Documenting the Tradition of Whitefish’s Winter Carnival

By Beacon Staff

For those who spend their winter months in Whitefish, wandering around for a weekend in the company of friendly penguins, mischievous yetis and heroic Viking divas is nothing out of the ordinary.

However, for the rest of the world, the Whitefish Winter Carnival may need a little explaining. A couple of local filmmakers are more than happy to oblige, with a documentary explaining the carnival and its history, which will be shown during the festivities on Feb. 3 and 4.

“I feel like this is real life, this is the true Whitefish Winter Carnival, down to the bare bones,” said Whitefish resident Adam Pitman.

The carnival has been a tradition in the Flathead for 51 years. According to festival legend, the Nordic god Ullr comes down from his frozen home on Big Mountain to celebrate with the humans in town, while a band of yetis tries to kidnap his queen and generally harass the celebrators, including Ullr’s prime minister.

Each year, the yetis are successfully driven off to their domain over the mountain and people in Whitefish are called to celebrate with their community. This means royalty coronations, dance parties, art walks, horse-skijoring, plunging into freezing lake waters, a grand parade and other events taking place during the darkest and coldest time of the year.

While that seems like just another familiar February for many residents, Pitman said a visit from some friends made him realize how special the event is. The chilly activities and the fascinating characters running around the city, Pitman said, surprised his friends.

“That was eye-opening to me, that this is a unique event,” Pitman said. “I thought all towns had them.”

It wasn’t long after that realization that Pitman enlisted the help of local cinematographer Jake Cook to begin documenting the month-long celebration. They started about four days before the 2009 carnival began, Pitman said, so they tried to film as much as possible.

Now, after over 100 hours of filming and even more time spent editing, “Whitefish Winter Carnival: The Documentary” will make its debut.

“My goal for this documentary is to have a historical piece that people can share about Whitefish, about the community,” Cook said.

The film will show footage from last year’s carnival, as well as delve into the event’s history and significance in Stumptown. Part of the thrill of making the documentary came from learning more about a tradition he had taken for granted, Pitman said.

“All winter carnival questions will be answered, and I think that’s really important because people have a lot of them,” Pitman said.

The showing will take place on Feb. 3 and 4 at the O’Shaughnessy Center, shown in conjunction with the Whitefish Theater Company. There will be a $5 requested donation, with proceeds going to the Stumptown Historical Society. The show will be the director’s cut, Pitman said, and should run about two hours with an intermission.

The documentary attempts to show why people have been braving the elements for more than half a century to play around together, Cook said. A big part of that is the sheer desire to shake off the cabin fever and do something social, he said.

“A lot of people think it’s just a special event, but it’s a community building event. The goal is to combat the grayness of winter,” Cook said. “They want to blow off some steam and go have some fun and come together.”

It’s this effort that makes Whitefish stand out, Cook added, making Whitefish a bright spot during an otherwise monochromatic winter.

Pitman welcomed carnival revelers to enjoy the film, but insisted that people who have little or no interest in the carnival should see the film to learn about the festival’s colorful history. He also promised to offer laughs, memories and even some tears.

“Bring your tissues because you might cry,” Pitman said. “It’s emotional.”

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