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Cordova, Alaska Ice Worm Festival

Updated on September 14, 2014

How To Beat the Winter Blues in Cordova, Alaska Each February

What do you do when you're in Cordova, Alaska in February? It's a quaint little fishing village, with not much going on in the dead of winter. It's cold outside, you have cabin fever, and you want to get out with your neighbors and party.

Well, if it's the first full weekend of February, get ready! It's time to celebrate the Ice Worm with a week-long festival!

Downtown Cordova, Alaska
Downtown Cordova, Alaska | Source

Cordova, Alaska

Cordova is a small, off-beat fishing town in Prince William Sound. It has an old-timey main street, gravel roads, and stop signs. It is one of the most picturesque towns in Alaska, and a nature lover's paradise.

The population is only about 2,800 year round, but increases to over 5,000 during the salmon season. The community is made up of artists, musicians, Coast Guard families, fishermen, native Eyaks, scientists, and local business people.

The discovery of copper ore brought the first settlers in the early 1900s, which in turn, brought the railroad. By 1938, the ore supply diminished, which caused the railway to close down. Fishing is now the main industry.

Cordova can only be accessed by plane or ferry, so it less crowded with tourists than other Alaska destinations. There are no chain stores or restaurants, but there is hiking, river rafting, fishing, camping, and flight seeing.

As for nature: 5 million shorebirds flock here every year during the migration in the spring. Black bears and moose wander in to town on occasion. Plus, the Ice Worm can be found here, at least once per year!

Legend of the Ice Worm

The Legend of the Ice Worm begins back in 1898. E.J. "Stroller" White was a struggling journalist in Dawson, Alaska, who had just gotten a job with the Klondike Nugget. A condition of his new position was that he increase newspaper sales with his news articles. As he struggled to find any interesting news, a blizzard hit the area, and he came up with an idea. He excitedly announced to his editor that he had discovered a new creature: the ice worm.

According to "Stroller", these ice worms so loved the extreme cold that the blizzard caused them to crawl out of their holes in a nearby glacier in order to enjoy the frigid temperatures. There were so many ice worms slithering about that they made a chirping noise as they moved.

The Ice Worm story was a huge hit, and sales of the Klondike Nugget soared. "Stroller" continued to write about them; people set out on expeditions to find them; and bartenders served a drink called "Ice Worm Cocktails". The drink was prepared by pulling a long, skinny worm out of a piece of ice and dropping it into the customer's drinks. (Some skeptics suggested it was actually spaghetti in the ice chunks, rather than actual worms).

The Ice Worm discovery finally reached Washington, D.C. and London, where scientists eagerly sent expeditions to confirm the story. Eventually, a writer from the Philadelphia Ledger reprinted the original story, adding his own choice editorial comments. This caused even more people to converge in the town, and sightings of the ice worm increased.

Years passed, the excitement faded, and the ice worms finally retreated back into their homes in the glacier. The Ice Worms simply became a legend to be depicted on local postcards.

Ice Worm FAQs - Creative Commons Photo by Alaskaent
Ice Worm FAQs - Creative Commons Photo by Alaskaent

What is an Ice Worm?

Ice worms are related to earthworms and leeches. They are small, slim worms, a centimeter or two long, and dark brown, black or white in color. They actually look like miniature earthworms.

They live in glaciers and snow all year, and thrive at temperatures around 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Higher temperatures are harmful to the ice worm, and it will simply melt when it gets to 40 degrees or above!

The ice worm hides deep in the ice and snow during the bright, summer days, only to emerge at dusk to feed. Ice worms eat snow algae, pollen grains, ice, and snow. Their enemies are snow buntings and other birds. In the winter, they dig deep down into the glaciers to eat the nutrients that have been trapped by the ice layers formed over several years.

Ice worms have small bristles on the outside of their bodies, called setae. They use these bristles to grip the ice and pull themselves along. They have actually clocked at 10 feet per hour on the surface of a glacier!

Searching for Ice Worms

The First Cordova Ice Worm Festival

Celebrating The Discovery Of The Ice Worm

In January 1961, frigid temperatures caused cabin fever to set in, and a couple of Cordova locals got together to inbibe in their favorite adult beverages. They discussed ways to liven up the town, and came up with the idea of celebrating the discovery of the Ice Worm. They got together with friends, proposed their idea, and had a story run in the local newspaper. In just one afternoon, they raised $1000.00 from local businesses for the event. Cordova Airlines offered a one-day $15 round-trip, special offer from Anchorage for event attendees. The price included transportation to town and admission to the festival.

The first Great Ice Worm was built in the lobby of the Windsor hotel by Ohmer Wehr. It began as a dragon-like beast with a horn-shaped nose. Later, it would change to a happy-faced, button nosed glow worm, then back to a dragon with a crescent-wrench shaped nose.

School children make up the feet of the Ice Worm, and "Beast Masters" teach the choreography.

The Ice Worm Festival Today

The Ice Worm Festival celebrates the emergence of the ice worm in the city of Cordova, Alaska. It is held the first full weekend of February, with several days of activities leading up to the main events on Saturday.

A sampling of the week-long events include: the Ice Worm Tail Hunt; volleyball, dodge ball, basketball and ping pong tournaments; BBQ and Spam cook-offs, and a photo show. There are also ski events, music, dances and traditional contests such as the Oyster Shuck-n-Suck, longest beard, best legs, and tastiest smoked salmon, among others.

Friday's big event is the variety show. Members of the community entertain the audience. Then, Miss Ice Worm is crowned, and the Citizen of the Year award is announced.

On Saturday, you can pick and choose from the following events:

  • A pancake breakfast at the Catholic Church

  • The Survival Suit Race

  • Photography Show at the museum

  • The Ice Worm Parade - Led by a 150-foot long ice worm, followed by about 500 paraders.

  • An Ice Cream Social

  • Arts & Crafts show - Displays of home-made quilts, native beading, lego creations, paintings and more

  • The Ice Worm birthday party

  • Prime rib and steak dinner

  • Fireworks

  • The Light Worm Ski Parade

The Ice Worm Theme Song

Sung to the tune of "On The Cover of The Rolling Stone"

Way up north where the Ice worms grow

lives a sleepy little fishing town.

In the middle of the winter you can get stir crazy, and your spirits sinkin' down.

So the people get together and they wish for good weather and they have a wing-ding affair

Through the snow fallin' you'll see the Ice worm crawlin'

An' he might just give you a scare! ( Eeeeee!)

CHORUS: Ice worm, Ice worm don't get me. I'm only trying to help you can't you see?

I just gotta find, gotta find that Ice worm's tail.

I'm a lookin' high. I'm a lookin' low. Lookin' all around where did it go?

I just gotta find, gotta find that Ice worm's tail.

Ice Worm Festival Videos

If you can't make it to the Ice Worm Festival, then these videos are the next best thing to being there!


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