WINTERFEST

Walter Stewart November 1 1973

WINTERFEST

Walter Stewart November 1 1973

WINTERFEST

Walter Stewart

f»\n BC’s coast we make the most sj Of Winter’s bumptious breezes; A harbor throng breaks into song And girls all show their kneeses.

Old Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, the German philosopher, didn’t think much of winter. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, he wrote, “Winter, a bad guest, sitteth with me at home, blue are my hands with his friendly handshaking.” Well, I never did think much of Nietzsche, with his prattle of Ubermensch (Superman) and his “morals of masters” (although I’ve always had a sneaking regard for one of his lines: “In revenge and in love woman is more barbarous than man”), but even his admirers must admit that he made two fundamental errors in his approach to winter. In the first place, he sitteth around home; a bad move. Anybody who sitteth around waiting for spring deserves all the chilblains he gets. In the second place, he never came to Canada, a nation where, perhaps because we have so damn much of the season, we have developed the knack not merely of surviving but enjoying the winter. From the first flake of snow to the first flood of slush, this nation goes berserk in an orgy of festivals, carnivals, bonspiels, rendezvous, conventions, winterfests, fishing contests, snowmobile rallies, ski meets and even, so help me, pillow fights.

What follows is not an attempt to catalogue these events. (You could fill this magazine just listing all the things we do to fight off cabin fever, from the Tommycod Festival at La Pérade, Quebec, to the dogsled races at Fort Nelson, BC. A note to any provincial tourist department, or to the Canadian Government Travel Bureau in Ottawa, will bring you more ideas than you can shake a snowshoe at.) Rather, this is a Maclean's Arbitrary Guide, a personal selection of some of the things that have appealed to us most from the avalanche of possibilities. The guide flows from west to east, for convenience, and tries to present a sampling broad enough to make

old Nietzsche, were he around and off his prat, rewrite his verdict to: “Winter, a cheerful old codger, taketh me out on the town; warm are my cockles with his hearty backslapping.”

Winter seems to bring out the best in the people of British Columbia. You may attribute this to smug satisfaction over the mildness of the climate — Vancouver’s mean temperature in January is 37 and Victoria’s 39, which is hardly mean at all — but northern BC is as cold as any place in the country (Fort Nelson’s mean January temperature is lower than that in Whitehorse), so that can’t be it. By “the best,” I mean that British Columbians in winter are busy, cheery and full of uplift. For example, my favorite of all BC’s winter pastimes is the habit they have formed, in both Victoria and Vancouver, of organizing carol-sings during the week before Christmas. Our picture (left) shows carolers in the harbor at Victoria, but you can see the same sight any pre-Christmas-week evening in Vancouver. School choral groups take part, and in Vancouver they are joined by a Carol Ship Flotilla, complete with a Christmas Tree Barge, which bobs around the harbor, bouncing songs of joy off the surrounding mountains. You can either join the ships — the three-hour trip costs $1.50 for adults, one dollar for children — or just stand on the shore and bellow along for free.

Winter festivals are all the rage in BC, and two of the best of these are the Vernon Winter Carnival (from which our picture shows a Klondike Kapers kick-line) and the annual Snow Festival at Revelstoke. Both are in the BC interior, and readily accessible from the Trans-Canada Highway, Revelstoke being right on that route and Vernon 47 miles south, on Highway 97, in the Okanagan valley. Both are pretty towns with spectacu-

lar settings — water on one side and mountains on the other — and both are large enough to provide a wide range of tourist facilities. However, both are jammed at festival time, and the tourist rash enough to set out without a hotel or motel reservation risks spending the night in a snowbank. The smart thing to do is to write well in advance (the Vernon carnival begins on the last Saturday in January and lasts 10 days; the Revelstoke festival is held toward the end of February) to the local chamber of commerce for hotel listings, or you can consult your travel agent.

