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The sixth annual Next Big Thing contest proved once again that small-town Eugene is home to an incredibly talented and prolific music scene — so prolific that the competition has been divided into three categories for the first time: single/duo, band/group and youth (18 and under). 

After a raging competition of 16 finalists, the best band category was conquered by the funk machine that is Soul Vibrator. In the youth section, Bailee Jordyn won by engaging her audience with a stripped-down vocals and guitar arrangement. Acoustic guitar virtuoso Will Brown nabbed the top single/duo spot.

Eugene, meet your town’s rising music stars.

It’s dawn at Buoy 10 on the Columbia River, and some of an estimated 1.5 million fall Chinook salmon are swimming through the mouth of the river heading home to their spawning grounds. The silvery speckled fish, like their fellow coho, steelhead and sockeye, face a gauntlet of challenges as they swim upriver to spawn and die — if they are not caught and eaten first by humans or other predators.

The first fish hooked on fishing guide Bob Rees’ boat on this August morning is an unclipped coho salmon. Brad Halverson of the Sandy River Chapter of the Northwest Steelheaders reels it in quickly after an hour or so of trolling through the rolling waters. Salmon fishing is long periods of quiet interrupted by a fury of reeling and netting that’s over in minutes. 

Daniel Borson has known that Bulbus Slimebledore was the stuff of queens since 2009. He was taken by the idea of a slug wizard, but allowed it to take backseat to some other magnetic personalities he’s pulled out for SLUG (Society for the Legitimization of the Ubiquitous Gastropod) queen competitions over the years. 

In 2008, Borson competed in the SLUG queen coronation as Ambassador Mucous Mulloscadia — a half-man, half-woman hybrid representing slugs’ hermaphroditic nature. In 2009, he killed as Slimus O’Mulloskin, a singing leprechaun. In 2010, he played Little Orphan Sluggie, based loosely on the character from the musical Annie. And after a suspenseful two-year hiatus, Borson returned to the contest in 2013 in the robes of Slimebledore, shark-eyed and intent on winning. But with stiff competition from Queen Professor Doctor Mildred Slugwak Dresselhaus, Borson came up short once more. 

This coming weekend will be a time to celebrate Eugene even if some of the names, venues and entertainment are not quite what we have been accustomed to in past decades. But Eugeneans are flexible, right?

Familiar will be the Eugene Celebration Parade and Pet Parade Saturday, Aug. 23, followed by something new, a gathering outside Civic Stadium at the end of the parade for a rally. And Festival of Eugene is still happening as we go to press despite some moments of uncertainty as the new festival came together. Here’s what we know to help you plan your weekend:

With the Eugene Celebration on hiatus, local music freaks are lamenting the loss of one of the southern Willamette Valley’s oldest and biggest music festivals. But Eugeneans are nothing if not resourceful, and upstart Festival of Eugene, Aug. 22-23 at Skinner Butte Park, was quickly born. The free event has a schedule of local music to satisfy even the most desperate music junkie jonesin’ for a live fix.

Music teacher Tim Walter swings his arms through the air with gusto, directing a throng of Madison Middle School band members as a jazzy rendition of “Oye Como Va” rings from their instruments. Walter’s junior high students are performing the song for eighth-grade procession, where family members and friends pack the bleachers of the gym.

National high school graduation rates are on the rise: A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education found that high school graduation rates in 2012 marked an unprecedented high of 80 percent. However, last year in Eugene, roughly only 64 percent of high school students graduated in four years in the 4J School District.

Spencer Butte Middle School’s garden program has grown from the seed of an idea to a self-sustaining garden with its own economic income. The garden, managed by students, sells its lettuce and other veggies to the Eugene School District, which then uses them in the cafeteria at the school.

Back when George Russell served as superintendent of 4J, he had to deal with racism on a regular basis. During a 4J Board of Education meeting about school closures, he says, a man who he assumes was a student’s dad “came up to the podium and said, ‘That’s what happens when you hire the n-word for affirmative action reasons.’”

Tonya Bunning became a single parent of two teenagers when her husband left. She remembers thinking, “Oh, crap. What do I do? Where do I go?” Bunning and her children went to live with her family in Arizona for a year and a half, but her severe asthma and unhappy children led her back to Oregon. The family of three sold all they could, fit the rest in their van and drove to Eugene.

Here in Oregon, Bunning says she was fired from Dari Mart after she developed a bone spur, despite having a doctor’s note in hand. She says the store told her it needed an employee with the use of both arms and, because of her injury, she only had use of one. They paid her for the extra half hour that it took to fire her and then she left. 

Ask a certain segment of Eugene’s population and they’ll say the Whiteaker Block Party, now in its eighth year, eclipsed the Eugene Celebration in relevance a long time ago. And with the celebration on hiatus until 2015 (and folks pulling the Festival of Eugene together), the Block Party now gets its chance to shine as the premier civic blowout of 2014. Every year, music is a central part of the event, and this year the Block Party boasts a powerhouse of local talent. 

