Summer pirates: Who be these scallywags?

Every summer, th’ land o’ Cheadle Park be filled wit’ cars ‘n tents ‘n scallywags dressed in strange clothin’. They be wearin’ feathers in thar caps, ‘n cutlasses strapped in leather, ‘n trinkets o’ all sorts.

Two to three times a year, these pirate- and gypsy-fashioned personas appear out of their element when spotted at local shopping centers, and, inevitably, there are always a few Lebanites who ask “why?”

For the last 12 years, pirate festivals have taken place at Cheadle Park, drawing in a subculture of costumed people who mostly come from all over the West Coast to spend a weekend away from “mundane” life. The festivals are a pirate-themed, immersion-style game.

“For some people it’s an escape from reality, from the day to day mundane. (And) some people, they come to get drunk and have a good time,” explained Teresa “Princess Reesey” Campbell, staff at SeaDog Nation Inc., the nonprofit that hosts two festivals at Cheadle Park.

SeaDog Nights and Gypsy Carnival is the family-oriented event with activities geared toward kids and young adults. Then there’s Tortuga Pirate Festival, the adult-only event.

Most of the regular attendees develop a pirate persona and are known at the festivals only by their pirate name.

“It’s kind of like an alter ego,” Campbell said. “Some people, when they’re at home they’re one way, but being at the event gives them the permission to go outside the box a little bit.”

When you arrive at the Tortuga event, the first thing a visitor notices is the wide array of clothing choices: pirate hats and feathered caps, button-less vests, girdles, Renaissance attire, velvet capes, leather straps holstering knives and swords, lace parasols, kilts, fox tails and animal fur purses hanging off the waist, leather arm bands and an assortment of metallic and bone accessories. Oh, and some nudity.

Campbell brushed off the wide array of costumes by explaining that gypsies and pirates are scavengers. However, anyone dressed in modern day attire is considered “naked,” she said.

“We don’t have a strict dress code, but as long as you make an effort, nobody’s going to complain,” Campbell said.

As long as you make an effort to dress like a pirate or gypsy, that is.

Some festival-goers speak in “pirate talk,” or whatever accent from medieval times they can muster up, and during the day pirates and gypsies may be seen lounging in camps with friends, playing games, competing for the House Cup in the Pirate Olympics, or going to classes to learn belly dancing, drumming, how to be a pirate, or a variety of topics regarding sexuality.

But the festival centers around the “party circle,” where the main contest at Tortuga happens.

“It’s divided into wedges, and each wedge is a different party hosted by a different house or ship,” Campbell said. “It’s basically a circular bar crawl. Sunday morning, when most people are good and hung over, we vote on who had the best party.”

Winners of the party earn the title for King and Queen of SeaDog Nation, and get to celebrate their one year reign with a one night Toast of Tortuga event in March. 

“It’s kind of like a pirate prom,” Campbell said. “There’s entertainment and games, and drinking and food and fun. We all dress up in our pirate finery.”

The location of Toast of Tortuga depends on where the King and Queen live.

At this year’s party circle, hosts vying for the crown tried to win the favor of the people with food, brews, live music, belly dancing, oil wrestling, all male review, topless contests, boffer tournaments and an assortment of party games.

The cool night air was filled with chatter and with hand drums, fiddles and hurdy gurdys. Pathways were dark, dimly lit with lanterns, and party wedges lit up their events with string lights. If a fire ban was not in place, there would have also been fire pits, tiki torches and fire dancing, Campbell said.

Irene “Sally Forth” Pirtle, of Portland, was seen practicing with her (unlit) fire sticks at the Courtesan’s Lounge party. Due to the ban, she wasn’t able to light her sticks, and expected she would twirl her LED sticks later. 

Like so many of her counterparts, attending the pirate festivals is a chance for Pirtle to leave behind a common life for a few days.

“Being able to let go of normal, day to day life, to let go of the responsibility that drives us here is what makes it so fun,” she said.

Julian Taylor, of Lebanon, and his friends have been to the SeaDog festivals for a few years. They sell leather work, tools and other metal crafts, and helped tend bar this year at the House of the Fourth Monkey party wedge, where an Alice in Wonderland themed event took place.

One of Taylor’s friends, Janel Labell, stood at the entrance of their party. Dressed all in black and wearing a pirate hat, she hailed passersby to watch the all male review. This was her first time at the festival.

