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Trinidad Fish Festival Evolves to Keep from Floundering 

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Gerrald Robertson

Name a seafood-themed festival on Father's Day weekend whose popularity has stretched the boundaries of its small-town infrastructure. Nope, not the one you're thinking of.

Last year's Trinidad Fish Festival was marred by annoyed drivers, blown fuses and at least one injured drunk. This year, organizers say they're not only building it better, they're building it bigger, in an effort to keep the 58-year-old tradition both fresh and from becoming a victim of its own success.

The first aquatic metaphor that comes to mind: a perfect storm.

"It was insane," said sheriff's deputy Pam Wilcox, who supervised parking in 2014. "It was my first year and I was completely unprepared."

It was a rare sunny day in Trinidad and celebrants showed up in droves. With an already tight parking capacity squeezed by roadwork, the plan was to have drivers drop off their passengers at the shopping center then proceed on to Cher-Ae Heights Casino to park before taking a shuttle bus back to the city. But the speed of disembarkation couldn't match the rate of arrival, and cars quickly clogged Main Street, backing up traffic onto the northbound exit of U.S. Highway 101 and the freeway itself. Some people took their frustration out on the Sheriff's Citizens on Patrol volunteers. (The agency declined to return this year.)

Meanwhile, in town, food organizer Rocky Whitlow was struggling to get the fish deep fryers up to temperature. The 30-foot-long extension cord originally plugged in at the school wasn't working, so she darted from outlet to outlet around town, trying to find one that would provide the 220 amps needed to heat the fat properly. The fryers themselves had been improperly cleaned and kept blowing internal fuses.

Nor were things going well down at the salmon table. A miscommunication between ticket sellers, servers and the cooks led to a discrepancy between the number of tickets sold and the amount of available fish. An estimated 2,500 people flooded the tiny town (population 360), but the cooks were only prepared to serve 1,400 meals. Local restaurants saw a bustling business.

Westhaven resident Johnny Calkins, who has been volunteering with the event for 37 years, said that the end result of all this dysfunction was a "really great" post-festival debriefing to work out the kinks, although he mourns the decision to move the festival from Main Street onto school grounds.

"I used to love how the whole town would shut down for a day," he said.

Opening one lane of Main Street for through traffic will ease congestion, according to Chamber of Commerce President Mike Reinman, who said that all but the very earliest arrivals should still plan on looping through town, parking at the casino and getting a shuttle back.

Early birds will have the best shot at getting a traditional meal as well. To reduce the burden on volunteer cooks, the city will only be serving 500 plates of fish. Street vendors will pick up the slack with other fish dishes. Whitlow has vetted this year's equipment and hired an electrician to stand by.

The other aquatic metaphor that comes to mind? Swimming upstream. Both Whitlow and co-organizer Melissa Zarp said they have experienced resistance to this year's changes. Zarp, who owns the Beachcomber Café, described the process as "going up a cheese grater backwards."

"We know the event has to change because it has gotten so big," said Zarp. "There is definitely pushback. ... It's basically [from] the people who have always done it the same way."

The biggest change may actually be a return to tradition: This will be the first Fish Festival in many years where the city will serve locally sourced salmon. Previous years had relied on pre-sliced filets from Alaska. The event will also endeavor to be zero-waste, with compost and recycling bins set up to offset impact to landfills. There will be a filtered water station, a giant fish decorated with beach debris and guided tours of the Trinidad Head Lighthouse, which recently gained National Memorial status. Finally, the committee has reached out to the Trinidad Rancheria, and will feature a cultural installation at the event. Zarp also hopes that tribal members will demonstrate a dance in future years, something the tribe is unwilling to do in the presence of alcohol. Trinidad's event tends to be calmer than the notoriously boozy Oyster Festival, although last year a belligerent drunk did fall and hit his head on the stage. The organizers were quick to point out that the man arrived under the influence and was not overserved at the event. It remains to be seen if an alcohol restriction will conflict with the chamber of commerce's hopes to compensate for lost revenue from reduced food sales by becoming the exclusive vendor of beer and wine.

In a phone interview, Tribal Programs Director Rachel Sundberg was careful to clarify that if if tribal members from any of the local tribes were to attend and dance, it would be an educational demonstration, not a sacred ceremony. The installation featured at this year's festival will include a scale model of a dugout canoe, fishing nets, baskets and other items that help explain the cultural importance of fishing to the Yurok people. Trinidad Rancheria will also serve traditionally prepared salmon.

"We live in this community too," said Sundberg. "There's this connection to this place that, for better or worse, will always connect us to this land and the water and these gathering places. The spirit of the Fish Festival itself is a celebration of the small community, the hard work of the people in this community and the one-time abundant resources, which are important to our cultural survival."

Zarp said integrating the tribe is an example of an overarching goal to make the fish festival more holistic and conscious of its oceanic roots, what she called a "return to reverence."

"I want them to be incorporated into the event because this is their home," she said. "I'm reaching out because I know they're a bridge to restoring reverence."

The small amount of local salmon served at the event is a concession to diminished runs of the fish. Both Zarp and Sundberg said that they hoped this year's festival would restore the connection between the community and the resource that was once so abundant it merited its own day of celebration.

Editor's Note: This story was updated from a previous version to correct a reference to the Trinidad City Council. Editor's Note: This story was updated from a previous version to correct the distinction between the Yurok people and the Yurok Tribe.

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