Vernon’s carnival has all the usual events — a beauty contest and fashion show, parades, ice-sculpting, snowshoe racing, nightly dances and a ski meet — plus some specialties of its own, such as a Gelandy competition (acrobatic ski jumping), a snowshoe golf tournament and an auto slalom.

At Revelstoke, the emphasis is on ski jumping, with the Neis Nelsen International Ski Jump, on the edge of town, famous enough to draw competitors from all over the world. The local distance record is 310 feet, a flight path covering most of the length of a football field, and jumps of 275 feet are common. Watching gives the onlooker a double satisfaction; first, there is the thrill of seeing the hunched figure hurtle down the slope and soar into the air, reaching up and out, approaching what seems to be escape velocity, and threatening to disappear into orbit, then arcing downward to land with a muffled thump and a snowy scramble to stay erect; secondly, there is the inward glow that comes from knowing you are too smart to do anything that stupid.

(Tyros who want to try a hand — or leg — at ski jumping are encouraged, though not by wives or mothers.)

BC’s winter festivals are regarded with scorn in the Canadian Arctic, where the folks think they invented winter and are certain they have the patent on the secret of its celebration. Yukon’s Sourdough Rendezvous, held at Whitehorse late in February, and the Northwest Territories’ Caribou Carnival, held at Yellowknife late in March, are conducted with a concentrated frenzy unmatched by any public events anywhere else in Canada. In Whitehorse, you can be thrown into a makeshift “jail” and fined for not wearing a beard to show that you are caught up in the spirit of the thing (that is, if you are male; beardless girls are encouraged to roam the streets at will). Cop-outs and visitors can escape the fine by purchasing a Beardless Button, but no one can escape the noisy, rollicking, floor-stomping, arm-waving, whoop-and-hollering climate of jamboree that fills both northern capitals at festival time.

“Headlong” is the word I’m looking for. Northerners approach their play in a headlong fashion. In 1893, whalers at Herschel Island off the Arctic Coast organized a midwinter baseball league, skidding across the darkened slopes in pursuit of the Arctic Whaleman’s Pennant. They played in fair weather and foul, and one year a number of players were frozen to death when a sudden blizzard struck before they could get to shelter. The league, of course, went on. Well, nobody

í”jÉhe Arctic fest is full of zest J — Takes vigor to absorb it; A man was lost when, blanket-tost, He vanished into orbit.

gets wiped out at today’s northern festivals, but the spirit hasn’t changed much. Take the Eskimo (right) soaring into the air off a blanket during the Caribou Carnival. The object is to get as high as possible, the corollary being that the higher you get, the more it’s going to hurt if anything goes wrong on the way down. Blanket-tossing, log-sawing, tree-felling, dogsled and snowmobile races are part of these festivals, but what is at the heart of them, what sets them apart, is the feeling that everybody — spectator and participant, local or visitor — is as winter-touched and as play-mad as the frolicksome whalers who chased baseballs over the frozen floes off Herschel Island in 1893.

To attend either of these festivals, put yourself in the hands of a travel agent, or write CP Air, which flies to Whitehorse, or Pacific Western Airlines, which flies to Yellowknife.

But if that seems too far to go to salute winter, try the Prairies, where winds whistle without serious impediment from the Ontario border to the foothills of the Rockies, and a

chap has to have something to do just to keep his mind off its incessant moaning. And there is, heaven knows, lots to do, from football games that are still under way long after the first blizzards strike, to indoor rodeos, in Calgary and Edmonton, that waft over the cities, along with a healthy whiff of sweat and manure, the first promise of spring.

Of all the winterfests that help make that season bearable on the Prairies, here are three: the Fort Festival, held early in February, at Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, Winter Chimo, held early in March at Saskatoon, and the Northern Manitoba Trappers’ Festival, held in midFebruary at The Pas (from which our picture, left, shows a tree-felling contest). They are all, despite a fundamentally similar format of races, pageants and contests, quite different in style.

