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Community gathers at waterfront to celebrate July 4 at Bemidji Jaycees Water Carnival

Nearly 750 people attended the Water Carnival on Thursday, according to carnival chairwoman Michelle Gonzales. The carnival continues through Sunday. Trent Opstedahl | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 3
Chandler Black, 5, chooses the carousel to be his first ride at the Water Carnival. Visiting from California, the holiday weekend marked Black’s first time to Bemidji. Trent Opstedahl | Bemidji Pioneer 2 / 3
Exiting the jungle themed obstacle course, Logan Quick, 3, rides down the slide with his father, Blake Quick. The father and son spent the afternoon riding on various rides at Merriam’s Midway. Trent Opstedahl | Bemidji Pioneer 3 / 3

BEMIDJI — Children’s laughter, the smell of fresh grilled food and the roar of carnival rides filled the air Thursday as the community gathered on the Lake Bemidji Waterfront to celebrate the July 4 holiday.

Beginning this past Wednesday, the long holiday weekend has brought live entertainment, parades and family activities to town, as the 69th annual Bemidji Jaycees Water Carnival continues until Sunday.

"Everything has been perfect," carnival chairwoman Michelle Gonzales said. "It’s been perfect weather compared to last year, and everything has been going great."

Gonzales estimated 750 to 1,000 people made their way to the Waterfront Thursday to enjoy the carnival and live entertainment, with a firework display above the lake to end the patriotic day.

Referring to the July 2 windstorm in 2012, Gonzales is hoping for record attendance this year, as she said last year many people didn’t realize the carnival was still functional since the storm devastated much of the area.

"I was a little concerned about the weather and the fact that the Fourth was on a Thursday this year, but people have been out in full force this year," she said.

Drawing an average of 4,000 to 5,000 people, Gonzales said the carnival generates anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, most of which is donated back to the community.

Having been around for nearly seven decades, the Water Carnival has become a family tradition for many, including Josey Brunette.

"It’s kind of become a thing you do every July Fourth," said Brunette, who has been attending the carnival since he was a child.

But the family said they have seen a lot of changes to the carnival over the years.

Referring to the midway, Becky Siegel said she has seen the carnival downsize in the thrill rides that now appear on the Waterfront.

"It has gotten a lot smaller since I started coming here," she said.

All differences aside, Sue Birch said the carnival has become a tradition for the family.

"It has and always will be a good event for the kids," Birch said.

Now adults taking their children to the carnival, the family said they are happy to continue the yearly tradition.

For young Ari Sargeant, the carnival is a testament to the meaning of fun.

"The tilt-a-whirl was my favorite," the six-year-old said. "We also went to Debs parade and I got lots of candy."

Like Ari, numerous other children describe the carnival similarly.

After buying ride tickets for his son and himself, Blake Quick can hardly keep up with three-year-old Logan.

"I just like all of them (rides)," said a winded Logan.

And while the carnival has had a lasting presence for some families, other families are experiencing the carnival for the very first time.

Tami White, whose family just moved to area, described Bemidji as "cute" and was pleased to see her two children so enthused by the carnival.

"We went on the carousel, but I wanted to go on four other rides," Taylor, 6, said.

Visiting White and her family, Darlene Jude, said she had never been to the area before.

"This was fun to have a carnival at the park by the water," said White, who is from Rogers.

The Water Carnival started as the Paul Bunyan Water Carnival in 1945 and became the Bemidji Jaycees Water Carnival in 1948. Adding parades and fireworks to the festivities in the 1950s and 1960s, the first midway appeared in 1975.

Holiday festivities continue through Sunday, with Merriam’s Midway, live entertainment, kiddie events on Saturday and a pancake feed and grand parade to wrap up the Water Carnival on Sunday.