Do you have a hard time finding activities that young children, teenagers, parents, and grandparents can all enjoy together? McCall Winter Carnival is one of those rare events providing family fun for all age groups and the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors by escaping the constant demands of social media and screen time. All of this and it’s free!
As I write, the 51st Winter Carnival is in full swing. Kicking off Friday, January 29th with a children’s torch light parade and fireworks, the festival runs through February 7th , 2016 with a variety of activities all week. This year’s theme is Beyond Tomorrow, boasting 40 futuristic snow sculptures scattered all over town.
The necessary ingredients for a great winter celebration are snow (lots of it) and cold weather. This year McCall has had plenty of both. We own a place in McCall and we’ve had enough snow to knock down a tree in our front yard and require us to dig a path way for our dogs out to the backyard. I like to think the path out back as our own little interactive snow tunnel for dogs.
The kickoff event for the carnival is a children’s torch light parade to the shores of Payette Lake for a fireworks display.
This year it was so icy everyone joined the torch light parade to walk in the streets and avoid the slick sidewalks. There is an indescribable joy, marching in the crisp, cold dark with children waving light wands and parents wearing glowing multicolored necklaces on a cold night. Since it gets dark early this time of year, fireworks start at 7, still early enough for young children. For those who like to party, the fireworks provide fabulous festive start to a night on the town.
This year, the fireworks were shot from the shore of the lake. The viewers lined up along the snow banks just above the launching point. The dazzling bursts of color burst right over our heads. Some explosions were so close, I felt like it could reach out and touch them. My feet reverberated on the ground when the big boomers went off, sprinkling a few harmless ashes among us. The area near the lake was covered with a light dusting of smoke, like English fog. As my 16 year old daughter said, “The smaller the burst, the larger the boom.” Once the fireworks were over we headed home for board games around the table in front of a blazing wood stove. We have internet but no regular TV in our cabin. But since we tend to gather as a group, we have found cards and games to be a good social activity at least one night of the weekend.
The next morning my crowd of teenagers were up early to catch the first chair up Brundage Mountain. The ski hill tends to be empty during Winter Carnival because of all the activities in town. The kids’ ski report that afternoon was the “hill was uncrowded” and there was lots of new snow.
Meanwhile back in town, the crowds were huge for the annual Mardi Gras Parade. Replicating New Orleans, McCall’s pageant is resplendent with purple, green and gold beads for partiers, lively music and an array of local floats.
Parade viewers are lined up three or four deep in sloshing snow. I heard one mom tell her toddler not to get wet. With all the snow and slush, this order was like trying to stop a locomotive when the brakes go out. He promptly jumped in a puddle splashing water half way up his legs and on everyone standing near him. This total disobedience made me laugh out loud.
Snow and kids are a magical mixture, assuming the kids are dressed for the cold weather. In McCall this weekend, I saw kids of all sizes sliding down snow hills on butts, sleds or whatever other device would move. During Winter Carnival, McCall balloons from a sleepy mountain town of 3,000 to over 60,000 visitors so believe me there are lots of interesting people and activities all around you. One man fighting his way through the slush on the way to the car was overheard describing the crowds on his phone with, “I’m in the guts of this thing right now!” The downtown on the first Saturday of Winter Carnival is not for the faint heart. The pulsating energy of so many people is also part of the appeal of the festival.
Other events throughout the week are pancake breakfasts, gourmet dinners, bike races (motorcycles), Nordic racing, snowmobile fun run, theater, and continuous live music on an outdoor stage, hockey games in the town’s fabulous indoor rink, ice shows, beer garden, and food trucks.
There are also the McCall regular activities including skiing on a great hill, tubing at the Activity Barn, soaking at one of three hot springs, or just hanging out in front of a warm fire and watching it snow.
My favorite event because I’m an animal lover is the Monster Dog Pull. Sponsored by McPaws Animal Shelter, regular people showcase their every day dogs pulling appropriate weighted sleds on a short course.
Competition and sled size is determined by the size of the dog. While some dogs were born to run, others take the race as the opportunity to meet and greet all the by-standers along the way as if they were beauty queens in a parade, and other canines take on the role of victim and just sit down refusing to transform from pets to working dogs. You can see by their expressions these dogs think their owners who are calling them loudly, waving treats, and otherwise making a fool of themselves are just plain nuts. Maybe during Winter Carnival, similar to New Orleans, happiness and fun may make us all just a little nuts (in a good way).
If you didn’t get to McCall this weekend, don’t despair. There is still time to spend a day in McCall and see the snow sculptures which this year should stay in pretty good shape throughout the week. In warm winters, the snow sculptures melt right before viewers’ eyes.
If you are from out of state, consider putting the Carnival on your travel bucket list. If you are a couple with money, try out the Hotel McCall which is right in the thick of the action so you won’t have to use your car. The next closest high end choice is the Shore Lodge, great for couples and families but further from the action. The lodge does run regular shuttles throughout the event. For families with fewer resources and a weekend to spare, America’s Best Value Inn, while a little run down, has reasonable rates, a swimming pool, and breakfast each morning. The biggest draw is it’s within walking distance of everything. McCall has some great new hotels including the Holiday Inn and Best Western but they are on the outskirts of town and require you either take the shuttle, walk longer distances or fight the traffic. If you are coming to spend the week and get in some high quality skiing and relaxing, I would recommend you look into renting a cabin. McCall has gorgeous rentals at reasonable prices. Since McCall does sell out, don’t wait until the last minute to make your travel plans for next year. Under any circumstances, I would plan my trip to take advantage of the community shuttles or to stay within walking distance events. Hassling with traffic jams and no parking in a small town really detracts from the overall joy and carnival spirit.