What started as a small crowd partying in an empty parking lot in the Whiteaker among amps and beer kegs has grown, in eight short years, into a neighborhood-encompassing celebration of community and unique Eugene culture. Featuring a couple dozen local bands, food and craft vendors, an art and kid zone, carnival games, a dunk tank, beer gardens and even a bike valet, on Saturday, Aug. 2, from noon to 10 pm — it’s the Whiteaker Block Party (WBP).

During the Whiteaker Block Party, parking is usually a pain, with drivers scouring residential streets for a spot, sometimes giving up and parking illegally. This year, the Whiteaker Community Council is trying to alleviate the problem by opening up at least two gravel lots in the neighborhood for $5 per car. The WCC will use its share of the funds for a big long-term goal: a public parking lot in the Whit.

According to Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, “Happiness is a warm puppy.” We agree. It’s also a warm kitty, a happy pig, a galloping horse or singing bird, to name a few of the many animals we have in our lives. Pet-lovers, we remind you, as always, to spay and neuter, and to check out Greenhill, First Avenue or any of the many caring rescues in Lane County when looking to add another non-human animal to your family. You can find rescues and available pets at PetFinder.com and find pets of the week here in EW’s pages. Don’t forget to have a collar and license on your beastie to make sure he finds the way back again, should he ever stray — because happiness for our domestic pets means a secure home, whatever form that may take, with food, care and love. 

Standing in Jud Turner’s kitchen, a gaggle of cats gobbling snacks at our feet, we hear a faint ting-a-ling coming from the basement.

“I think he just rang his bell,” Turner says, straining to hear. “He has a bell that he rings when he wants to go outside or wants to know what’s up.” Turner disappears down the stairs.

“What’s up, piggy?” I hear him say. He’s answered with some contented snorting.

While strolling around Eugene, if you look closely enough among the concert posters, job postings, graffiti and other ephemera tacked to poles, you may notice the heartache and hidden poetry of missing pet notices.

“You are unique. You want a unique pet. Everyone has German shepherd or Lab puppies for sale but that’s not You. You are amazing and You want a amazing pet. You want people to stop You wherever you go to ask about your animal.”

So reads an online advertisement claiming to sell wolfdog puppies (“GIANTS AVAILABLE!”), though most of the photos look like Siberian husky pups, and a few might have been mixed with a little something else.

Equestrian competitions are one of the few sports in which men and women compete on equal ground. Rider Karianne Boyce-Lockhart has been beating men and women alike, jumping her horses Hopscotch and Ferro DC over huge grand prix fences around the Northwest, California and Canada. A Eugene native, she won two grand prix competitions in a row in July and she came in sixth at a World Cup qualifier in June, jumping some fences over 5 feet tall. At a little more than 5 feet herself, she says when she’s on foot her eyes are level with some of the fences she rides her horses over.

After spending 30 stressful years working as a computer technician, Steve Walker found himself in his early sixties and looking for a career change that would facilitate both his retirement and his golfing hobby. Walker chose dog walking. 

A year and a half later and Walker’s “Top Dog” offers dog walking, pet sitting, vacation visits, pet transportation and errand running. The business has grown to the point that he occasionally turns down jobs to retain his partial retirement. 

In the 1950s and ’60s the new faster freeways of the Interstate Highway System could make or break the businesses of the towns they went through or bypassed. Oregon towns with freeway exits off I-5 often expanded, thanks to the advantages of being close to shipping and travel, while businesses in towns far from the new roads withered. Once upon a time, the same was true for towns along railroad tracks. 

Former Lane County commissioner Cindy Wood-Weeldreyer says she knew that history of connectivity when she first became aware of what many in the ’90s liked to call the “information superhighway,” and she kept it in mind when she began working to bring fiber-optic cable to the area. “You follow the blueprint of history when you see opportunities coming down the road,” Weeldreyer says.

I was a virgin at the 2013 Oregon Country Fair. It felt good to be a virgin, and my cherry status seemed to please a lot of fairgoers as well. I received innumerable high-fives, endless sweaty hugs and was told repeatedly, and in no uncertain terms, that being a Fair virgin was a blessing and a miracle on a par with earthly nirvana or winning the lottery. This proved true, sort of.

As a child, Yona Appletree spent his summers at the Oregon Country Fair, helping his mother sell tie-dyed clothes — and he continued to do so as he matured, manning his mother’s booth until 2010. Appletree grew up at the Fair, watching it slowly change. Now, as a computer programmer specializing in interactive art, he wants to help the OCF evolve.

Since 1969, the Oregon Country Fair has provided attendees a temporary, zany escape from reality. It has changed over the decades, but its original values and pastimes are still key to the experience. One of those constants — unbeknownst to most — is the Rich family, and for them, the Fair is not an escape from reality, but an integral part of it.

Some Oregon Country Fair mischief is part of innocent tradition, some practices are heavily frowned upon and others warrant police intervention.

Unwelcomed activity at the Fair is deterred conventionally, with law enforcement, and creatively, with a volunteer security team numbering in the hundreds.