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Bearfest takes army of volunteers, 1 general

August 3, 2014 Updated: August 3, 2014 at 6:00 am

WRANGELL, Alaska (AP) — It is the first day of the fifth annual Wrangell Bearfest, and Sylvia Ettefagh is looking at the clock.

"Score! I have one more hour than I thought I did. What else can I do?" she said.

It seems a typical expression for the hard-charging Bearfest organizer, who also divides her time among commercial fishing, tourism and community interests.

Five years ago, Ettefagh founded Bearfest to promote tourism to Wrangell. She founded Alaska Vistas tour boat company to boost Wrangell's economy after its sawmill closed and the salmon industry dipped. Bearfest seemed a natural extension of Alaska Vistas' work.

Today, she asks to take the focus away from herself and to the volunteers who make the festival possible — then she stops talking as she looks down a list.

There's 10 volunteers assigned to the First Bank aid station in the marathon. Do they really need that many? She talks to one of her employees and makes an adjustment.

"I'm always looking for weak links," she said.

If Ettefagh doesn't deserve the lion's share of credit for Bearfest, it's hard to imagine someone else who does.

John Verhey, Ettefagh's husband, talked about the couple's history as he maneuvered a jet boat carrying a load of bear experts to Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory.

They met in the mid-1980s when both came to Alaska as fisheries biologists for the National Marine Fisheries Service. Serving in the Bering Sea and the Aleutians, they realized that the money was in catching fish, not watching others catch it.

They started commercial fishing, commuting from Seattle to Southeast Alaska, but eventually decided to make Wrangell their full-time home.

"We decided we wanted to be closer to the politics and the community," he said.

The political aspect has had its ups and downs — Ettefagh served on the Wrangell clinic's board of directors until being recalled in a 2012 special election — but it hasn't slowed the rest of her work.

The pair operate a salmon gillnetter with the help of a crewman and hold halibut IFQ, but their summers are still filled with jet boat tours and tourists on a bear high.

"We wanted to stay but needed to support our salmon habit," Verhey said of the reason behind starting Alaska Vistas.

This summer, they've employed a crowd to help them run Alaska Vistas. During Bearfest, everyone works double duty to carry the festival — sometimes literally. While Ceona Koch and Leanna Rice conduct bear-themed games for kids in Wrangell Pool, other Bearfest volunteers are hauling one of the festival's ubiquitous painted fiberglass statues to a new location.

For the past five years, Ettefagh has been buying the statues from a factory in Wisconsin and arranging volunteers to paint them — the better to connect the festival to the Wrangell community.

During this year's July 4 Parade, the statues were wheeled out along the parade route while a new statue made its debut in the parade. By the time the parade ended, the spectators had taken off for new locations: "They'll have been spread around town, they'll be in the bars, they'll be at parties," Ettefagh said.

Producing the statues takes a big effort, but so does producing the rest of Bearfest. About two-thirds of Bearfest's funding comes from donated items and time, and that means asking for donations between annual celebrations.

Bearfest, commercial fishing and a tourism business are a lot of work, but Ettefagh piles on another job. Each winter, she returns to the Bering Sea to manage the Unalaska Fleet Cooperative, a fleet of pollock trawlers that deliver to Alyeska Seafoods.

When the final fish comes in from the Bering Sea, Ettefagh will board a plane and head back to Wrangell. After all, there's another Bearfest to plan.

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