While the Saint Paul Winter Carnival might be dominating the headlines, head north just a few hours and discover another winter festival unique unto itself. Hidden among the unspoiled lakes and forests of northeastern Minnesota, the Ely Winter Festival offers a decidedly vintage take on the winter carnival tradition. Now in its twentieth year, the 10-day festival (running from Feb. 1-10) celebrates the area’s legendary French voyageur history, attracting aspiring fur trappers and winter enthusiasts alike with its storied traditions.
Photo by Terri Schocke
The festival kicks off on Friday, Feb. 1 with a spaghetti feed benefitting local youth and families in need, followed by the Opening Ceremonies Concert. As a wink to the venerable Olympic torch, the ceremony includes a “passing of the paddle” to this year’s Grand Marshals.
Throughout the first weekend, enormous snow sculptures begin to take shape in Whiteside Park, culminating in the festival’s biggest draw, the International Snow Sculpting Symposium. More than 20 large “expert” blocks and 20 smaller “amateur” blocks are meticulously carved and whittled by three-person teams into masterful pieces of snow art recreating famous pieces of literature.
For the art lover in the family, the Ely ArtWalk (stretching all ten days of the festival) transforms downtown into a vibrant art district and outdoor gallery. Created to promote local established and emerging artists, shop windows are filled with works of art, many of which are for sale. Last year, more than 400 works of art by 120 artists were displayed.
The packed festival schedule also includes the second annual Polar Bear Dance, a craft fair, musical concerts, sled dog rides, an ice-fishing contest, and a historic Voyageur Encampment, complete with authentic garb.