Bear Paw Pageant returns Thursday after yearlong hibernation

Thursday, August 3, 2017 - 15:59

Chugiak High School student Sarah Dykman holds a unique distinction: A 2015 Bear Paw Pageant Princess, she’s one of the longest-reigning royals in the history of the event.

Now it’s almost time to cede the throne.

“I’m totally OK with giving up my crown,” said Dykman, 15. “I’ve had it for two years.”

After the retirement of two longtime volunteers, the pageant was cancelled in 2016, according to event organizers. A community variety show was hosted in its place, and the 2015 Bear Paw Court kept their titles for another summer.

This year, though, the Bear Paw Pageant is back, bringing familiar faces and new competitors alike.

“We’ve been practicing for the last two weeks,” said pageant director Deb Morton a week-and-a-half out from the big day. “They’re ready.”

This year’s event (which is scheduled for July 13) features 26 competitors – 13 girls and 13 boys – plus a littles’ component for kids age 4-12, Morton said. The teens compete in a costume competition and interviews, and the four winners receive $500-$1,000 scholarships sponsored by the Sleeping Lady Lions, the Chugiak-Eagle River Foundation, Chugiak-Eagle River Women in Business and the Eagle River Elks. It all takes place over the course of one magical evening in the auditorium at Chugiak High School.

Morton, who organized last year’s variety show, officially took on the revived pageant project in March, she said. Panic started to set in about a week out from the show.

“I want to do right by the community and right by the kids,” she said. “But they have done the majority of everything – the hardest part is getting out there and strutting your stuff.”

Finding girls to participate in the scholarship pageant was no problem, Morton said; finding boys to take part was more difficult.

As reigning Bear Paw Princess, Dykman sticks around to help show them all the ropes.

“My role is just to help the contestants gain confidence on stage – being confident in who they are on stage — and just giving the pep talk,” she said. “Really, my job’s kind of easy this year, but I know what it’s like to be on the other side as a contestant. Sometimes it can be very high stress, so I’m here to help make it a smooth process.”

Competitors come from across Chugiak-Eagle River, according to event organizers. The pageant brings them closer together.

“It’s a family thing,” Morton said. “We’re all family here in Eagle River.”

Sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally: In years past, Bear Paw Pageant participants have been schoolmates, siblings, cousins and neighbors. In 2015, brothers Stephen and Erik Lochner were crowned Bear Paw king and prince.

Unlike many other pageants, the Bear Paw Pageant judges competitors on poise, creativity, friendliness and service to community, according to festival organizers. The pageant’s costume contest is a chance to get creative, and the show is about community spirit and giving back, not glamour.

“I’ve never been into the whole glitz and glam, and the Bear Paw Pageant is nowhere near the glitz and glam,” Dykman said. “It’s all about having fun.”

Volunteering is a major component. Winners are expected to take of various community service opportunities throughout the year, Morton said.

“My goal is to get them involved in the community and give back – something that I feel very strongly about is giving back and being part of the community and showing them that these kids are not what we think Millennials are,” Morton said. “They’re a good group.”

As Bear Paw Princess, Dykman’s volunteered for the Salvation Army, the Elks and the Lions. On July 3, she spent the evening painting kids’ faces at the local fireworks display at Eagle River Lions Park. The annual Independence Day show was a favorite community custom, Dykman said. So is Bear Paw itself.

“I’ve always been in the parades; it’s always been one of my biggest family traditions – going to Bear Paw,” Dykman said.

This year, a missing part of that tradition is back in place.

“It’s very much like the first week of school: Everyone’s getting to know each other,” Dykman said. “But the best thing about pageants is you’re making new friends, and that’s really important to me.”

For results, check next week’s Star. For more information and a complete festival schedule of events, visit

Contact reporter Kirsten Swann at

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