Edmonton warms up to winter festivals

Festival City certainly lives up to its name in the summer, when there are different (or multiple) festivals every weekend. But Edmonton is also starting to embrace its moniker during the colder season, with five different multi-day winter festivals this year (as well as numerous other winter events, compiled by the City here).

Winter fun — skating and curling — at the Deep Freeze festival on Saturday. Photo: Brittney LeBlanc
Winter fun — skating and curling — at the Deep Freeze festival on Saturday. Photo: Brittney LeBlanc

Each festival — All is Bright (Nov. 23, 2013), Deep Freeze (this weekend, Jan. 11 & 12, 2014, pay-what-you-can admission), Ice on Whyte (Jan. 24 to Feb.2, 2014, paid admission), The Flying Canoe Adventure (Feb. 7 & 8, 2014, free) and Silver Skate Festival (Feb. 14 to 23, 2014, free) — add unique elements to the festival scene, as well as providing the ubiquitous opportunities for cabane à sucre, playing in the snow and admiring ice and snow carvings.

“I think technology has moved us inside in so many ways, and rediscovering what’s fun about winter — we quickly forget,” said Daniel Cournoyer, executive director of La Cité Francophone, the organization responsible for The Flying Canoe Adventure.

“When you run out from your house to your car, it’s cold. But when you’re outside and you’re active and you’re well-dressed, winter can be a lot of fun. And I think that’s what all the winter festivals are trying to do, is re-discovering the joy of winter.”

All is Bright, on 124 Street, was the first winter event this year — and the first time for organizers. Between 9,000 and 10,000 people were on the street that day, which was a pleasant surprise, said Kirsta Franke, marketing and events director for the 124 Street Business Association.

“The winter season is really, really important, especially because we are a festival city,” she said, explaining that the event started a few years as a way for some High Street businesses to kick off the holiday season, and was built upon and expanded this year.

“We shouldn’t just shut down our events scene because snow happens, we should actually encourage it and embrace it. So I think it’s really encouraging that Edmonton is full of a lot of doers and makers, and there’s a lot of people invested in creating really amazing venues to come and interact in the wintertime.”

Keeping warm in any way

Each festival embraces the season in its own way — for Deep Freeze, that means borrowing from the festival name, literally.

Deep freezer races — three people in a lidless freezer on skis, sitting on hay, with two people pushing — are held on the Saturday of the festival, and are gaining popularity each year.

But there are plenty of options for staying warm, other than pushing a deep freezer on Alberta Avenue. There’s indoor and outdoor activities, as well as fires lit along 118 Avenue.

Fire sculptures at All is Bright on 124 Street in November 2013. Photo: Razvan Theodor Ghiteanu, courtesy 124 Street Business Association
Fire sculptures at All is Bright on 124 Street in November 2013. Photo: Razvan Theodor Ghiteanu, courtesy 124 Street Business Association

Cultural programming is also a strong aspect, said Christy Morin, artistic director of Deep Freeze and executive director of Arts on the Ave. French Canadian activities occur on Saturday, with Ukrainian programming scheduled for Sunday (Jan. 12), since the dates of the festival fall near Orthodox Christmas. Each year, new cultural influences are added, Morin continued, naming Aboriginal, Asian and Latino cultural activities as well. (Deb Merriam’s The Winter City Strategy is a good way to encourage and introduce activities during what is usually a long season, said Erin Di Loreto, festival producer for the Silver Skate Festival in Hawrelak Park.

“We need to look at how we design things and how we do things, because let’s be realistic — we had snow just after Halloween, and it has not gone away,” she said. “And it will not go away until March. I love winter. So I embrace it.”

As Edmonton’s longest running winter festival, some of the programming will be slightly different this year, as the pond is unavailable because it’s being prepared for the ITU World Triathlon in August.

It’s still a great opportunity for people to try activities like snowshoeing , cross-country skiing, orienteering or getting on a kicksled, with minimum impact on their wallets, Di Loreto said. There are also kortebaan races, figure skating demonstrations, and marathons and triathlons going on during the week.

One festival goer expressed her amazement at the variety of activities last year, Di Loreto remembered.

“(The woman said) ‘I have three different generations here; my mother and father are wandering around looking at the snow garden, my kids are on the ice, and my husband is checking out what they’re burning,’” Di Loreto recalled with a laugh.

The international Snow Sculpture Symposium also takes place during the festival, giving carvers an opportunity to display their craft, coming together to learn from, meet and talk to other artists of their calibre, as they carve snow blocks eight feet high by eight feet wide and eight feet deep.

Other ice sculptures are also prominent just off of Whyte Avenue in End of Steel Park, during the Ice on Whyte festival. Artists come from around the world — one of the highlights for festival producer Wanda Bornn.

Ice sculptures on 124 Street during All is Bright in November 2013. Photo: Razvan Theodor Ghiteanu, courtesy 124 Street Business Association
Ice sculptures on 124 Street during All is Bright in November 2013. Photo: Razvan Theodor Ghiteanu, courtesy 124 Street Business Association

“It’s just like this big, worldwide community from the northern part of the planet that comes together and celebrates winter and creates these amazingly beautiful pieces of art for everyone to enjoy,” she said.

The festival runs for 10 days, and if the sculptures don’t stand up to Mother Nature for the entire time, the artists have an interesting perspective, she continued.

“Originally, when I was watching them do this, and things would get warm, (the sculptures) might melt, or not look as perfect as they did on Day 2,” she said. “You talk to the artists, and they see it as performance art. As the weather changes their work, that’s part of the performance.”

But, if there’s a cold snap during the event, they’re ready to acknowledge that this year too, with a special 40 Below event, featuring the new anthology written by local Edmonton authors.

“Strangely, Wednesday of the festival has almost always been our coldest day, so we’re turning it into 40 Below day, and the local author who has written a book of stories, he’s going to be there as our guest and reading some stories and stuff, so if you come to that event on Wednesday, you’ll get a pin that says ‘I survived 40 Below Day at Ice on Whyte,’” Bornn said.

Winter storytelling

Artists involved with the Flying Canoe also put on a memorable show, as the event has evolved from the Mill Creek Ravine Walk.

“The Flying Canoe Adventure is all about taking advantage of the night sky and the beautiful white snow and colour and lighting and getting us out,” Cournoyer said.

Based on a French Canadian legend, participants can walk through the Mill Creek Ravine, encountering flying canoes and storytellers before making their way up to La Cité Francophone — transformed during the festival into la cité en lumière, or the City of Light. It’s self-guided, Cournoyer pointed out, adding that it’s not necessary to enter the ravine exactly at 6 p.m. in order to capture what’s going on — people can enter from any point along the two-kilometre stretch and understand the story.

Stilt walkers at Deep Freeze 2014. Photo: Brittney LeBlanc
Stilt walkers at Deep Freeze 2014. Photo: Brittney LeBlanc

It’s not a term he uses often, Cournoyer continued, but the combined result of storytellers and interpreters, bands and artistic displays, creates a magical, whimsical feeling.

“I think the location, one, being a nighttime illuminated walk, really added a sense of mystery and intrigue, and the white snow really adds a white canvas,” he said. “Our lighting designers are really able to take advantage of this natural setting, and create this walk and this mystery.”

It’s important to him that the French community get out and participate in other major city events, and in return, that the French cultural centre throw open its doors for people to discover the francophone community, he said. A winter festival is just one way.

“We can find a million and one excuses why we shouldn’t (enjoy winter), but when you create an event like this, you create a million and one reasons why you should do it, and I think that’s the part we’re really having fun with. I’ve always been a winter person, but it’s definitely created a deeper love of winter.”

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