Special Correspondent Tam Agosti-Gisler visited Cordova and attended the annual Iceworm Festival. Here is her report (including photos!).
“Happy Iceworm!” You’ll hear this greeting in only one place in the world! That’s Cordova, Alaska during its annual Iceworm Festival. Held in the first week of February, it’s a tradition that’s been occurring since 1961 in this small coastal fishing community located in the Prince William Sound. The festival was conceived to encourage locals to get out of their homes and visit with their neighbors as the winter days lengthened.
What is this festival celebrating? Are iceworms real? Well, perhaps not the 50-foot creature you see in Cordova, but iceworms really do exist in Alaska’s glaciers. First discovered by Dr. G. F. Wright on Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, they grow ¼ to 1” long, and about 1/32” wide. Brown or black in color, iceworms look like littles pieces of dark string squiggling in the ice or snow, These cousins of the earthworm are so well adapted to freezing temperatures that if you expose them to above 38-degree conditions, they liquify and melt!
I’ve known about the festival for more than 50 years. I recall first seeing the Iceworm as a child when it made an appearance in Anchorage’s Fur Rendezvous parade. My own children also watched the giant iceworm undulate down Anchorage streets during the Rondy parade in their childhoods. The Cordova Iceworm even won first prize in the Anchorage’s parade one year! After my many adventures and sojourns around the world and to every other state in the union, I decided it was important to add to my list the various events in my home state of Alaska. I’ve been to the Fourth of July festivities in Valdez, Homer, and Seward; the New Year’s Eve gathering in Talkeetna and the Iditarod Sled Dog Race finale in Nome. The Iceworm Festival was this year’s choice!
My husband and I hopped on Alaska Airlines‘ Friday afternoon flight and arrived in Cordova in less than one hour. There is currently no taxi or Uber service operating in Cordova, but you’ll find a shuttle to take you the 12 miles to town at the car rental office across the parking lot from the terminal; they charge $15 per person. You can also rent a car but there aren’t many roads to drive! We headed straight to check-in at the Reluctant Fisherman Hotel, located just one block south of Main Street on the harbor. Shortly, we were out exploring this small, zero stoplight town. Since we enjoy trying local Alaskan microbreweries, we stopped at the Copper River Brewing Company and tried their new release of Iceworm Double IPA and raspberry seltzer, both quite tasty. They sponsor a homebrew competition during the festival this is quite popular.
That first evening. we intended to participate in the festival coronation ceremony and variety show, but the on-line schedule had us arriving at the Cordova Center one hour too late. Nonetheless, we were able to see Miss Iceworm and her court before heading back to the hotel. We learned it’s best to ask a local for an update on the times of all events because even the newspaper didn’t have all listed correctly.
Saturday was packed with activities and the streets were packed with snow as the clouds let loose their white fluff and covered the brown earth. While the State plow went to work, we attended a fundraiser breakfast at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, up on the hill across the street from the elementary school. For just $15, we received a plentiful breakfast of eggs, reindeer sausage, potatoes, waffles and pancakes, and corn bread or a falafel meal! Pleasant conversations ensued with our tablemates during which we learned more about both the festival and town life. Afterwards, we hiked the three blocks down the hill to the port. From our on-land vantage point near South Harbor, we watched four-person teams compete for the fastest time to put on survival suits, plunge into the bay and swim to a waiting boat. (This event gave me flashbacks to the survival suit demo given on my Antarctic expedition cruise and my later polar plunge. I was happy that someone else was jumping into the freezing water rather than me!)
We took a walk on main street (2nd Avenue) and stopped in the Iceworm Store. As someone who collects Fur Rondy pins, I was interested in seeing their 61-year collection of Iceworm festival pins. Learning that they also have Cordova Iceworm Magistrates, not unlike Anchorage’s Rondy Keystone Cops, we both wore 2023 festival pins on our coats. I even bought a pair of Iceworm antennae to wear on my head in order to “blend in” with the locals! Copper Valley Wireless was giving away free hot chocolate and other soft drinks and the mood was festive. The art gallery in the Cordova Center featured a photo show in which we voted for local artist entries in several categories and studied festival memorabilia. In the next room is a small, but excellent history museum and across the hall, the local library. On a lower level of this well-designed community center is a theatre. The Iceworm Bazaar was set up in the theatre’s lobby selling crocheted ice worms among other locally produced items.
While waiting on main street for the parade to start, I lunched at one of the several food vendors, all fundraisers for local groups. This year’s festival theme was superheroes, so capes and masks were in abundance. A miniature iceworm warmed up the spectators by posing for photos. Many groups like the Girl Scouts, the high school band and the swim team participated in the parade as well as bank, telecommunication, and utility businesses. The Chugach National Forest rangers brought Smokey the Bear as their special guest to celebrate the forest’s 100th birthday. Each group gave out some type of parade swag, including full-sized candy bars! The young boy next to me reveled in his “take” and we both agreed that this was even better than Halloween because costumed people came and gave him candy without walking from house to house! The three local firetrucks and one ambulance joined the parade and transported the Miss Iceworm Queen and her court. The larger 50-foot Iceworm with its many legs was the parade’s grand finale. The crowds cheered loudly as it wiggled down the street. We were informed by a local that this was the “smaller” Ice Worm; evidently, there is a 150-feet long worm used some years! After the parade, we joined the community for the free ice cream social at the Pioneer Club house.
There are not a lot of choices for dining out in Cordova during the winter months, but the menu options given at our hotel restaurant were interesting and tasty. Guests were allowed access to watch the Fireworks Extravaganza from the restaurant’s balcony that evening. The festival concluded with a wonderful firework display over the harbor which I noted lasted longer than most Anchorage shows!
Other activities of the festival include an oyster shucking contest, a raffle, a basketball game, a cribbage tournament, a brownie bake-off, disco skiing at the town’s rope tow, a teen dance and music performances in a local bar. We learned that in past years, there have been contests for beard growing, dog release and catch, paper airplane flying and fishing as well as sidewalk crab feeds and street dances; activities can vary from year to year.
What impressed us most about Cordova is the friendliness of the locals. All vehicles would instantly stop if we wanted to cross the street. Every person we approached with our questions was helpful and interested in chatting about our visit. The number of locals participating in the festivities was also impressive. We believe the lack of a road to Cordova, with access only by ferry, boat, or plane, plays a role in maintaining this strong community-spirit. I encourage other Alaskans and visitors from other states to check out next year’s festivities.
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