The locals have come out to play, y’all. Cruise ship season is over, the tourists are gone, and all of Sitka’s most small-towny events are finally happening. Bring on all that is good and quirky about Alaska.
Let’s start with Running of the Boots. Every year when the cruise ships have finally returned to warmer waters, Sitkans celebrate. No more pesky tourists! No more long lines at the reindeer hotdog cart! Let’s decorate our rainboots, wear crazy costumes, and run to the pharmacy and back in our funny outfits!
But seriously. That’s exactly what they do. Running of the Boots is a salute to all things Sitka: they love their Xtratuf boots, they love wearing costumes, and they love running in the rain. Obviously the logical solution is to take these three completely disparate interests and combine them into one glorious mashup of a holiday. It’s like that episode of Friends where Rachel attempts to make a trifle and only Joey enjoys it. “What’s not to like? Custard? Good. Jam? Good. Meat? Gooood.” I guess I’m Joey in this scenario, because I found the whole event to be absolutely fantastic.
JVs are called upon every year to volunteer at Running of the Boots (benefit of having a dependable reputation: you get to do free stuff!), and Martine and I were tasked with giving runners their numbers—which basically entailed ripping sheets of lined paper in half, writing numbers on the half-sheets, and handing each runner a number and some duct tape. Boston Marathon this is not.
The runners were an eclectic bunch (then again, so is Sitka’s population as a whole). On the one hand, you had your super-adorable families wearing matching, themed outfits. The kids were all in fairy wings or cowboy hats, and they all wore tiny little Xtratufs, and their dogs waddled around begrudgingly in those weird yet inescapably hilarious doggy Halloween costumes. On the other hand, you had your intense trail runners who regularly race up Mt. Verstovia before breakfast. (I think I forgot to tell you this story: at one point, early in our Verstovia hike, we passed a guy coming down the mountain with his golden retriever. As he casually jogged by, he called, “Breakfast is gonna taste so good!” How did he get up AND DOWN that mountain before 9:30 am?!) This is what those kids were up against, people. This is also what my self-esteem is up against every time I hike a mountain.
Luckily, the trail runners are good sports about the whole event. They know they’re not actually running a serious race. They’re running to the pharmacy and back. It takes about 3 minutes. The judges don’t even fire a pistol to start the race—they just toss an Xtratuf into the air and hope it doesn’t land on anyone (for the record, it almost did). The actual runners give the kids a head start before they take off. At the end of the race, awards are given to the fastest runners. Then awards are given to the SLOWEST runners. Then they give out awards for the best costumes and most bedazzled boots. THEN there’s a karaoke contest. Then you eat fish. I TOLD YOU SITKA WAS COOL.
I’m sure you wish you could’ve been there in person, but don’t be sad. I have good news: the magical event known as Running of the Boots is coming to YOUR TV screen.
Oh (casual shrug, false modesty), did I not mention the TV cameras?
A Cooking Channel show called “Hook, Line and Dinner” came to Sitka JUST for Running of the Boots. I think they were there for the fish—some sort of blackened cod deliciousness, served over a bed of white rice with a side of soy sauce and cilantro and another side of AWESOME. The crew seemed really funny, and the host spent the whole day wearing a plush moose hat. I’m pretty sure that nothing bad can come from a person in a plush moose hat.
So yeah, you should probably watch that episode. The guy grilling the fish is named Justin, and I hiked Verstovia with him. (He’s one of Nick’s friends—the ones Nick knows because “they’re 24 and live in Sitka.”) You can look for me in the background. I’ll be the one who looks really cold.
It HAS gotten a lot colder lately. It’s almost like I live in Alaska or something. It’s getting colder and rainier and darker and October-er every day. I hear they love Halloween a LOT in Sitka, and I think that’s just because they’re looking for ways to make October better. Sitka’s also the only town in Alaska to make a big deal out of Alaska Day, which commemorates the day Alaska became an American territory. The transfer between Russia and America happened here, on Castle Hill, on October 18, 1867. No other Alaskan city cares. Every other city recognizes that it’s kind of insensitive to celebrate this occasion. It’s not like things improved for the native population; they were still conquered. They ARE still conquered. But Sitka likes costumes and parades and days off from work, so they celebrate. For a week.
