How Do They Do It? A Closer Look at the McGrath Bluegrass Festival

by AK Fire Info

With the end of a long fire season somewhere out on that horizon, many of the support staff at the DNR Mcgrath Fire Base took time off Saturday to enjoy McGrath’s “Ninth Annual Back to Bluegrass Festival” at McGrath’s Anderson Park.

“Hit Me With Your Best Shot” echoed loudly through the woods adjacent to the DNR Helibase. Not quite a bluegrass song, but McGrath’s Annual Back to Bluegrass Festival is unique in many ways.

“Sometimes we have bands that don’t play any bluegrass at all,” said Jonny Samuelson, co-coordinator and emcee of the event, which draws hundreds of visitors from remote communities and big cities alike.

Seven vendors are selling food including Kalbi Short Ribs, nachos, artichoke and jalapeño-chicken crepes, and cotton candy. Four bands took turns entertaining attendees gathered under canopies, mingling on the softball field, listening and dancing to rock and roll, country, the blues, and yes, bluegrass.

“It’s expensive to travel in rural Alaska,” explained Samuelson, it’s great when people can bring their families to an event other than a funeral.” Samuelson is the emcee for the two-day event. He stands next to Dave Patty, manager of McGrath’s public radio station KSKO. Patty is working at his soundboard, adjusting levels and watching the band closely.

Excess funds from the festival will be donated to KSKO, which began broadcasting to Southwest Alaska Area residents in 1981. For the first ten years, Patty and a regular staff of six employees, content contributors and volunteers played long sets of obscure and popular music — while keeping listeners informed. They routinely gave updates about the hundreds of wildfires that visit the Southwest Alaska Area each year, threatening the Alaskan way of life.

Patty is visibly concerned about what he believes is the pending loss of “power subsidization” for McGrath and residents of remote Alaska, paid by the state to energy companies to help offset their high cost of transporting fuel to remote areas.

“Fuel powers our electricity,” explained Patty. “With fuel at seven dollars a gallon now, I fear KSKO won’t survive higher power bills.”

Samuelson, Christine Harrington and Jamie Evan have co-coordinated McGrath’s Back to Bluegrass Festival since 2011.

“They do it all,” said Patty. “They know everyone, they put in a lot of work to make this happen.”

Harrington, an initial attack dispatcher at the DNR McGrath Fire Base, enlisted sponsors for this year’s event including the McGrath Native Village Council, Hotel McGrath, Innoko Lodge, Alaska Air Transit, and the Donlin Mine.

Harrington also organized a fishing derby to raise money for the event — the biggest Pike and biggest Sheefish caught during the derby were measured at 38 inches each.

“This festival is important for McGrath and area communities,” said Evan. “When we started this it was more local, but now it involves everyone. It’s a real boost to our economy, even if it does rain “After all,” Evan said smiling, “we’re not made of sugar.