Worried about environmental change, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby offers anxiety counseling for a nickel at Salmonfest at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023. Photo by Margaret Bauman

In the blazing sunset on Saturday night, Aug. 5, a crowd of over 6,000 people packed into the amphitheater of the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds and sang along with Old Crowd Medicine Show on the chorus of their biggest hit ever, “Wagon Wheel.”

Rock me mamma like a wagon wheel

Rock me mama anyway you feel

Hey mama rock me…

They also joined in the chorus when the band struck up “North to Alaska,” and cheered when the band announced, during its first performance for Salmonfest, that they wanted to come back every year from now on for the three days of music, love and laughter.

Salmonfest — which began in 2022 as Salmonstock and quickly became a force in educating the public in the importance of healthy habitat for Alaska’s wild fish — drew a record crowd Aug. 4 – Aug. 6, with some 60 bands on four stages playing throughout the festival. There were also about 100 booths, hawking everything from information on the environment and earrings made from salmon skins to an international array of food — from pizza and falafel to Brazilian limeaid and spinach bread from a Talkeetna vendor.


“We finally got the summer it deserved,” said David Stearns, director of Salmonfest, speaking of the weather. Stearns is the son of Jim Stearns, formerly with the staff of The Grateful Dead, who has for years been the major organizer behind the event. By the time Salmonfest winds up every August, the Stearns family has already been at work for over a year getting ready for the next festival.

Amy Kruse of Kasilof, on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, who designs her own fish fabric, sells clothing for all ages at Salmonfest 2023, and online at www.lovefromalaska.com, with her creations being modeled all over Salmonfest by happy buyers. Photo by Margaret Bauman

As for Old Crow Medicine Show, David Stearns ventured “I would say there is a good chance they will be back.”

Salmonfest bands range from those known nationwide to Alaska bands that draw crowds in Alaska year-round, like the folk-rock group Blackwater Railroad Company and alternative indie project Medium Build.

Environmental groups also are an annual anchor of the festivities, including United Tribes of Bristol Bay, the Wild Salmon Center, with offices in Palmer and Portland, and others.

This year’s event began just days after the state of Alaska filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court urging it to reverse a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency veto of a Clean Water Act permit needed for construction of the controversial Pebble mine abutting the Bristol Bay watershed. 

Most folks were there for the music, but at the booth operated by United Tribes of Bristol Bay folks from Southwest Alaska were there to explain what the litigation was all about to all who would listen.

“It was very disrespectful to residents of our region and all the work we have done to protect the salmon, the water and the land,” said Judy Jo, of Naknek, education director for United Tribes of Bristol Bay, of the state’s decision to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Morgan Urquia of the Wild Salmon Center also spoke of her concern over the state’s decision to litigate, saying state officials were ignoring public opinion and the environmental impact such a mine would have.

Still for the most part, the crowd just mingled, moving from one band performing to another, plus the food and craft booths, enjoying the sunshine and ambiance of the mellowed-out crowd.