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Crystal Falls ready to host U.P. firefighters tourney

Crystal Falls Fire Chief Ray Niemi stands next to some of the trophies that will be awarded during the 121st annual U.P. Volunteer Firefighters Tournament, which starts July 23.

By Peter Nocerini
CRYSTAL FALLS—Downtown Crystal Falls will be the focus of attention for U.P. firefighters this week, as the 121st annual Upper Peninsula Volunteer Firefighters Tournament begins a three-day run Thursday, July 23.
    The city is in for a lot of fun and excitement from Thursday evening to Saturday morning. Three busy days include three parades, a day at the races, a firefighters’ ball, a street dance, bands, music and plenty of shenanigans.
    This year, the tournament’s theme is “Live from Crystal Falls, It’s Saturday Night!” (In fact, the tournament will end around noon on Saturday, but let’s not quibble.)
    This is the first time Crystal Falls has hosted the U.P. tournament since 2003. Dan Graff and Steven Fabbri are the co-chairmen, and everybody involved with the Crystal Falls Fire Department will be busy, running the events and handling duties large and small and making sure everyone has a good time.
    (At the same time, Fire Chief Ray Niemi assured everyone, designated firefighters will be ready to answer an alarm at all times. If it comes, they will drop whatever they are doing and head for the trucks.)
    The CFFD was officially chosen for the 2015 tournament in 2013. Since then committees of firefighters, family members and friends have worked on arrangements.
    This is the schedule:
    Thursday, July 23: Registration and meetings take place during the day at Runkle Lake Park, as the firefighters arrive.
    The first public event of the tournament is at 7 p.m.: the dress parade down Superior Avenue.
    There are three parades during the tournament (two on Thursday night), and all three take the same route: Start in front of the Forest Park schools on Forest Parkway, go east around the Courthouse complex via Marquette Avenue and back to Superior Avenue; then east on Superior through the downtown area to First Street.
    In the dress parade, firefighters appear in their best uniforms, marching down the street. Many will march to the music being played by several well-known U.P. bands: the Ishpeming Blue Notes, Superior Fife and Drum and Marty’s Goldenaires.
    After the parade, head to the street dance on Third Street, between Superior and Marquette avenues. Lock N Load will be playing, and the bands that marched in the dress parade usually provide extra musical fun.
    It’s starting to get late, but don’t leave early! Or you will miss the raucous Shirttail/Nightshirt parade, which is at 10 p.m. In this one, the firefighters make their appearance on and around bizarre and hilarious floats, all based on the tournament theme. (“Live from Crystal Falls, It’s Saturday Night!”)
    If the dress parade is serious and dignified, the Shirttail Parade is the exact opposite. Plenty of fun and laughs. You don’t see many bawdy events in the U.P., but this is one.
    Friday, July 24: If you party too hardy Thursday night, you won’t be in shape for the start of the races, which will be held on Third Street, the same block as the street dance.
    The first race is at 9 a.m., following a race meeting in the fire hall at 8. They continue long into the afternoon.
    Spectators are welcome to come and watch the fun. If you want to move around, vendors and concession stands will be nearby with plenty to eat and drink.
    It’s just fun to watch the action, as the firefighters try to follow all the rules while shaving every hundredth of a second possible from their team’s time. Tiny intervals mean a lot in the point standings.
    There are five races—four are known in advance, and the fifth is the Mystery Race, which is concocted by members of the host department with a droll sense of humor.
    Information about the Mystery Race is top secret until after the fourth race is completed. That’s when race captains from each department get a written description of what (often) silly things they have to do.
    The races help decide which department is the overall tournament champion, along with points earned at each of the three parades.
    At 8 p.m., the firefighters’ ball takes place in a big tent at the Runkle Lake Park softball diamond, with Next Myle providing the music. An awards ceremony is held at 10.
    Saturday, July 25: The tournament concludes with the last of the three parades, the commercial parade, at 10 a.m. Once the judges have their scores totaled, closing ceremonies and trophy presentations will be held at the fire hall.
    The firefighters tournament may be fun, but it is also really serious competition. Departments earn more points in the shirttail and commercial parades if they follow the tournament’s theme and if they get a big reaction from spectators.
    In the dress parade, appearance and precision matter the most.
    As for the races, the stopwatch tells all, and departments dread hearing a whistle in the middle of the race—which happens when one of the judges spots a rules infraction. It means disqualification.
    Each of the parades is worth 25 percent of the overall score, and the races are the remaining 25 percent. That means a department that outraces its rivals can still finish far down the list if it doesn’t do so well in the parades.
    All the departments are competing for the Leeman Trophy, the traveling trophy that goes to the department earning the most points during the tournament.
    Any tournament that is in its 121st year qualifies as an institution, and that institution will continue in Iron River next year, when the West Iron County Fire Department hosts the 122nd annual tournament. The site of the 2017 tourney will be finalized by U.P. association officials this week.
    Raffle tickets are being sold during the tourney, and winners will be announced later.