Doing the Chicken Dance and more at Friday Harbor Octoberfest

Story and Photos by Carolyn Price

A weekend trip to the San Juan Islands in autumn was a refreshing change from the frenetic pace of traveling to these popular Northwest Washington islands in the summer.

Our destinations: Friday Harbor’s annual Chili Cook-Off and the 19th annual Oktoberfest on Oct. 11 on San Juan Island.

Instead of driving onto the Washington State Ferry, we opted to walk on, saving money and time for the one-hour ride to Friday Harbor from Anacortes.

We arrived to temperatures in the 60s and sunny skies, and we easily walked the three blocks to the Acanthus Suites, our weekend home. A Friday Harbor historic site built in 1913, it has recently been restored into a lovely suite of five reasonably priced rooms.

We wanted to flop on the comfy doublebed in front of the fireplace and read a good book on this lovely afternoon, but there was hot chili awaiting us.

“Schoolhouse Chili”

Everything is close together in downtown Friday Harbor, and the ChiliFest at the Brickworks plaza was only a three-minute walk from the Acanthus.

At $10 for kids and $16 for adults, chili-revelers (including us!) received ample-sized cups of steaming chili prepared by local restaurants including an entry from the culinary class at Friday Harbor High School.

We joined an easygoing crowd, sitting in the sunny plaza – enjoying chili; sipping apple cider, beer and wine; and eating gooey s’mores.

Taking part in the judging, we cast our vote for “Schoolhouse Chili” with its heirloom tomatoes, ground beef, sweet onions and five pepper varieties – including cherry bomb, chili grande, poblano, volcano and jalapeno. The high-schoolers won last year and voting was going their way again this year as well.


Amid friendly debate at our table about the best chili, it was finally time to set off for the Oktoberfest, located less than a mile away from the chili feed at the San Juan County Fairgrounds.

Oktoberfest is celebrated in 36 of 50 states; and, even though millions of liters of beer aren’t guzzled on this mid-size island in the Salish Sea, as is the case in Germany, the community spirit on Friday Harbor couldn’t have been more festive or authentic.

Traditional Lederhosen-garbed men and fetching Fraulein ticket-takers ($5 at the door) greeted us. We made our way around the room where volunteers from the local Lions Club  poured three varieties of beer, and more costumed German Frauleins served brats for dinner, and dessert.

We joined in, along with the 300 other mostly locals, listening to Friday Harbor’s own oompa-band – the Van Alen Blaskapelle Orchestra – and we felt right at home doing the Chicken Dance … twice, once in a conga line. (Not that we actually do this at home, mind you!)

The crowd was treated to a special performance by two locals who played the German Alphorn, the traditional 12-foot long instrument historically used to signal Alpine herdsmen and villagers across the valleys in Europe. It was explained to us that the 16 notes from the alphorn are made by how you blow and hold your lips on it. A tough instrument to learn – as well as to travel with for sure.

Barefoot Bandit movie premier in November

Coming up, the second annual Friday Harbor Film Festival is scheduled for Nov. 7-9 with nearly 50 films, talks and events, featuring the premiere of The Barefoot Bandit Documentary.

The film chronicles the 27-month crime spree of Colton Harris-Moore, a sometime Friday Harbor resident. As a teenager in the late 2000s, Harris-Moore committed a rash of residential and commercial burglaries including stealing and flying three airplanes, one of which crash-landed. He is serving a seven-year sentence for his crimes.

Also in November, Friday Harbor will celebrate the grand opening of its San Juan Islands Art Museum, a 2.3 million dollar renovation of the town’s former hospital building.

Carolyn Price is the publisher of OutdoorsNW magazine. Email comments to Carolyn here

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