The Fort Festival is the annual paroxysm that grips the small town of Fort Qu’Appelle (population, about 2,000) 45 miles northeast of Regina. It is a neighborly kind of affair, and features a free street breakfast (coffee, eggs and sausages), a fish-eating contest, a boys’ pillow fight, a hide race (in which kids use cowhides for sleds behind snowmobiles) and a ladies’ flourpacking contest, in which the object is to stagger away with as many bags of flour as possible. (I have often wondered about the significance of this last; with the price of food going the way it is, are the good ladies working themselves up to a really spectacular shoplifting spree?) There is nothing sophisticated about any of the goings-on; indeed, there is nothing sophisticated about the pretty little town, and the finicky visitor headed for the festival will do well to find a hotel room in Regina, and drive out for the day.

Saskatoon’s Winter Chimo, on the other hand, has a kind of professional polish to it, and the quality of competitors in various contests seems to be a distinct cut above the cheerful amateurs who pitch in at Fort Qu’Appelle. There are car races, snowmobile races, a hockey tournament, a fiddlers’ contest, an ice-sculpturing contest and a championship horseshoe tourna-

ment, in which the incredible accuracy of even the losers is enough to make those of us who have heaved a shoe or two vainly in the direction of a sandbanked spike seethe with frustrated envy. Winter Chimo is a watchers’ festival, and a firstrate one, while the Fort Festival has more of the atmosphere of a neighborhood street dance.

The Northern Manitoba Trappers’ Festival is also distinctive, and what sets it off is the presence of the annual world championship dog derby, a 150-mile scramble over ice and snow that tests the skill and endurance of man and beast in the face of wind, snow and common sense. The prizes are substantial — $2,000 for first place — and what makes the contest doubly exciting is the fact that even the best team may be beaten by a momentary lapse, which can turn a smoothly pulling outfit into a jumbled mass of snarling dogs and tangled traces. The start of the race presents a fascinating spectacle as the teams form up; Siberian huskies, malemutes, Samoyeds and mutts wheel into line, some barking, some snarling, some pulling excitedly against the restraining ropes and a few old hands just lying there, yawning. Then they’re off, at spaced intervals, with shoulders hunched and heads down, ki-yiing across the snow to the barked commands of the musher — a running rebuke to the snowmobile, which is rapidly putting them out of business.

The Pas, an isolated northern community 438 miles northwest of Winnipeg, is most easily reached by air.

Transair makes regular flights out of Winnipeg, and that airline will be happy to lay on travel and accommodation for you. Take plenty of warm, windproof clothing. The most exciting events are held outside, and the climate has been accurately described in a limerick:

In the town of The Pas,

Manitoba,

It snows on the first of Octoba,

From then for six months,

It thaws only once,

And never when I am quite soba.

Central Canada, in the pushy way of that region, has more going on in the winter than all the rest of the country combined. Ontario’s winter calendar lists 48 winter carnivals, 39 snowmobile races, eight major ski meets, five badminton tournaments and 46 curling bonspiels. But for my money, some of the best events of the snowy season appear in no catalogue, are hustled by no huckster. For example, my idea of a really nifty winter weekend is to drift down to Ottawa, take in a show at the National Arts Centre, knuckle my forehead respectfully to a brace of mittened politicians puffing up Parliament Hill, and then go skating (like the cheerful folk above) along the canal, where the National Capital Commission not only keeps the ice clean, but sets up benches and huts for skate-changing, and stands where you can buy a cup of hot chocolate or a snack.

Or, take a trip on the Algoma Central Railway’s snow train, out of Sault Ste. Marie. For $10 per adult (five for chil-

dren), you can enjoy a daylong ride up the Agawa canyon, through some of the most entrancing winter scenery in the country, and nestle back in your chair, or linger over a meal in

hey had a ball in the capital With winter's many facets, While bureaucrat and banker sat Upon their frozen assets.

the dining car, reveling in the knowledge that the temperature just outside your picture window may be down to 40 below zero. For reservations — which you’ll need — write to: The Traffic Department, Algoma Central Railway, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. The train runs Saturdays and Sundays from early January through late March.

