Fiddlehead Festival reconnects community in first big event since height of pandemic
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Whether they were picking fiddleheads, shopping at the farmers market or enjoying live music, people who attended Presque Isle’s first Fiddlehead Festival Saturday agreed on one thing: it’s good to get out again.
“This is the first time I’ve been back since COVID started,” noted Becca Roe, a Presque Isle native who traveled from Oklahoma to visit family.
Roe was one of a dozen people who started the day with a bird watching tour around “Mary’s Mile,” the one-mile loop around Riverside Drive and the community center.
Aside from being fascinated by the more than 20 species of birds she spotted along the path, Roe was excited to be back home just in time for the new festival.
“It’s a great way to get together and spend the day,” she said.
With cloudy skies lingering overhead throughout the morning, crowds of around 30 to 40 people stopped by the nearly 20 booths at the Farmer’s Market.
Market coordinator Deena Albert Parks, who was selling products from her Woodland-based Chops Ahoy Farms, said she expected large numbers of people to come throughout the day.
“It’s a key to our community. It brings people [in the farming community] together and folks get access to fresh local foods,” Parks said, about the market.
This year Parks expects around 30 vendors to participate at various times throughout the summer, including at least four who are new to the market. Vendors sell everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to pastries, maple syrup, potato chips, crafts, seedlings and potato barrels.
Many people who attended the morning bird watch tour ended up staying at Riverside Pavilion to purchase food and other items at the market. The majority of people still wore face coverings and adhered to social distancing, just days before the state was set to lift the mask mandate in most situations for vaccinated people.
Friends Tamia Glidden and Susan Tyler, both of Presque Isle, said that they had been vaccinated and felt safe attending Fiddlehead Festival events while wearing masks. While at the Farmers Market, they talked excitedly about possibly going to other events that day and throughout the summer.
“I’m excited for the summer,” Glidden said. “I think it’s going to be good for us to return to a new type of normal. We need to see one another.”
Tyler noted that for now she feels safer wearing masks in public despite being vaccinated. But she hopes that as more people get vaccinated the summer events can feel more like those of pre-COVID times.
She also praised the city’s efforts to start a yearly festival around the fiddlehead theme.
“I like the idea. It’s something great to start the outdoor season in Presque Isle,” Tyler said.
Given the name of the festival, fiddleheads played a prominent role in both the cooking competition held at Northern Maine Community College and fiddlehead picking demonstrations at the Aroostook River boat landing.
By the river, Randy Martin, director of the Central Aroostook Soil and Water Conservation District, shared tips on how to best pick fiddleheads during late spring.
“You want to pick them when they’re real tiny like this and not unfurled,” he said, holding up a small fiddlehead fern. “They’ve got a shiny gloss to them.”
For Martin, fiddleheads bring back vivid memories of picking the ferns alongside the Aroostook and St. John Rivers with his family. He hopes that in future years, as the Fiddlehead Festival grows in size and event scope, more people will want to learn about the unique and nutritious plant.
“It’s pretty amazing what we can pick for food just along the river here, even though we’re in town,” Martin said. “There are fiddleheads, wild onions and beach plums, and they’re all nutritious.”
Although not many people were able to pick fiddleheads prior to a pounding rainstorm later in the afternoon, Martin noted that everyone he met was learning to pick for the first time.
Eric and Barb Kinney, who recently moved to Hodgdon from North Dakota, said they were amazed at the quality and quantity of fiddleheads in Aroostook and expressed interest in growing the plant themselves. A trained chef, Eric Kinney said he would like to take part in the cooking competition during next year’s festival.
“I’ve never picked fiddleheads before, but I enjoyed it a lot,” Eric Kinney said. “And the festival was definitely worth the trip. We never had anything like this in North Dakota.”
Scott and Erin Carter picked fiddleheads along the river after Scott Carter won first place in the Cooking Competition, Home Chef category with his pan-fried trout from Micmac Farm, creamed fiddleheads with mushrooms and warm lemon potato salad.
Carter, a civil engineer with the Department of Agriculture in Presque Isle, put himself through school working as a chef.
Martin, who was also a judge at the competition, said Carter’s meal was incredible.
As the afternoon continued, event organizer Jordyn Madore said that hundreds of people came to the Chamber of Commerce’s arts and craft fair and many watched Aroostook Partners in the Arts’ art battle, both of which were held at the Aroostook Centre Mall.
Though the performance by local band Star City Syndicate was moved from Riverside Drive to the mall’s former K-Mart store due to rain, that did not stop a crowd of more than 150 people from bringing lawn chairs, tapping their feet and dancing along to the music.
Next year the Presque Isle Downtown Revitalization Committee hopes to expand the festival to perhaps include an entire weekend of events and a cookbook with fiddlehead-inspired recipes from contest participants.
Despite the limited scale of events this year, Madore noticed that people generally seemed happy to finally gather among community members again.
“I think that when we won’t have to worry [about COVID-19 restrictions], we’ll be able to do even more,” Madore said.
Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli contributed to this report.