Having lived for years in Philadelphia — a city that makes the most of its powdered wig-era history — I associate the Fourth of July with vast crowds contained by police barricades and televised spectacles involving pop stars and politicians.
As you might imagine, Tenakee Springs celebrates Independence Day a bit differently. Here the Fourth is a DIY community fun-fest. People look forward to it for weeks, and many residents pitch in to help make it an enjoyable holiday for all. Of course, fireworks, burgers, and American flags feature prominently. But there is also grilled halibut fresh from the ocean. A slug-slinging contest. And the Alaskan weather is just chilly enough to demand a coat and hat.
As per tradition, the holiday kicked off with a five-minute parade including kids on star-spangled bikes and local musicians playing banjo and accordion.
Following a hearty potluck feast, the games began! Residents and visitors of all ages competed in races including the giant undie race and the slow bike race. (My husband and I joined in the egg toss and the men vs. women tug-of-war, which the men won just barely.)
And then there was the Slug-Slinging Contest.
European black slugs — an invasive species here — are the most reviled animal in Tenakee due to their habit of destroying peoples’ gardens. Residents have devised all manner of ways to kill them. Some people collect the slugs and drop them into a salty slug-slurry. Others have built miniature electric fences around their gardens intended to fry the slugs. Mostly people stomp them on sight, but because the slugs are cannibalistic, their corpses only draw more slugs into town.
I have not killed any yet, being something of a conscientious objector in the war on slugs. At first they did seem like vile creatures, and I raised my shoe over the first one that crossed my path. But when I looked more closely, I noticed the slug’s little eye-stalks waving around as it explored the world. Instead of a garden-wrecking cannibal made out of mucus, the slug seemed like a lost wanderer. I imagined it as a slow and weary exile from its European homeland, and after that I could not very well bring myself to stomp it.
So while I was tempted to enter the Fourth of July slug-slinging contest, I remained a neutral observer on the sidelines. Contestants took turns impaling the hapless gastropods on a stick and competing to see who could hurl them the furthest down the dock.
Every slug cost $1 to sling; the winner kept half the pot with the other half going to fund a restoration of the old hot springs bathhouse here in town. With the slug-slinging plus a raffle and other donations collected over the course of the day, the bathhouse fund earned more than $3,000!
To me the Fourth of July in Tenakee is a reminder that you don’t need anything fancy or expensive to put on a successful, participatory event. Tasty food, banjo music, giant underwear, and a bucketful of slugs… I will keep this lesson in mind if and when I am ever involved in coordinating museum events!
Edit [July 10, 2012]: Today while processing a paper collection, I came across even more historical photos of July 4 in Tenakee! These are from 1964.