A river runs through it

Corrina Baggs
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The Salmon Festival has been entertaining crowds for 25 years

The Exploits Valley Salmon Festival turns 25 this year. It was first held in 1985 as a five-day regional salute to the migrating Atlantic salmon.

But its story really begins in 1983, with the formation of the Environment Resources Management Association (ERMA).

Formed out of a desire to enhance salmon stocks in the Exploits River, 25 years later the Exploits Valley Salmon Festival has turned into a major cultural, environmental and musical event on the provincial calendar. Advertiser file photo

Grand Falls-Windsor -

The Exploits Valley Salmon Festival turns 25 this year. It was first held in 1985 as a five-day regional salute to the migrating Atlantic salmon.

But its story really begins in 1983, with the formation of the Environment Resources Management Association (ERMA).

ERMA was formed by a group of people involved with the local Chamber of Commerce who felt that there was potential for the Exploits River to become a world class Atlantic salmon river.

They began to work with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to reach this goal.

"I was president of ERMA," recalls Don Pelley. "And back in the day, we were heavily involved in the salmon enhancement program on the river."

From 1986 to 1992 more than 50 million salmon fry were released in streams all over the Exploits River. Fish passages were constructed on the river system to help the salmon return upstream and an interpretation centre was built to provide public education, which has become one of the largest tourism sites in the central region.

Initially, the idea behind the salmon festival was to increase environmental awareness and focus attention on the river and its ecosystem.

Keith Cormier was involved with ERMA at the time and he suggested the idea of a salmon festival to Pelley.

"I think he was up in New Brunswick somewhere and saw a salmon association up there with a salmon festival," said Pelley.

"He figured it might work here; probably looking at it over a period of years, we could build on it and build on it. The idea sounded good to me at the time and we were looking for ideas."

They formed a committee and approached the town councils in the region, but they didn't get a great response at first.

The original idea was for the salmon festival to run the entire summer, going from Leading Tickles to Buchans.

"The first one to take on the idea was George Saunders in Bishop's Falls, the mayor at the time," said Pelley. "The first two years it was in Bishop's Falls. We incorporated it with their log jam festival and had a two- to three-day festival."

The first festival was called "Fish and Fun While the Salmon Run." It was a weekend for residents, families and tourists passing through.

"The third year we started getting response from the towns of Grand Falls and Windsor," Pelley continued. "We held a salmon dinner up at the Lion's Club in Windsor, and it's been up here ever since.

"We sat up our own in-house committee to organize the salmon festival. As it started to grow, it got a bit too big. So we approached Paul Hennessey, who was mayor of Grand Falls at the time. He was a little more enthusiastic about it for the simple fact that he saw possibilities there. So we passed it over to the Town of Grand Falls to run."

Pelley gives a lot of credit for the festival's success to Ida Scott, who was the development officer and Mike Garrah, the town manager at the time.

"When Ida Scott got her hands on it, it really took off," said Pelley.

"She was a good organizer, and she knew what needed to be done and how to do it. She worked hard at it, and she brought it basically up to the point where it carried on and it still continues on. She breathed life in to it. Now we're celebrating the 25th anniversary."

From 1991 to 1998, the festival was selected by the American Bus Association as one of North America's Top 100 Events.

Pelley said he'd like to see more of the festival's focus returned to the river.

"The original concept was to emphasize the river and the salmon run on the river," he said.

"Back in the day, the average run on the river, and I've been fishing in that river for 49 years, was around 2,000 to 4,000 fish annually. Now, with the work that has been done, it's between 20,000 and 30,000. We've got a class river here now, no doubt about that."

Each year the festival features regular events such as the salmon dinner and the popular "Newfie Night," which highlights traditional food and music of the province.

For many people, the highlight is the Splash Concert, a day-long outdoor show held at the Forestry Capital Pavilion on Centennial Field.

This year the festival will be hosting Akon, Our Lady Peace, Johnny Reid, Tara Oram, Hey Rosetta! and local band Papa String.

The festival gets underway July 16.

Jim Courtney, chairman of this year's festival, is pleased with the planning and organization.

"Exact numbers are not in, but (ticket) sales are going really well," he said. "We're very happy with the response we have received from the public this year. The campsites have certainly taken off significantly and indicators are that we have a strong show and that's reflective of the amount of campsites we're selling and the tickets sales have been taking off."

Organizations: Environment Resources Management Association, Chamber of Commerce, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Club in Windsor American Bus Association Forestry Capital Pavilion on Centennial Field Our Lady Peace

Geographic location: Exploits River, Atlantic, Grand Falls New Brunswick Leading Tickles Buchans North America

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