If the winter doldrums are taking their toll, look toward Whitefish, Mont. From January until the snow melts, the resort town and surrounding attractions bustle with activity.
The biggest event here in 2011 is the 52nd annual Whitefish Winter Carnival the weekend of Feb. 4-6. Recalling an imaginative tale of Nordic gods mixed with all manner of winter activities, the carnival unfolds like an extended mid-winter party across the lakeside town and surrounding area, a roughly four-hour drive east of Spokane. It’s a free festival of unmatched proportions, featuring kings and queens, princes and princesses, prime ministers, and even thieving yetis.
“The winter carnival was created 52 years ago to dull the winter doldrums, and it’s really turned into a destination event,” said Ross Strauser, owner of the online Big Valley Radio Station, president of the Whitefish Carnival Board of Directors and prime minister-MC of the 2009 carnival.
In 1960, a group of locals, inspired by a long-running annual event in St. Paul, Minn., decided the best way to beat cabin fever was to create a grand tale and inaugurate a city-wide festival based on it.
The carnival centers on the legend of Ullr, the Nordic god of snow who reigned over winter activities in the Northern Region.
Forgotten by his subjects, Ullr moved to the Flathead Valley and claimed Big Mountain (now known as the Whitefish Mountain Resort) as his home. Soon, he joined with human settlers to fight off the evil yeti snowmen as they attempted to kidnap the queen and disrupt the Holiday Village’s (also known as Whitefish) festivities and assert their right to Big Mountain.
It’s become a yearly attack and retreat by the snow creatures, with Ullr and followers sending them back to the valleys beyond the mountain to plan future raids.
In a nod to Hollywood superhero films and other happenings, this year’s theme is “Whitefish Winter Carnival Marvels at the Comics.”
“The winter carnival is an old-time tradition that’s really good for everyone because you don’t have to be a skier or snowboarder, and it’s free,” said Lisa Jones, public relations manager at the Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau.
Some carnival events and pre-events have already begun, including the coronation of the carnival’s royalty, a Merry Maker roast Jan. 8, three days of sled dog races in the middle of the month, and a disco party Jan. 22.
However, the official opening of the winter festival doesn’t begin until Friday evening (Feb. 4) at the Grand Ball, which is $50 per person at the Grouse Mountain Lodge.
On Saturday, costumed participants jump into at a makeshift chilly swimming hole known as the Penguin Plunge. The Kiddie Carnival returns that morning at the Central School Gym, with games for children, while in the afternoon a Snowskate Jam overtakes a downtown park and a Black Star Beer Barter event takes place outside the Great Northern Brewery. As nightfall approaches, the main street parade marches down Central Avenue.
There’s a pie social, figure skating demonstration, cross-country ski race, art walk, hockey tournament at the Ice Den, battle of the bands in downtown bars, and a torchlight ski parade and fireworks display down Whitefish Mountain Resort in the evening. All events are open to the public and most are free.
“The royalty leads the parade down the mountain with torches. You can see it for miles, it’s beautiful,” said Strauser. Last year, he said 30,000 to 40,000 people came to watch. “It’s just amazing; it transforms this town into this unbelievable scene,” he said.
Yetis can also be spotted around town trying to cause mischief all weekend.
“Yetis come up and scare kids, mountain men chase yetis away, and that happens downtown during the entire carnival,” said Jones. “They really try to live out this story during the whole carnival. It’s kind of silly. It started 52 years ago basically because the founders said, ‘it’s a long winter here, so we have to do something.’”
Charlie Abell, a 71-year-old native resident and former carnival king whose father, Rusty, was the third winter carnival king, has always enjoyed the events.
“People enjoy that mid-winter break. It makes winter more tolerable,” he said. “People seem to get a big kick out of the events… There’s something for everyone.”
Beyond the three-day carnival, there are a mountain of activities and traditions from January through March.
The weekend prior to the carnival, Jan. 28-30, the World Skijoring Championships take place at the airport outside Whitefish. With teams primarily from the U.S. and Canada, skiers are towed behind horses over a jump-lined race track. Local establishments offer food and beverage specials plus race supplies.
If skijoring sounds like your sport, practice sessions open to the public take place before the championships, including free lessons for beginners.
“That particular event has gotten very popular,” Jones says. “Contestants get as much as 50 feet of air. It’s totally a spectator event, and a great mix of our cultures since we have a lot of great skiers and horse owners here.”
There are many other good stops for tourists, including Whitefish Mountain Resort. In mid-March, it hosts a music and brew festival, while the World Indoor Golf Championships take place in many local bars.
The area is home to several award-winning chefs at the 50-plus restaurants, including Andy Blanton, head chef and owner at Café Kandahar in the Kandahar Lodge who was nominated for a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northwest in 2010.
“We are pretty well-known for our restaurants,” Jones says, “Many of them use local produce and meat, so there are some really great dining experiences.”
With Whitefish’s proximity to Glacier National Park, there is no shortage of accommodations. There are ski-and-stay packages in town and on the mountain, with cabins, condos, hotels and motels, from economical to luxurious. Winter is also good for great deals, Jones said.
“It’s actually the value season because the summer is our busy season,” she says.
At the heart of the celebrations lies the town. Whitefish has an assortment of ordinances governing everything from signage to appearance, all aimed at preserving the old-town experience.
“There are a lot of things that keep the town’s integrity and keep it healthy for the downtown and local businesses – we really try to keep it vibrant. The heart is still here. That’s what people like about it; it’s kind of unique and genuine,” Jones said. “It’s so much fun and there is so much tradition. Not many events can last for 52 years.”