Beyond Anchorage: A guide to Alaska summer arts and cultural festivals

Mike Dunham

Summer brings a throng of festivals to the 49th state, celebrations profound and humble of music, art, literature and thought. While 2 million visitors tramp through Alaska in search of mountains, wildlife and the wonders of nature, a smaller but dedicated number of actual Alaskans travel the state in search of insights, culture and the wonders of humanity. 

Here’s a short list of a dozen outside-Anchorage festivals over the next four months. There are more on tap, many with details yet to emerge. Check back on Fridays in our weekly Play section. 

North Words Writers Symposium
Skagway, May 28-31

Simon Winchester, the author of “The Man Who Loved China,” “The Professor and the Madman,” “The Man Who United the States” and other historical studies of obsessive, eccentric geniuses, will be the keynote speaker at the fifth annual edition of Southeast Alaska’s up-and-coming literary fling. Alaskan participants will include state Writer Laureate Nora Marks Dauenhauer, Nick Jans, Heather Lende, Lael Morgan, John Straley and Deb Vanasse. Guest presenters will give talks and readings and offer one-on-one sessions with participants. There are also several field trips around historic Skagway.


Sitka Summer Music Festival
Sitka, May 31-June 29

The granddaddy of ’em all, this month-long event has been drawing the big names of chamber music to Sitka since the 1970s. An ongoing schedule of indoor and outdoor concerts, formal and casual, take place with special cruise and feed happenings mixed in. Festival director cellist Zuill Bailey will host founder violinist Paul Rosenthal, violist Marcus Thompson, violinist Benjamin Breen, cellist Evan Drachman, the Catalyst Quartet, Cypress String Quartet and pianists Awadagin Pratt, Eduard Zilberkant, Natasha Paremski and Susan Wingrove-Reed, among others, in standard repertoire from Schubert to Stravinsky — plus items you probably haven’t heard before, like Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” arranged for string quartet.


Last Frontier Theatre Conference
Valdez, June 8-14

Prince William Sound Community College’s 22-year tradition of bringing top theater talent to the 49th state continues with guest artists including actor Kim Estes (“How I Met Your Mother,” “Dexter,” “The Closer”), New York director Erma Duricko and playwrights Timothy Daly and Eric Coble. Workshops and full productions of local productions are offered, but the main attraction is the near-constant readings of new plays by aspiring writers from Alaska and around the world. A few of the interesting titles on the roster are “Happy Hour,” “A Duct Tale,” “The World’s Worst Puppeteers” and “Beheading Vampire Puppies.”


Juneau, June 11-14

The Sealaska Heritage Institute sponsors this biennial Northwest Indian dance and culture festival that draws thousands of people to Alaska’s capital city. Besides the dance and regalia, there’s a juried art show, a Native artist market, seaweed and soapberry contests, workshops, lectures and a huge parade through downtown Juneau. Most hotel rooms in the vicinity have already been booked, we hear, as befits something billed as “the largest cultural event in the state.”


Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference
Homer, June 13-17

Nationally recognized authors, editors and agents present readings, workshops and talks about the craft and business of writing. Optional activities include manuscript reviews, consultations with editors and agents, receptions, a boat cruise and “open mike” sessions for participants. This year’s keynote speaker is Alice Sebold (“The Lovely Bones”). Alaskans on the “faculty” include Rich Ciappone, Debbie Dahl Edwardson, Tom Kizzia, Nancy Lord, Eva Saulitis, Peggy Shumaker, Sherry Simpson and Eown Ivey, whose best-selling novel “The Snow Child” had its genesis at this conference.


Chicken, June 13-14

Since 2007, this grass-roots celebration of “top of the world” music and culture has brought fans as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get in a car. Bluegrass and folk music rule and camping out at the historic mining camp is the preferred accommodation as chicken-heads celebrate under the midnight sun. The lineup includes the Dry Cabin String Band (you gotta be a real Alaskan to get the joke in that name), Super Saturated Sugar Strings, Two KatFish, Fishhead Stew, Robin Dale Ford and Green Tara and Her Handsome Gents.


Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival
Fairbanks, June 13-27

The Interior’s long-established “summer arts camp for adults” offers courses in everything from accordions to woodwinds, Polynesian dance to tango, Irish drumming to meditation, creative writing to cabaret and tai chi to Thai cuisine. Concerts during the session include a Gospel finale, an orchestral and choral concert led by Robert Franz of the Houston Symphony, a Beatles tribute, steel drumming and world dance extravaganzas.


The Sitka Symposium
Sitka, July 18-25

After a hiatus of five years, this cerebral affirmation of the power of stories and the written word resumes — just in time for its 30th anniversary. Guest faculty will include Alan Weisman, Winona LaDuke and Molly Sturges. Readings, talks and insightful group discussions will consider how creative individuals can transform their communities. Each day begins with a panel or talk at breakfast, followed by group events and space for participants to write down their thoughts.


Jazz at the Cove
Halibut Cove, July 26-27

The Dan Mac Band returns to the hamlet across from Homer with a series of programs played from a floating stage. Jazz pianist Dan MacElrath will be joined by trumpeter Brad Shermock of the Doc Severenson Big Band and extraordinary Alaska vocalist John “Pypes” Teamer, along with drummer Cameron Cartland, saxophonist Nelson Felix Jr. and Dirk Westfall on bass. Executive Chef Maura Brenin does the culinary honors. Proceeds benefit the Homer Foundation.


Ninilchik, Aug. 1-3 

In just four years, this outdoor roots-rock/bluegrass/folk fusion festival has grown into one of the best-attended summer celebrations in the state. This year’s lineup will feature Grammy winner Lucinda Williams and include Tim Easton and Hard Working Americans among the 50 bands set to play on four stages. A free shuttle service takes participants from nearby campgrounds to the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds. It’s sponsored by the Renewable Resources Foundation, and you can expect to hear save-the-planet pitches along with the music — sort of a camp meeting revival with real camping and plenty of Alaska beer served in recyclable cups. “Early-bird” tickets purchased by May 31 will save you about $30 on daily and multi-day prices at the gate.


Home Skillet Festival
Sitka, Aug. 8-9

This will be the ninth year for the most cutting-edge festival in the state. Independent and eclectic music acts will perform at the Sea Mountain Golf Course — not on the green but in an indoor venue. Bands include Hightek Lowlives, Budo Vox, Mod and local performers associated with Sitka’s own Home Skillet Records.


Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.