“It’s definitely an over 21 event, to say the least, but it’s a great time, like any re-enactment group you go to,” she said.

When one enters the festival grounds, one first encounters the Merchant Circle, where traveling vendors sell Renaissance or gypsy clothing, scarves, hair wraps, jewelry, leather fashioned items, knives and household accessories fit for a pirate.

Camp sites, known as “land grants,” are set on the left and right and in the back of the festival. Attendees might use modern tents, encampments lined with gypsy fabric walls, tarps spray painted to look like castles, trailers designed like ships or mobile gypsy homes, and such.

Kit, a Lebanon resident who didn’t want her last name used, said she caught part of Tortuga for the first time last year. A friend of hers used to blow off  their plans together if it happened during the pirate festival, and she used to give him a hard time about it. 

“Then I came last year and I was like, ‘I get it.’ So I owe him an apology for years of teasing him.”

Ironically, her friend couldn’t make it this year, but Kit took another friend and they dressed up and participated in some of the events.

“I’m kind of artsy and crafty, and I love all the ships and the stuff people actually build on a trailer,” Kit said. “It’s an experience, for sure.”

Twice a day, the “Bring out your dead” sanitation crew picks up garbage. Vehicles are called “dragons,” and the festival’s currency is called a “dog pound.”

Dog pounds are wooden coins with engraved designs, and can be earned by volunteering during the festival. They can be used for bartering, auctions, to purchase land grants or nobility titles, or perhaps to use a camper’s personal biffy or shower.

The “five” dog pound is auctioned off every year to the highest bidder, who will then be allowed to have their face engraved on the coin. They pay for this prize with dog pounds.

For the last couple years, the five dog pound has turned into a memorial coin, Campbell said. Winners of the auction placed the faces of recently deceased pirate friends, “Mozzie,” “Bonnie the Brazen,” and “Lady Panda.”

Mozzie was a disabled individual who passed away from complications with cancer, Campbell said. 

“He was a really good guy. He was family. He was part of the community. One thing I’ve noticed is this is a community that doesn’t let disability limit you.”

Several attendees echoed this idea that the pirate community is like family. 

“There’s plenty of debauchery, but at the end of the day, it’s all community and we’re all playing this communal game, and in that way these people who are desperate and have no connection become this surrogate family,” said Spencer “Fozzy Beara” Noffke, from Vancouver.

When Laura “Queen Mum” Rasmussen moved to Portland after a divorce, she found a new family at the festivals.

“My daughter said, ‘Mom, you need to not sit at home, and meet some really cool people.’” 

Rasmussen’s daughter took her to several pirate festivals over the last five years.

“I was just intrigued. Everybody just was so friendly and nice,” she said.

Rasmussen is sitting as a protegee this year to be a courtesan in the Courtesan’s Lounge party. She’s dressed in a blue gown and wears a tiara atop her short red hair and aging face.

When they asked her to come up with a pirate name, she said, ‘Don’t be silly; just call me “Mom,”’ but they said, ‘No. You’re our queen.’”

And thus she was named Queen Mum, because she mothers everybody, she said.

The SeaDog Nation has a motto, “Don’t be a dick,” and they seem to live by this adage. Their policies and guidelines run nine pages long, they follow government laws, and enforce what they call a “culture of consent.”

Consent affects moral and ethical laws regarding touching, eating, drinking, drugs and visual offense. Cannabis must be consumed in an enclosed structure, touching a person is off limits unless given consent, and anything “kink related” cannot be seen from a public walkway, Campbell said. 

“We do put out on our Facebook groups to please be respectful of the town. Consent matters, even off site,” she said.

Wayne Rieskamp, director of operations at the park, said SeaDog Nation has improved with each year in terms of their code of ethics and cleanliness.

“They do an excellent job of cleaning up the park after the event,” he said. “They police themselves well, and they have very little to no issues with our police force in Lebanon.”

Frank Stevenson, Lebanon’s chief of police, agreed SeaDogs leave the park in good order, but Lebanon Police Department does get calls out there to escort people off the property who are not supposed to be at the event, and this year they had to respond to a report of an an assault between two men.

Campbell admitted their festivals have had some problems “off and on, just like any large festival does.”

