the 'Y' in backed up traffic," she said. "Soldotna is doing alright to get that fixed."
Faucher had mixed feelings on the term progress.
"Progress is good and we need it, but if it starts to feel like Anchorage I am outta here," she said.
Barbara Massey of Sterling, who had gathered her brood together, including seven of her grandchildren, embraced the city's and state's place in history and the direction both were taking.
"Actually the town is positive. More stores, before you had to plan your trips to Anchorage. Some people are against it, like the Wal-Mart, but we need to be able to have choices to grow," she said. "I think in general in the state, industry has been good. We have oil and this is a good place to work. People like to work up here."
Politics aside, Saturday was a day for fun for Massey.
"This is great family parade. The kids made their own candy bags and you can just enjoy yourself and see people you haven't for awhile. We stand near the end of the parade because either they (float volunteers) have lots of candy to get rid of before it ends or they are all out, so either way it works out," she said with a smile of a woman who knows what it is like to ride home with a car load of kids hopped-up on candy.
Kaitlyn Massey, 6, had her own agenda.
"I like the candy the most," she chirped gleefully. "That and the fire trucks and motorcycles!"
The parade may be over, but the party continues on today with the city of Soldotna hosting a free community picnic at noon at Soldotna Creek Park. Vendors and activities also will be at the park at noon; free wildlife movies a the Kenai Wildlife Refuge on Ski Hill road begin at noon and continue until 4 p.m.; live music at the park begins at 1 p.m.; and at 2 p.m. the rompin' stompin' family rodeo hosted by the Soldotna Equestrian Association rips out of the chute.
Nancianna Misner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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