Or, if you’re willing to wait until winter is well advanced to celebrate it in style, take in one of the maple syrup festivals that mark sugaring-off time (a vaguely vulgar phrase) in Ontario and Quebec. The sight of a gathering wagon, like the one at left, rolling through the maples, the sound of the jingling harness and the snorting horses, and the sweet scent of the sap being rendered down to amber nectar are enough to quicken the pulse, fire the appetite and swell the heart of any Canadian. The finest treat of all, of course, comes when you pour a dollop of thick, hot syrup over the snow, chill it to taffy, ball it up and pop it into your mouth, and tell your dentist to go to hell. Plessisville, Que., and Elmira, Ont., hold annual maple

festivals — the dates depend on the season, but the local chamber of commerce always knows well in advance. Plessisville is about 70 miles north of Sherbrooke, on Highway 5; Elmira is just north of Kitchener-Waterloo, on Highway 85.

However, if a carnival is what you must have, pass up the much publicized Carnaval de Québec (it’s fun, but expensive and anyway, darling, everybody, but everybody, has already been) and try the Carnaval-Souvenir at Chicoutimi, 130 miles north of Quebec City. Every year at carnival time, the people of Chicoutimi dress, eat, drink and disport themselves in the manner of a century earlier. This winter’s carnival, scheduled for February 14 to February 24, will follow the customs (but with a higher level of comfort) of 1874. Like every successful carnival, this one is crowded, and you will need to make hotel reservations early. Write to: Le Carnaval-Souvenir de Chicoutimi, Inc., 31 ouest rue Racine, Suite 202, Chicoutimi, Que.

And remember to take warm clothing for outside events.

Another winter celebration in Quebec well worth a visit is the annual Tommycod Fishing Festival at La Pérade, a village just east of Trois-Rivières, and roughly halfway between Montreal and Quebec City. The Tommycod, known locally as les petits poissons des chenaux (the little fish of the channels) start to move up the Ste. Anne river from the St. Lawrence about mid-December, which seems a sensible time to move, when no fishermen are about. But les petits poissons reckoned without the cunning fishermen of La Pérade and neighboring Batiscan, who simply knock holes in the ice and go after them through the holes. Decorating the runner-mounted wooden huts from which the fishermen work has become a highly developed local art, and, during the festival — scheduled for January 6 to February 9 this year — prizes are given for the most lavishly adorned huts, as well as for the best catch. La Pérade is a pretty little village with an honorable history. Madeleine de Verchères, the Indian-fighting heroine, lived here with her husband and is buried here. But the village is

more quaint than comfortable, and visitors may find it advisable to stay at Trois-Rivières and drive out for the festival.

Skiing is an even bigger thing than holding festivals in French Canada; with an average annual snowfall of 120 inches, skiers can count on about three feet of snow cover from early December until late March in the prime areas. Quebec has at least 110 ski centres (I say at least because more are being constantly created) of which one of the best known is at Ste. Agathe, where they have, in addition to the ski slopes, a giant ice slide, at which the photo at right shows a busy day during the centre’s annual winter carnival. Ski facilities vary from cheap-but-comfortable to some of Canada’s most expensive resorts, but the province puts out an excellent booklet to sort them all out by cost, kind of slopes and accommodation. For a copy, write to: Province of Quebec Tourist Branch, 930 Chemin Sainte-Foy, Quebec 6, Que.

Moving eastward into Atlantic Canada, the tourist will find a distinct falling-off in the tempo of winter activities. Perhaps because winter is kinder to the Maritimes — except in northern New Brunswick, and I am carefully excluding*

Newfoundland — there is not the same impulse to organize events to stave off the chill.

But if your plans send you eastward during winter, there are a number of activities worth a side trip.

In Nova Scotia, for example, there is the Dartmouth Winter Carnival, which features country hoedowns, iceboating, and a colorful torchlight parade.

