Eldon and Grady Walker, and Mel Stockton paddling the Wrangell Narrows.
(Photo courtesy of Julie Walker)

Almost 80 people paddled and pedaled around the northern end of Petersburg’s Mitkof Island on Saturday, July 29th. They were participating in the Pedal/Paddle Battle, an annual event to raise money for the Petersburg Medical Center Foundation. The event is nearly a decade old, but some recent changes have dramatically increased fundraising.

Paddlers in kayaks and on paddleboards left Scow Bay in the sun and wind at 10am the morning of July 29th. They were headed six miles away to Sandy Beach Park on the other side of Mitkof Island.

An hour later, bikers clustered at the bottom of Scow Bay’s steep pullout. Julie Walker, the medical center’s community wellness specialist, sent them off with a countdown from five.

That marked the beginning of the pedal portion of the Pedal/Paddle Battle. That tongue twister of a name is new. The event has evolved over its nine year history. Until last year, it was just the Paddle Battle, open only to human powered watercraft, like kayaks and paddle boards. Walker, who organizes the event, said adding bicycles was a way to make things more inclusive. 

“So we added the bikes because more people have bikes, more people are able to ride bikes. They didn’t have to have a kayak which not everybody has.” She said. 

Increasing accessibility has also increased fundraising opportunities. In 2021, coming out of a pandemic-related slump in participation, PMC CEO Phil Hofstetter promised to paddle in a fairy costume if the event raised $1500. They met the goal and Hofstetter did indeed wear the costume  – multicolored wings with a blue skirt and a feather boa. But last year’s fundraising blew that number out of the water, raising more than ten times the amount at nearly $17,000. That’s partly because PMC added an element. Pedalers and paddlers were encouraged to get sponsorships from family and friends, pledging a minimum of $25 for each participant.

Those paddling, pedaling, or sponsoring those paddlers and pedalers are entered into a drawing for prizes that include Alaska Airline tickets, a kayak, and a packable puffer blanket. Each time a sponsor or a participant gives another $25, the amount of times that they are entered into the drawing goes up exponentially. Julie Walker said that detail is important. 

“I mean, I think of the way that the drawing is structured, really incentivizes people to go get sponsors, and we didn’t have that before.” She said.

The Petersburg Medical Center Foundation is a nonprofit that, among other things, raises money to support continuing education at PMC. The funds raised during the Pedal Paddle Battle will go to scholarships for PMC staff who want to further their education, and to graduating high school seniors who plan to study in the medical field. 

The end point for the Pedal/Paddle Battle is Sandy Beach Park. The staggered start times of the paddlers and pedalers are strategic. People started to trickle in by land and by sea at about the same time. Nine-year-old Grady Walker was one of the first kayakers in, paddling a tandem with his dad. He was sweaty and exhausted, and immediately dunked his entire body into the shallow waters of the tide flat. According to his dad, Eldon Walker, neither of them prepared for the paddle. He said “I definitely felt that. Zero kayaking to six miles and trying to be a little bit competitive took its toll pretty fast.” 

The event is not a race – another effort to make it as inclusive and inviting to participants as possible. But Grady Walker, who is organizer Julie Walker’s son, disagreed with his mom’s reminder at the starting line. Eldon said “First thing Grady said when Julie yells out from the beach, she said ‘This is not a race!’ and Grady looked at me and said ’Yes it is.’ Everything’s a race when you’re nine years old.” 

As more and more paddlers and pedalers arrived, the atmosphere at the park became festive. The sun was out, and hotdogs and burgers were on the grill. 

Then the prizes were drawn. Afterward, PMC’s Nurse Manager, Jennifer Bryner got her niece, Libby Thain, on the phone to give her some exciting news. “Hey Libby, guess what!?” She said. “You just won a kayak! You won a kayak at the Paddle Battle! You’re gonna have to learn how to paddle!”

Libby is just five years old.

Another kid, eight-year-old Elliot Swanson, chimed in. “Yeah you won a kayak – like, a BIG kayak!”

The two kids are cousins. And it turned out that the winner of the Alaska Airlines tickets, John Swanson, is Elliot’s Grandpa! But Elliot insisted that his family isn’t particularly lucky. He explained “No, we just donated a lot!”

The final numbers for the fundraiser are still not available, but Julie Walker estimated that they raised at least $16,000. It’s below their goal, but still a massive increase from years past.