Northern Adventures Series: Southeast Alaska State Fair in Haines

Split Lip Rayfield

I recently traveled up to Yukon and Alaska for two weeks and decided to check out some cultural and musical events in the various towns that I visited. Here is the third and final part in a mini-series of my Northern Adventures.

My first week in Yukon was coming to an end and by now I had met a bunch of new awesome people. Many of them kept asking, more like insisting, that we go to the Alaskan state fair in Haines. They were adamant that the music was good, the vibe was laid back, the beers were great, and it would be a perfect way to cap off my northern adventures. So I looked at my trusted travel guide Alex who said, “Sounds like fun, let’s go!” It would also work perfectly with our trip to a glacier in Skagway, Alaska.

We set up camp on Friday night and headed out to a local bar called Fogcutters for some pints and a cover band. During the night I was told by a few people that I really missed out by not going to the fair and passing on the boisterous and dancy Yukon band named The Whiskeydicks. Feeling a little bummed out I took out a copy of the program and to my delight I noticed The Whiskeydicks played another set Saturday.

That day, we made our way to the Southeast Alaska State Fair. You know what they say: fool me once shame on you, fool twice shame on me. The Whiskeydicks did not disappoint at all.  They played a great set, with a lot of energy and crowd interaction. This was awesome considering they had played 13 hours ago to a much larger crowd of people dancing and singing along, and now they were playing to a mostly sitting crowd with some little kids dancing and hula-hooping.  They were not phased at all, rocking songs like “Cheechako” which is the term used for newcomers to the North who are ignorant of the terrain, the weather, the animals, the culture, etc. They also played a drinking song off their new album with a chorus about raising your glass, encouraging everyone to raise an imaginary glass of air (as the stageside beer garden was not yet open). And for good measure they threw in “Dirty Old Town,” an old British folk tune made famous by The Dubliners and The Pogues.

Lumberjack competing at the Southeast Alaska State Fair.
Lumberjack competition at the Southeast Alaska State Fair.

There was music throughout the day, but it was a small fair in Alaska so there was no way I was going to just sit around to watch music… I needed to explore. With my musical thirst quenched by The Whiskeydicks, I walked around the fairgrounds towards the logging area for the lumberjack competitions. Is the term lumberjill for the women? There was axe-throwing, saw-bucking, log-rolling, and much more. The highlight was an event where each participant had to run from a start line with a chainsaw in hand, walk up a diagonal log reaching about 12 feet in the air, make a cut on each side of the log, cut through, walk back down and then run back to the line. It looked so ridiculously hard, especially considering only two of the eight participants completed it.

Eauro-Asian Owl on display at the Southeast Alaska State Fair. It was huge, this woman is close to six feet tall.
Euro-Asian Owl on display at the Southeast Alaska State Fair. It was huge, this woman is close to six feet tall.

More walking around led me to find a bird show where handlers had a humongous Euro-Asian Owl and a red-tailed falcon, a petting zoo, games and rides, a most excellent selection of food stands including cream cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped jalapeños, and many vendor & info booths. I really liked the vibe.

Later in the evening I caught two more musical acts. Vagabond Swing are an eclectic, high-energy act from Lafayette, now based out of Los Angeles. It was their first time in Haines just like me and they clearly wanted to make the most of it. With their faces painted, some reminding me of a black and white versions of the ultimate warrior, and their excellent gypsy-jazz-punk-fusion (might as well throw in the kitchen sink, their sound came from everywhere) had the whole place dancing. Their sound, appearance and mannerisms transformed the fair into more of a circus during their set and no one was complaining. And to ensure everyone was paying attention and on their toes, they masterfully covered “Fallin’” by Alicia Keys. Way out of left field!

Closing out Saturday night was Split Lip Rayfield. (Pictured at the top of the article.) This up tempo bluegrass band caught my attention before even playing a note. One of their members walked onto the stage with truck gas-tank with frets and a pick up on it. Bass player Jeff Eaton  plays a modified gas-tank and plays it really well and really fast. Team that up with a banjo player and a mandolin player and you have quite the party. The boys built on the momentum of Vagabond Swing and sent the crowd into a dancing frenzy. A most excellent last piece of my northern adventure.