Thousands gather for Bear Festival in McCleary

With summer in full effect, the feeling of the warm weather season appears to have a different aura about it compared to the last couple of years. With COVID-19 increasingly becoming a background memory for the general public, yearly events and traditions are steadily returning to pre-pandemic operations as droves of people look more enticed than ever to rejoin society. That enticement could be seen firsthand in McCleary last weekend.

The 63rd annual Bear Festival was held in McCleary. The event, which saw thousands of people participating in the community-organized festival, ran from Friday, July 8 through Sunday, July 10, and featured a number of activities for people to engage in. From arts and crafts booths to multi-cultural food vendors to live entertainment, the Bear Festival gave visitors a chance to have a big family-family experience with a small rural town vibe.

The biggest event of the weekend though occurred Saturday afternoon, July 9, as the grand parade took place through the main streets of McCleary with communities across the state engaging in its production.

Samantha Cody, who serves as the Royalty Director for the Bear Festival, said she’s impressed with the event this year.

“It’s been a great festival so far. Friday Night was coronation where we crowned Kinsleigh Morris the 63rd Senior Queen of Bear Festival and we appointed Iva Madison, who has been a community stalwart to this city for decades, as our 2022 Community Grand Marshal,” Cody said. “The turnout for the parade was incredible and we’re so happy that people can see floats, dance teams, and classic cars from other festivals across the state as well (as) here.”

Cody went on to say that during the previous Bear Festival, about 4,000 people came to the event. Although she didn’t know the estimated number of attendees for this year’s festival, she said she wouldn’t be shocked to see a higher turnout based on the foot traffic throughout the town.

While the parade is one of the biggest parts of the Bear Festival, it wouldn’t be possible without the contributions of the Royalty Court. Kinsleigh Morris, the Senior Queen of Bear Festival, said her newly appointed title is special and that the festival feels normal again.

“It’s a really neat experience to be a part of the royalty program for Bear Festival,” said a smiling Morris. “As Senior Queen, you get to pick the theme of the float you use for all the festivals, and you get to create the design of the (year’s) Bear Festival Button. This year’s festival is just really fun especially since COVID-19 isn’t making it hard to put together.”

While COVID-19 wasn’t restricting the ability of the Bear Festival, other factors seemed to be hindering the outcome of the festival’s most anticipated activity: the bear stew. While the six-decade-plus history of the Bear Festival is prided on the fact that bear meat stew is made every year for attendees, this year’s festival stew featured zero bear meat.

“Our spring hunt is normally when we work with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFL) for nuisance bears to get permitted for hunting, but due to some legislative items going on right now there was no spring hunt so (we) weren’t able to get any bear meat for the bear stew,” Cody explained.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the WDFL Commission voted 5-4 this year against a proposed 2022 spring bear hunting season on claims that spring bear hunting has “possible threats to the bear population.” The March 19 vote, which canceled the spring bear hunting season entirely, came after hunting groups petitioned to reverse the original suspension ruled back in November 2021. Before the vote, Washington was one of only eight states in the country that allowed a spring bear hunt.

Although the bear meat was supplemented with beef, it didn’t stop people from waiting in the bright sunny weather to get their serving of Bear Festival stew. Lines of people wrapped back and forth, as the kitchen crew scooped ladle after ladle of fresh stew for hungry guests.

“Honestly, I was a little bummed to see that the bear meat was missing, but I’d be lying if I said this stew wasn’t tasty. Hopefully, next year it will be back,” said Tom Mayza, a festival attendee from Shelton. “I’m just happy that the festival doesn’t have any restrictions this year and that the weather is allowing everyone to enjoy it as best they can.”