PALMER -- Wasilla middle schooler and budding marine scientist Keefer Brown fell in love with seals at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. The 14-year-old wanted to "adopt" a seal for the center's SeaStar program, but had to raise the $50. He got the idea of scouring the beach for curious or attractive items while visiting his grandparents in Seldovia and using the flotsam to decorate candles he then sold from a table near the Seldovia boat harbor.
The candles found a market, word spread and Brown raised more than $2,300 for the center's sea animal rescue program.
That initiative earned him a $1,500 scholarship in the "Summer of Heroes" program, one of six recipients honored on the Colony Stage at the Alaska State Fair on Sunday.
The others were:
• Regan Fitzgerald, 18, of Anchorage: Children's rights advocate who created the Pillow Pals program for foster children and has organized the collection of baby supplies for women at Clare House and toys and clothes for other local charities.
• Stacey Garbett, 18, of Fairbanks: Who saved money from her dog-sitting job and raised additional funds to create four hospitality suites to help injured soldiers returning from combat to decompress and focus on their treatment.
• Julia Gebert, 12, of Anchorage: Who has raised funds for several nonprofit groups, including the American Cancer Society, Alaska Center for the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind. She herself is blind and a cancer survivor.
• Shaylee Rizzo, 17, of Kenai: Author of the children's book, "Missy the Moose," about a calf who's mother is killed by a car, she visits schools making highway safety and moose awareness presentations in a moose costume created by her grandmother.
• Courtney Stroh, 16, of Kenai: Who launched an environmental awareness campaign to prevent fish waste buildup on the beaches of Cook Inlet, making presentations, talking to fishermen and recruiting volunteers to hand out brochures about fish waste.
The Summer of Heroes program is sponsored by Alaska Communications and Boys and Girls Clubs of Alaska. Nominations for the awards were received from around the state over the summer. Recipients were selected for their contributions to their communities, including raising funds or awareness and creating innovative solutions to social problems.
Fitzgerald, now attending Arizona State University, was represented on stage by her mother, Laura Fitzgerald.
Brown received his check while seated in a wheelchair. It's only temporary, he said. He's recovering from recent surgery for cerebral palsy. His beachcombing and candle-selling was done on foot, prior to the surgery. "I can walk," he said.
Bet on cabbage
There's a new wrinkle in the favorite fair pastime of trying to guess how big the biggest cabbage at the fair will be this year. The inaugural Palmer Rotary Cabbage Classic is a lottery in which participants are asked to predict the weight of the winning cabbage. Think of it as the Nenana Ice Classic, valley-style. Tickets, $3 each, are being sold at a booth near the entry to the produce displays in the Farm Exhibits barn, the same place where you'll find the cows, pigs, a reindeer, a yak and other livestock.
There was no indication of any possible record breakers from the vegetables on display as of Sunday. A particularly hefty submission among the first arrivals can signal that something even larger is still in the field. But the 89.4-pound cabbage, 53.35-pound rutabaga and 15.95 pound turnip brought in so far are all well shy of previous champions.
The Palmer Rotarians provide guessers in their contest with a list of winning weights going back to 1998, cross-referenced with weather data for those years. The average temperature for the period of May 15-Aug. 12 this year, 54.3 degrees, is closest to that of 1998, when the winning weight was 89.4 pounds. The rainfall during the same period is identical to 2008, when the winning weight was just 79.1 pounds.
However, more humongous produce will come in this week. Expect big crowds for the Great Pumpkin Weigh-Off starting at noon on Tuesday and the annual Giant Cabbage Weigh-Off starting at 3 p.m. on Friday.
Beautiful weather brought out the throngs Saturday. The fair reported parking lots were filled and country musicians Big and Rich, due to perform Saturday night, were stuck in the traffic with more than 2,500 fans waiting for them to play in the Borealis Theatre. Palmer police stepped in and provided an escort to get the band to the stage on time.
Police also had to supply a flashing-light escort of Shamrock Pumping, which was trying to get to the fair to empty bathrooms and porta-potties. "The police commented that this was their first-even septic truck escort," said the media center press release, which also promised that a new sewage system "is on the way."
Pet a lion
Sunday morning's rain kept attendance light early in the day, though by mid-afternoon precipitation eased and lines of cars were heading for the fair without their wipers going. Even early in the day, the lines at the "Our Body: Live Healthy" exhibit at the Don Sheldon Events Center stretched out the door.
Another line was found at the Kid Zone building, where Woody's Menagerie, an educational wildlife presenter based in Mulberry Grove, Ill., was making an appearance at the state fair for the first time. People were craning their heads to see cages holding cute critters like a coatamundi, kinkajou, snow monkey, beaver and skunk. A grizzly bear cub about the size of a large dog romped and mugged for the visitors.
The thickest part of the line was at the cage with lion cubs. For $30, you and a friend could spend a few minutes in the den with them.
Seafood and chili
There was another line at the Borealis Plaza Tent where three teams of chefs were vying in the Alaska Seafood Throwdown. Visitors could sample the dishes and vote for their favorite. The line, however had to do with the fact that at the first station the Humpy's Great Alaskan Brewhouse was having trouble getting their entry, a cod taco, onto the counter. Some people realized that the other two stands were open and pulled ahead of the line to try Moose Bites's Paul Villnerve's Miso Corny Cod Chowder and Shredded Cod Tacos served on fried won ton by John D'Elia of Urban Bamboo. The spicy chowder appeared to be leading, though results were not available at press time.
Results of the Greatland Chili Fiesta held on Saturday were available, however. First place winners are:
• Salsa: Kathlleen Himmelright and Paula Ahrens
• Grind Chili: Mary Helms
• Chili Verde: Mike and Mary DeSpain
• Texas Red: Mike and Mary DeSpain
The DeSpains also won the People's Choice Awards for salsa, in addition to their Texas Red. The team of Himmelright and Ahrens received the award for Chili Verde. Steve Hanson was the People's Choice for Grind.
For foodies, Monday highlights will include the Alaska championships for the Great American SPAM contest, adult and kids divisions, in the Hoskins Exhibits building. Performances will include the Hooper Bay Dancers in the Raven's People Tent near the Red Gate entrance.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.