What are all those crazies doing outdoors on days like this? Here it is zero to 20 below, the tips of their noses are turning white, and they're out there cavorting. Well, there is an explanation. Inside their longies, swaddled in sheepskins, bemittened and wrapped into miles of mufflers, they are proving a couple of cold points. One: northlanders really are the hardy, fearless folk they believe themselves to be. Two: as long as winter won't go away, maybe it's best to get out and thrash around in it.
This madness officially began back in 1886 in Minnesota—where the winter air is so cold that it crackles—when a few hearties began tossing somebody in a blanket and, amazingly, drew a crowd. Hardly had the high-thrown victim settled to earth when the St. Paul Winter Carnival was born, an icy festival that has since been widely copied and now fires up the entire town over the coldest days of its year.
Blanket tossing and all, the Minnesota carnival has become one community's best answer to the winter blahs, growing to the point where there are now 55 events in 10 days, something to lure everybody outside this Jan. 26-Feb. 4. There are two giant parades, one by day and one by torchlight at night; there is family competition in cold sports of all sorts and a 500-mile Winnipeg-to-St. Paul snowmobile dash. There also is the nation's oldest ice-fishing contest on White Bear Lake which, assuredly, can support the 5,000 to 10,000 fanatics who get out on it, cars and all, to drop minnows through holes predrilled by the parks department. Naturally, the first prize—a three-or four-pound northern or walleye pike could win it—is a new snowmobile. And this season, in case any of these activities might have left some poor soul indoors by a warm fire, the carnival also will feature a mile-long banana split, served outdoors, no refrigeration necessary.
While St. Paul's is the jewel of carnivals, there are similar winter perkeruppers all across the snow country. Since 1911, the Dartmouth Winter Carnival (Feb. 9-11) has been an Eastern fixture, built around ski competition and snow sculpture. The college influence also dominates the annual festivities (Jan. 30-Feb. 3) on the Michigan peninsula at Houghton, one of the coldest regions of the world. Michigan Tech's Blue Key sponsors the celebration, the men grow warm beards and select a snow queen. Tech's dogsled races feature real, live undergrads acting as the dogs, and the big snowshoe race lasts one-eighth mile or until everybody collapses, whichever comes sooner. Snow sculpture is the highlight, with statuary tending to the monumental, 30-foot scale, creating a yearly show for the entire town.
In Colorado, Denver University's carnival (Jan. 27-28) offers up genuine ski competition, but other Coloradans are not as serious: in some of the best events the racers slalom down the course carrying trays of drinks. A sinuous torchlight parade of night skiers keynotes the celebrations at Steamboat Springs (Feb. 9-11), creating a stunning effect calculated to last until spring.
The Laurentian Snow Festival in Canada (Feb. 8-17) features a number of minicarnivals around Sainte-Agathe des Monts, complete with motorcycle racing on frozen Lac des Sables and the annual dogsled derby, this one with serious drivers harnessed up to even more serious huskies.
Certainly the most courageous carnival event of all is the course en can��, the annual canoe race crashing through the ice floes of the St. Lawrence River between Quebec City and Levis on the opposite shore, while 100,000 spectators shiver and cheer. The Quebecois in their festival (Feb. 22-March 4) also parade by day and night and stage a chilled national championship motorcycle race.
Crazy, yes. Still, if a new Ice Age is indeed coming, as was predicted recently in a scientific report, at least half the country will be ready.