The fun started on Friday night. One of our local support people, a sweet old woman named Mary, took us to an Alaska Day performance by the New Archangel Dancers, a local Russian dance troupe. Back when it was Russian territory, Sitka was called “New Archangel.” Soooo basically we’re celebrating Russian culture even as we simultaneously celebrate stealing the Russians’ land. Ok.
The New Archangel Dancers are an amateur group composed mostly of housewives, but they’ve actually performed internationally. Because of this, I have absolutely no idea what to think of them. For housewives, they’re impressive. Those squatting Russian kick things (that’s the technical term) take a LOT of leg strength. For an international dance troupe, though, ummm…let’s just say professionalism wasn’t their main concern. At one point, they wore these.
If you can’t tell, they’re all wearing those costumes where it looks like you’re riding a horse but you’re totally not.
Not quite the serious, well-travelled performance I was expecting, given their reputation. Still, I loved it. I have a weakness for unabashed cheesiness.
That’s probably why I enjoyed the parade so much. On Alaska Day itself—which fell this year on a rainy Tuesday, aka yesterday—everyone gathered downtown to watch a good ole hometown parade.
Even the tiny lap dogs made an appearance.
The middle school band performed. Someone dressed like Smokey Bear. People threw candy. The Coast Guard did a flyover. Oh, and this!
Afterward, soldiers and government officials gathered on Castle Hill. They told the story of the transfer between Russia and the US, raised an American flag, and proceeded to list all of the American states in the order of their statehood. People are encouraged to cheer for their home states, so I cheered for Massachusetts.
Oh, fine, I cheered for Florida too.
At the end of the day, my roommates and I decided that we still don’t get it. What is this day? They celebrate Russian culture. They celebrate American culture. They celebrate Irish culture—really. One of the most beloved aspects of Alaska Day is the pipe and drum band, imported from the Seattle Fire Department. What is Seattle doing celebrating Alaska Day? What is Alaska doing celebrating BAGPIPERS IN KILTS on Alaska Day? We asked one of the FJVs—a New Yorker who, to his credit, is never without his Red Sox cap—what’s up with all of the Irish love. His response? “Nobody knows how to party like the Irish.” True facts, sir. Conclusion? Alaska Day doesn’t have to make sense. It’s mid-October. The Sitkans want to have fun. Logic will not stand in their way.
I think that, to a certain extent, this madness will continue all winter. I kind of like it. They’re always thinking of ways to keep themselves entertained—like The Grind. The Grind is a community talent show that happens once a month from now until April. JVs work the dessert table (it’s a hard life). We experienced our first Grind this weekend, and I loved every minute of it. This is small-town cuteness at its best. I mean, people bring home-baked desserts and nobody worries about getting poisoned. Little kids do funny skits. Guys play guitar. If I could only find Ramon and his coconut body oil, we’d have a hit movie on our hands.
I don’t know how, but I’m quite positive that my roommates and I will be getting in on all of this. We WILL perform at The Grind. I have no idea what we’ll do, but the sky’s the limit. They’ll accept anything. You can stand up there and run things through a juicer if you want to (yep. That’s been done). If you have any suggestions as to (a) what we should perform at The Grind, or (b) what sort of new winter hobbies I should adopt, feel free to let me know. I already have two goals lined up: learn the dance to Thriller and decipher the enigma that is Darren’s Dance Grooves. (Found that one in our movie cabinet. I was excited until I popped it into the VHS player and realized HE DOESN’T TEACH YOU WHAT HE’S DOING! He’s telling me to kick ball change but not even showing me his feet. WHICH LEG, DARREN? It’s so exasperating. But I will beat him. I will learn those 2001-era dances if it takes all year. Which it probably will, if I don’t break the Rewind button first.)
Bring on the long winter.