By Gretchen Wehmhoff

The North Words Symposium board announced Sunday that the annual 2021 Skagway writing event is cancelled.

Jeff Brady, a member of the symposium’s organizing faculty, said that over the past two weeks he received an email every day or so from faculty members or participants. Some expressed nervousness about the aggressive spike in COVID cases. A few had health concerns.

Eventually, three faculty shared they were worried and preferred the event was canceled. The board met Sunday and decided that while Skagway was not facing the same levels of infection as other parts of Alaska and the country, travel to Skagway was appearing less and less safe.

“In good conscience, we could not move ahead with the conference starting just 10 days from now. The delta variant has not made a big dent in Skagway, where we are 85% vaccinated and masking up, but it is here, and worse, it is everywhere on the way here — and not getting any better,” Brady said in a written statement.

In 2020, North Words responded to the pandemic like many conferences and events — it went virtual. The board chose not to transition to virtual on short notice this year, noting that a major benefit of the event has been the social interaction and in-person discussions with the faculty and other writers.  

“It just isn’t the same if we can’t be together,” said Brady. “It’s heartbreaking. We didn’t want to [postpone it to next year], but we’ve always been prepared.”

The group followed the Department of Health and Human Services Plan Safer Events guidelines as they prepared for 2021 visitors. That meant reducing the number of participants (20) to accommodate different venues and the creation of plans for interruptions, including cancellation. 

North Words offered guests a chance to defer registration and fees to the 2022 symposium or accept a 75% refund. Brady says the responses are trending towards deferral, and that is good.

All the current faculty plan to return next year, including Tommy Orange, who had to step out when the date was changed to Labor Day weekend. Brady says the guest faculty has some of the best writers in Alaska and several participants are now publishing their own work.

The 2022 North Words Symposium is scheduled for May 25 – 28.