Bearfest takes army of volunteers, 1 general

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 3, 2014 at 4:56 am •  Published: August 3, 2014

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.

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