Last summer I attended the best parade ever, at the annual Sointula Salmon Days festival. It starts down by the cemetery and winds all the way along First Avenue by the sea, past the ferry dock, the Co-op, the bakery, the pub, a few more pretty buildings, then it turns up past the little museum (which used to be the old school house) and heads up towards the ball park. It is an event not to be missed:
Think big red fire engine (Malcom Island’s one and only) slowly crawling down First Avenue, loudly honking as it follows the mountie in red surge who has come over, on the ferry, in order to start the parade off right. Following behind them march a long line of folk from babes in arms to flying Finns in scooters who’ve left the seniors’ centre for the day, to the Salmon Days King & Queen.
Everyone’s in the parade and the people who aren’t in the parade are watching it. You just have to participate in it, or at least watch it, because there are lots of prizes to be had: there’s a prize for the best-dressed bicycle, the best-dressed horse, the best-dressed tractor, and the best-dressed pick-up truck. There are prizes for the best kids’ costume and the best adult costume… . I might not have the criteria completely accurate here, but you get the picture!
Last year you should have seen the amazing flowery float that the community gardeners put together; then the giant salmon float literally floated down the street and up to the ball park again for another year.
And that’s where everyone goes after the parade – the ball park, because that is where the salmon roast takes place. The salmon just came in off the boats the day before, and it’s on this weekend that all the Sointula fishermen take a day off their boats, crack open a cold one, and celebrate the fish that has made this little community as vibrant as it is.
Sointula was founded over a hundred years ago by idealistic socialists, mostly hard-working Finns, who came over from Finland or up from the Cumberland mines of the Comox Valley. They came to make a utopian and cooperative community (indeed, western Canada’s oldest Co-op is still open to greet arrivals at the Sointula ferry dock), and although their business plans didn’t make it off the ground, the salmon fishery did. Several generations later, the fishery ain’t what it used to be, but the gill netters still go out there every summer, and a few seiners too, and they all come back for the Sointula Salmon Festival.
Back up at the ball park, you’ll see lots and lots of families. Someone told me that Salmon Days is kind of like an annual reunion. The kids who have left the island to find work return every year and their kids get to visit the grandparents while they reunite with their old school buddies. I met old friends of my husband’s parents, and they made me feel at home. Everyone’s welcome! Young couples and old ones, gardeners and fishermen, artists and tourists, and children running happily everywhere.
Besides seeing relaxed people strolling and visiting at the ball park, you’ll see lots of booths – booths selling homemade jams and crafts, hot dogs, raffle tickets, and of course, delicious pülla – a traditional Finnish sweet cardamon bread. You’ll watch folks lining up at a dunk tank to pitch balls and soak other good-natured folks.There’s also a temporary stage set up over the home plate in front of the batting cage, and talented islanders sing and play (extremely well) all afternoon, entertaining the crowds sitting at the tables below them.
Everyone’s waiting for the salmon to be ready sometime in the late afternoon. The fillets have been skewered over cedar sticks and propped above two long trenches of crackling fire. By 4 o’clock, the air is sweet with the smell of grilled salmon. For our $15, we line up and ladies in aprons generously dole out large helpings of caesar and potato salads, and then slap a mondo fillet of freshly grilled sockeye onto a big, thick paper plate that groans under the weight of supper. One serving is enough to fill my two teenage girls, and we picnic on the cool grass in the shade of the trees at the far end of the field.
By evening’s fall, we’re too tired to party on, but Sointula Salmon Days are far from over. There’s a dance party at the hall for those who had the foresight to buy the now sold-out tickets. We choose to stroll home, picking blackberries along the side of the road as we go. It has been a great day, and it’s time to get some sleep. After all, tomorrow will begin with a community pancake breakfast, cooked outside the bakery, beside the ferry dock. Another talented island string band will play while we down flapjacks and sausages, sticky maple syrup and strong coffee.
After that, folks will start packing up and heading for the ferry. With all those festive memories in mind, we’ll have to look forward to another Sointula Salmon Days weekend – next year.
If you haven’t already gathered it by now, Sointula is a friendly little community, located on Malcom Island, just off the north east coast of Vancouver Island, BC. It is a great place to visit for a laid-back holiday.
For more information about Sointula Salmon Days, check out its official website: sointulasalmondays.com.