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By Dan Rudy 

Wrangell celebrates its bears with fifth annual festival


Dan Rudy/ Wrangell Sentinel

Austin Ettefagh and Darian Meissner stand astride "Blue," the 2010 Bearfest's painted bear, after moving it to the curb of a Church Street house Tuesday afternoon. Handcrafted in Wisconsin, this year's bear will be decorated by local artist Brenda Schwartz-Yeager.

If you haven't joined in the fun already, there's still time as the fifth annual Alaska Bearfest continues around Wrangell through Sunday afternoon. A blend of fun, food and education, the festival celebrates the area's bear population.

Bearfest was started in 2010 by Sylvia Ettefagh, operator of Alaska Vistas. In addition to the educational and recreational opportunities it presents, Ettefagh's aim for the festival is to make Wrangell a top destination for ursine enthusiasts everywhere.

"Our goal is to use one of our best resources – the Anan bear observatory – to put Wrangell on the map and turn it into Bear U.S.A.," she explained.

Wrangell is the nearest community to the Tongass National Forest's Anan Wildlife Observatory, located southeast of Wrangell Island on the mainland. Perhaps because of its having the largest run of pink salmon in Southeast Alaska, the area is also home to a large number of black and brown bears, which the observatory offers a unique opportunity to view.

The five-day festival kicked off yesterday at the Nolan Center with photography workshops and a pair of presentations on safety do's and don'ts when visiting bear viewing sites or while camping and hiking in the wild.

Also held was the first of several symposiums, where specialists in a variety of fields presented to and conversed with the public on a number of bear-related topics. Often such gatherings are an opportunity for specialists to meet with each other and exchange ideas, but the symposium format will allow them to exchange ideas with the audience, fielding question-and-answer sessions in addition to delivering their presentations.

Wednesday's symposium featured talks by Dave Rak of the U.S. Forest Service in Wrangell, Dr. Lance Craighead of the Craighead Environmental Research Institute, and wildlife biologist John Hechtel of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"They really stepped up for the symposium," said Ettefagh, bringing their expertise to the festival and enriching Bearfest's educational component.

Symposiums continue today at 4 p.m. and tomorrow at 2 p.m., covering topics such as bear biology, spatial data in the field, and management approaches used at the bear viewing areas at Anan, Katmai National Park and Preserve, and Kodiak Island.

At 5 p.m. on Friday there will be a salmon bake on Shakes Island, with fish for the event provided both by local fishermen and Sea Level Seafoods. For $15 people can enjoy traditional foods and local fare, and the bake will also celebrate Native culture with a dancing presentation, stories and songs.

Friday at 8 p.m., there will be an all-ages concert featuring The Accomplices, a low-country string band hailing from Savannah, Georgia. The group will also hold a music workshop Saturday focusing on technique and the use of stringed instruments. Saturday night they will play at the Totem Bar.

Artists, too, bring color to the festival, sharing their skills and imparting tips at a number of workshops. A participant in every Bearfest so far, photographer R.E. Johnson will hold workshops focused on different elements of his craft each day of the festival.

"He is an exceptional photographer who loves to share his skill," Ettefagh said of him.

Johnson will also put on a live demonstration of bear spray and other deterrents at the firing range this morning at 9 a.m.

For the first time, Alaskan surrealist and author Ray Troll will also be coming to Bearfest, delivering a presentation on his life and art on Saturday at 4 p.m. And Wrangell photographer James Edens will hold a hands-on field workshop this afternoon at 1 p.m.

The biggest Bearfest event will be the marathon, half-marathon and 5k walk on Sunday morning.

Event organizers would like to see the marathon certified with U.S.A. Track and Field, allowing runners to use their times to qualify for larger marathons such as those held in New York and Boston. Local runner George Benson put this year's course together, ensuring the new route met the association's criteria.

"He has gone out and spent the last six months measuring out this route," Ettefagh explained. "We might be certified for this particular year," she added. Ettefagh was still awaiting confirmation as of Tuesday, but the outlook seemed good that the marathon would be certified by Sunday.

Fees to participate in the run help cover the festival's costs. Runners who preregister can participate at a discounted rate- $10 for the half-marathon and $50 for the full marathon. There is no cost to participate in the 5k walk. The last chance to preregister will be at the City Park pasta feed Saturday at 7 p.m., but interested runners can sign up until 7:45 a.m. Sunday morning before the race begins at 8 a.m.

"We changed the route this year," said Ettefagh. The races will start at the Stikine Inn and continue down Zimovia Highway to a turnaround. Labelled mile markers will guide the way and aid stations are plotted out at the 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 13.5 mile points. Runners then head back to the Nolan Center for awards and concluding events.

Registered runners and walkers alike will receive special medals of participation, and the winner of the marathon will receive a trip for two to the Anan Wildlife Observatory. A full route map is available online at http://www.usatf.org/routes/view.asp?rID=545905.

Putting the festival on is a big job. "We're always looking for more volunteers," Ettefagh said, especially for the marathon. Those interested in helping out are invited to call 874-3006 for more details.

A full schedule of events and additional information can be found online at http://www.alaska



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