Brendan Yu
Curry Coastal Pilot

Steve O’Brien still remembers his initial dismay the first time he attended a kite festival as a child.

While the other kids all sported brand new plastic kites adorned with Marvel characters, O’Brien only had a plain paper kite. Yet when the kites took to the air, it was O’Brien’s that soared the highest, which taught him early on that flash did not necessarily equate to performance.

Over the decades, O’Brien eventually parlayed his love for kite flying into what is now called the Southern Oregon Kite Festival (SOFK), an annual two-day extravaganza at the Port of Brookings-Harbor that kicks off today (July 15).

The event features some of the most breathtaking kites and skilled fliers from the kiting community the world over. This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the SOFK.

“There’s something about a kite tugging on the other end of a string that’s up there in the sky,” said O’Brien, a Brookings native and one of the founders of the festival. “It just does something for me.”

An adult kiting enthusiast, O’Brien often spent his time attending kite festivals in the Pacific Northwest and flying his kite back in Brookings, whether it was on the open sands of Harris Beach or between the crab cages down at the port. While flying his kite, O’Brien often pondered how he could bring the community a kite festival of its own.

When he attended the Redwood Coast Kite Festival in Eureka, California, and the Lincoln City Kite Festival in 1991, he spent the majority of his time asking members of the kiting community about the ins and outs of hosting a festival while soliciting their support.

“Nobody knew me; I was basically an unknown to most of those people because I wasn’t involved in competing or anything,” O’Brien said. “You got to kind of convince them that you’re the real deal, and you are who you say you are, you are actually going to put on a festival, because I was trying to get them involved.”

To earn their trust and prove his sincerity, he attended every kite festival he could in the Pacific Northwest, and volunteered with some to build a rapport and trust with members of the kiting community.

His efforts paid off, as many members of community promised their help and assistance in putting on a festival in Brookings.

Encouraged by the support, O’Brien formed a local kite club called S.O.A.R. (Southern Oregon Air Riders) with Ed and Donna Cooke, owners of a kite store in Brookings. O’Brien then met Larry Goodman, who owned KRCE radio at the time.

“Larry had connections, he had money, and he had a radio station where we could advertise the thing, and he was interested in doing the festival,” O’Brien said.

But while O’Brien was able to successfully recruit the help of the kiting community, the more crucial component was getting the Brookings-Harbor community to buy into the idea of the festival.

“You had to convince the community that this could happen,” he said. “In their mind, you put a kite up in the air with a string and stand there and tug on it. They didn’t know anything about choreographed routines with pairs or teams and that’s what it was about.”

To sell their idea, O’Brien and Goodman went door-to-door, asking businesses if they could play a 10-minute VCR tape compiled with footage of other festivals and sport-kite routines. Some obliged, while others flat out told the duo they were crazy.

However, there was enough interest to give the duo the confidence to move forward and invite kite fliers and builders to their prospective festival. While the SOKF was still a tentative idea, O’Brien and Goodman printed out t-shirts with the festival’s logo and handed them out to members of the kiting community at the 1993 Redwood Coast Kite Festival in hopes of convincing them to come. And whether it was free apparel or O’Brien’s “charismatic personality,” several agreed, and the two had a festival.

The location for the festival, the field at the Port of Brookings-Harbor, was small and strewn with rocks, dog droppings, broken glasses and leftover ashes from fireworks on the Fourth of July.

“There were fliers that said, ‘This field is just a disaster,’” O’Brien recalled. “But they kept coming back because of the crowd and the community.”

According to SOKF committee member Mike Macdonald, 64, the interaction with the crowd is what makes the festival one of the most sought-after events by kite fliers.

“The kite fliers love to come because of the spectators,” Macdonald said. “It’s put on for the spectators, and they give a lot of feedback to the fliers. It’s up close and personal, so the kite fliers can spend a lot time interacting with the spectators. We’ve got spectators that’ve been coming for several years, and they’ll see someone they know and shout them out.”

SOKF is unique from other kite festivals in that it operates on an invitation-based system for kite fliers and makers, so only the best of the best perform. And whereas other festivals involve competitions or a free-for-all space to fly kites, the SOKF carefully stages when each flier will perform to better showcase their individual ability.

While the kite fliers perform for free, they are well-cared for, as the SOKF committee takes care of their travel and lodging costs, something that O’Brien can approve of.

“(When I first) thought of the (SOKF), my (belief) was to treat the kite fliers well, treat the community well, and everybody will have a great time,” he said.

The thousands of spectators at the festival each year is a testament to the support of the community, he said.

For O’Brien, it’s surreal that a small idea he conceived two decades ago has become such a mainstay of the Southern Oregon summer.

“I feel honored; I feel very honored that I was a part of something, and have been a part of something that’s still going on,” he said. “It’s still awesome it still exists 25 years down the road. I get all kind of goosebumps when I think that it’s still going and that I had a little part of it.”