There is harness racing every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday in Halifax and excellent hockey regularly (the Nova Scotia Voyageurs won the Calder Cup in 1972); there is the Atlantic Symphony to listen to, Neptune Theatre to watch, excellent snowshoe and ski trails to travel (especially in the Wentworth Valley, between Sackville, NB, and Truro,

NS) and the inevitable snowmobile rallies to attend.

Skiing and snowmobiling are also popular in New Brunswick — although the snow can’t always be relied on in the southern half of the province — and Saint John has a 2,000-acre recreational area in Rockwood Park that provides a plethora of skiing and skating facilities. Speed-skating is a New Brunswick specialty. Seward MacDonald, Director of Promotion for the City of Saint John, explains that this is because “skating up the river used to be the fastest way to get around this province, and the tradition stuck.” Charlie Gorman, a native who won the world championship in 1926, is honored by a statue in Saint John’s city square park, and a legion of his imitators can be seen skimming around the rinks almost every weekend.

In Prince Edward Island, along with the regular skating, snowmobiling, ice fishing and cross-country skiing, there are harness races twice a week on the ice at the causeway just outside Charlottetown. The races are held every Wednesday and Saturday, except when the weather is unspeakable, and, as you can see from the picture (above), are rousing affairs. For those whose excitement threshold requires something stronger than pounding hooves, cracking whips and snorting horses in

Ïirom vieux Québec to Malapec, When snowy storms are breakin’ C’est bien gentil as horse ox fille Comes bringing home the bacon.

the snow, there is a pari-mutuel booth at trackside, so you can lose your shirt along with your blues on the North River ice.

While Newfoundland has only a modicum of organized winter events, that province’s most attractive tourist asset is the incredibly casual hospitality of her people, and that knows no particular season. Indeed, the odds are that Newfoundlanders, like other frontier Canadians, are even nicer to strangers during terrible weather than they are on fine days.

There are certain conventional midwinter events, however, and these inspire outbursts of unique Newfoundland gaiety. Western Newfoundland gets a good annual snowfall, and skiing dominates the Corner Brook Winter Carnival. The carnival usually occurs just as February turns to March. Marble Mountain, which is a 12-minute drive from the town, rises about 1,800 feet above sea level, and has five slopes to challenge skiers of assorted levels of competence. One slope is a mile long, with a drop of more than 700 feet. Eastern Provincial Airlines offers ski packages to the Corner Brook area.

Labrador City, a mining town (in Labrador, of course), has a zesty little winder carnival of its own and, in St. John’s, Memorial University sponsors a carnival in February which includes parades, competition in snow and ice sculpture and, as one official puts it, “quite a riotous time.”

Easter week may be regarded as winter in Newfoundland, and one of the more exciting events in the province at that time is the annual provincial drama festival. Theatre is stirring and blossoming in Newfoundland as vigorously as anywhere else in Canada. Theatres in St. John’s, Gander, Corner Brook, Grand Falls and Labrador City all participate in the festival, and help confirm the theory that, in wintertime, drama is Newfoundland’s secondmost popular indoor sport.

There are other-midwinter activities in the category of When In Newfoundland, Do As The Newfoundlanders Do. The trout season opens on January 15. Freakishly warm Februaries, in which you can fish with rod and line, occur now and then; but the usual method is ice fishing, and it’s very good. “Yes,” says the tourist officer, “me and my friends might go up to the country any fine winter day and punch a couple of holes in the ice, and pull out a few.”

The great and hauntingly barren tracts of this mysteriously beautiful province make for unforgettable cross-country skiing, and so many Newfoundlanders have found that their landscape provides terrific snowmobiling adventures that, for their own protection, their government is enacting some of the more intelligent snowmobiling legislation in Canada.

Finally, the point to remember is that, if you’re willing to smile at people you think you don’t know, it’s almost impossible to have a rotten time in Newfoundland.

With all of this going on from coast to coast, no Canadian has any excuse to sit around moping all winter for, as Nietzsche — to come back to that gloomy German — once said, “Is not life a hundred times too short for us to bore ourselves?” ■