Each year, in the heart of the spring, smelt surge through the waters of Lake Superior on their way to spawn in the rivers. People gather in boots and waders on the shores of Park Point, lit only by the moon, to catch these rainbow-colored fish. The Magic Smelt Puppet Troupe celebrates this miraculous event with their own spectacle, Run Smelt Run.
Run Smelt Run is the brainchild of puppeteer Jim Ouray. He drew inspiration for the Duluth event from his travels to see Carnival in Trinidad and processions in New Orleans. Run Smelt Run, which he hopes will continue as an annual tradition, features both large and small puppets, masks, dancing, music, and of course, smelt.
“We start at the Aerial Lift Bridge with an over-sized puppet of the Smelt Queen, puppets of the lake, masks and smelt rod puppets,” Ouray said. “The second major component is the second line. A second line parade is where everybody goes with the procession. Like Carnival, if people want to dress up, they can dress up and proceed with the procession down the Lakewalk.”
This year's event will feature music by the Brass Messengers, and the procession will finish off with a fresh smelt dinner.
“All the smelt out on the lake, it’s quite a thrill,” Ouray said. “It’s incredible. [Run Smelt Run] could be the first big party outdoors for the season.”
The event brings together a celebration of community and the magic of puppetry, Ouray said. He added that the community's help is needed to carry out the event, as the Magic Smelt Puppet Troupe set up a Kickstarter with a goal of $5,000 by Saturday, March 16.
The majority of the funds will go toward establishing workshops with professional artists before the actual event. Musical Director Anton Jimenez-Kloeckl of Duluth said the workshops are a wonderful opportunity to build community.
“The workshops are the prime time for the community to create their own culture,” Jimenez-Kloeckl said. “It’s very therapeutic to work with paper maché and all kinds of materials. It’s very fun to work with people you wouldn’t usually meet.”
Jimenez-Kloeckl added that the event itself is “fantasmagorical” and goes by in the blink of an eye. Because of this, Ouray is passionate about getting people involved prior to the event.
“The heart and soul of the thing is to get people involved beforehand," Ouray said. "They can sew costumes, come do something with your toddler, learn to make masks, even learn to do stilt walking if there’s time. I’ll be casting it as we go along. It’s all about volunteer fun.”
As an artist, Ouray said he is compelled by puppetry’s joyful nature and wants to share that joy with others.
“I am a puppeteer, and like any other artist, I have philosophical underpinnings,” Ouray said. “The amount of vitality and joy [in puppetry] is very persuasive to me. I think there’s a lack of that participatory joy in our culture.”
According to Ouray, this type of celebration is coded in our DNA.
“Around 75 to 120 years ago, there was rich participation in fraternal organizations with theatrical rituals and costumes and sets. We’re talking our great-grandparents here,” Ouray said. “There were fraternal organizations for everyone. They all had theatrical participation things. That’s missing from our culture today. It’s really the abandonment of woes and tribulations.”
Ouray chose the smelt run as the central focus of this celebration because of its abundant nature.
“I think a lot of the psychological malaise in our culture is from the fear of scarcity,” he said. “We’re worried about every dollar. We have a scarcity complex. With the Bayfield Apple Festival and the La Tomatina Festival in Spain, there’s this great sense of contentment of people. People are out there with their nets and coolers filled. There’s a suspension of worry during that time.”
The smelt run is a cultural tradition for many Duluthians. Jimenez-Kloeckl said he loves the way Run Smelt Run brings out individual smelt run stories.
“My favorite part is hearing people’s nostalgia for the smelt run,” Jimenez-Kloeckl said. “It’s dark and secluded, often going from fire to fire. You’re all out hunting for this elusive thing.”
Run Smelt Run invites and encourages people of all ages to come out for the parade. The mission statement for the event says that they aim “to invigorate the natural healing power of people by creating imaginative spectacles using puppets, masks, costumes, dance and music.”
“The main goal is to get the community involved in making their own culture,” Jimenez-Kloeckl said.
The party starts near the Aerial Lift Bridge at 4 p.m. on Sunday, April 21. To learn more about the Magic Smelt Puppet Troupe’s fundraising, visit their Kickstarter page.