SeaDog Nation festivals, being a pretend village, in fact have their own medical bay, fire marshal, and constabulary who wear identifying sashes and patrol the camps, Campbell said.

Stevenson staffs extra police officers during the festivals, some of whom will patrol the area, he said. 

“There’s probably some things they can do better in regards to security,” he said of SeaDog staff.

Rieskamp believes the Lebanon community labels the pirate festivals too harshly. He’s been to their events and hasn’t seen anything that concerned him, he said.

“It’s an adult event, it’s not a kink event,” Campbell said. “There is overlap, but it’s because kink is an adult activity. But it’s not what they’re here for.”

When the park was owned by Lebanon Community Foundation, the festival was allowed to lock the gates and trails from the public, Rieskamp said. But now that it is owned by the city, and the city had complaints about trails being inaccessible, SeaDog Nation was forced to comply with public park rules to allow the public to walk or bike along the trails.

“We kind of discourage it because Tortuga, being an adult event, nudity happens,” Campbell said. “But we do follow Oregon state law in regards to nudity, which, really, there isn’t one.”

SeaDog Nights started in a cow field 18 years ago, then moved to Molalla, Ore. before expanding to Lebanon, Campbell said. What started as a roughly 200-person event boasted as many as 3,000 last year, but only 2,000 this year.

SeaDog Nation Inc. is the result of a split from The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA).

“(SCA is) basically medieval reenactors. It’s the best part of medieval times without the plague,” Campbell explained. “They really didn’t care for the pirates sometimes, so the pirates and the gypsies got together and decided to create their own event.”

SeaDog Nights and Gypsy Carnival is held the second-to-last weekend in July, and Tortuga Pirate Festival is held during the Labor Day weekend.

A new group similar to SeaDog Nation, called Port Royal, also takes place at Cheadle Park in June and has only been running for a few years, Campbell said. However, Port Royal might relocate in order to establish themselves as separate from SeaDog Nation.

Though Rieskamp would like to see new types of events take advantage of the space at Cheadle Park, these festivals are welcomed, he said.

“The three pirate groups are the largest revenue source we have,” he noted.

On a related side note, two Albany residents are behind International Talk Like a Pirate Day, which falls on Sept. 19. According to Wikipedia, that event had its birth in 1995 during a racquetball game between John “Ol’ Chumbucket” Baur and Mark “Cap’n Slappy” Summers.

“For the first seven years it was a private joke among a few friends, calling each other at work in the morning and shouting ‘Aarrr!’ into the phone and hanging up,” Baur told Lebanon Local.

Then they invited national columnist Dave Barry to be their official spokesman.

“He wrote a column in 2002 and we thought, ‘Well, that’s nice. There’s our 15 minutes of fame.’ But it just took off,” Baur said.

Since then, they’ve performed across the states, been on television, published books, and been feted at pirate festivals from coast to coast, he said. But neither he nor Summers have attended a pirate festival in Lebanon.

“The stars have never aligned for me to attend. I hope to one day,” said Summers, who still lives in Albany.

As for Baur, he moved away from Oregon before pirate festivals got started in Lebanon, he said. He did, however, have the opportunity to be Grand Marshall at Lebanon’s Strawberry Festival some time in the early 2000s.

Baur jested that the first, “and only good,” Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out in 2003, just after Talk Like a Pirate Day became widespread.

“So we like to think we paved the way for their success,” he said. “Not that they said thank you. Or sent us checks for huge amounts of money. Still, it was a service we were happy to perform.”

But both Baur and Summers don’t believe pretending to be a pirate stems from the movies.

“I’m sure there must have been some influence, if only by judging by the number of Johnny Depp/Jack Sparrow re-enactors at any festival,” Baur said. “There’s always at least one – and woe betide you if there are dueling Sparrows!”

Summers agreed the movies likely boosted what has already been an active pirate subculture.

“People, even adults, have been ‘playing pirates’ for decades,” Summers said.

Baur noted that pop culture tends to celebrate the outsider, the “bad boy.” Like vampires and “Rebel Without a Cause,” pirates are the ultimate outsiders, he said.

“Historian Marcus Redicker said ‘Pirates were the enemies of mankind, but they were the freest people on earth.’ 

“And that’s what Talk Like a Pirate Day celebrates, that freedom,” Baur said.