Getting down and dirty at Alaska’s most “disgusting” footrace
Florida teenager Valerie Chapman watched in terror as her aunt ran toward her Saturday afternoon carrying the rotten carcass of a slimy, bloody pink salmon.
“It was disgusting,” said Chapman, whose aunt, Eagle River’s Laura Davidson, brought her up to Alaska this summer for a graduation present.
Taking part in the Slippery Salmon Olympics at the annual Bear Paw Festival in her aunt’s hometown, Chapman said, “seemed like a good idea at the time.”
The annual race is a smelly centerpiece event of the festival, this year attracting 19 teams of locals and visitors drawn by the odd allure of a race that pits teams of two against the clock on a short, sloppy relay in which a year-old dead “humpy” and can of Coke must be carried through an obstacle course.
Davidson ran the first leg of her team’s relay, but as she approached her niece, Chapman refused to take the fish. After some prodding from the crowd, Davidson simply thrust the fish into Chapman’s arms.
“She didn’t want to grab the gills, so I just put it under her arm and there she went,” Davidson said.
Chapman said she had expected to be wearing gloves. After reluctantly completing her leg of the race while hugging a stinky fish wasn’t exactly her cup of tea, she admitted she’ll have a good fish story story to tell when she gets back to the Sunshine State.
“I never want to touch a dead fish again, but it was an experience,” she said before walking off to find a place to change out of her slime-covered t-shirt. “I really want to get these dead fish guts off me.”
In fairness to Chapman, the fish were legitimately disgusting; emcee Eddie Maxwell said the Willow Creek-caught fish have been “ripening for a year,” and they didn’t get any less ripe as the warm, humid afternoon wore on.
Still, according to one longtime competitor, being afraid to get your hands dirty is a rookie mistake.
“You can’t be afraid to touch a fish,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowksi, who said she’s participated in at least 10 Slippery Salmon Olympics since taking office in 2002.
On Saturday, Murkowski’s team went up against a team led by Sen. Dan Sullivan in the opening heat, with the wily veteran getting the best of her colleague.
“I like to say I’m very practiced,” said Murkowski, whose team narrowly missed out on a trip to the semifinals.
Murkowski said she returns to the event year after year despite knowing she’ll end up getting slimed.
“You have to ignore how gross every single fish is,” she said. “You have to recognize you are doing this for the pure fun of it.”
She said the event embodies the unique, small-town spirit of Eagle River’s annual midsummer fun-fest.
“We often think of Eagle River as kind of an extension of Anchorage,” she said. “This is a reminder that this is a very strong community on its own.”
This year’s race winners used some hometown cooking to win the raw fish race. Eagle River’s Esteban Trujillo — who also won the event in 2015 — teamed up with Anchorage’s Ivan Cuevas to claim a narrow victory in the day’s final race.
A first-time racer, Cuevas said his speed came thanks to his utter disgust with the event.
“I hate salmon,” Cuevas said. “I don’t fish, I don’t eat it, so the faster I did it the faster I was done with it.”
As for Trujillo, the victory capped an impressive Saturday that also saw him place third in the Bear Paw 5K race earlier in the day.
“I’m very competitive,” he deadpanned.
Among this year’s also-rans were newlyweds Jonathan and Erika Hughes of Houston, Texas. In Alaska on their honeymoon, the couple decided to ride out on motorcycles to check out the festival a short drive north of Anchorage.
“You can’t skip a slippery salmon contest,” Jonathan said.
As they walked away, Erika pointed to a large, wet splotch on her husband’s leg.
“You’ve got salmon guts on your pants — or is that Coke?” she asked.
Murkowksi — who spent several hours mingling with the crowds at Bear Paw — said the event is a great chance for her to get down and dirty with her constituents. She told a story about trying to explain the contest to a fellow member of Congress before leaving Washington D.C.
“I said, ‘Well, it’s kind of this obstacle course where you carry a really rotted, ugly, dead salmon with a can and a tray and you’re going around a pink flamingo. And he looks at me and goes, ‘You don’t have to do that, do you?’ I said, ‘No I don’t, but do I enjoy doing it? Yes,” Murkowski said. “I think it’s always nice for people to know your senator is an average crazy person, too.”