King of the Carnivals

By Beacon Staff

For more than 50 years, residents of the Flathead Valley and beyond have gathered in Whitefish during a few weeks in January and February and gotten pretty wild and unabashedly weird.

It’s the Whitefish Winter Carnival. It’s long been recognized as one of the best winter events in Northwest Montana, and the rest of the nation is catching on. Last year, National Geographic named the carnival one of the top 10 winter festivals in the world.

But, regardless of the national attention, the carnival remains pure Whitefish, with its roots based on ancient mythology (wherein King Ullr lives with his Snow Queen on Big Mountain and deigns to party with the humans during the winter), and its participants counting royalty, penguins, yetis, viking divas and more among their ranks. This year, expect some swashbucklers added in the mix due to the pirate theme.

Winter Carnival is the manifestation of burning off some cabin fever. Winter Carnival is family oriented and frivolous, and it’s a time for residents in the valley to gather in the cold streets and enjoy each other’s company and companionship.

And if you remember nothing else, remember this: Whitefish Winter Carnival is upon us, and it’s time to have some fun.

Plunging In
In its 15th year, the Penguin Plunge has become one of the top fundraisers for Special Olympics in the state

The 2009 Prince Frey, Jack Hyer, right, leaps into the frigged waters of Whitefish Lake accompanied by Jenna Hyer, center, and Joseph Guerri during the carnival’s penguin plunge. File photos by Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

When Judy Canzona Gephart moved to Whitefish in January of 1977, all she kept hearing about was the Winter Carnival. She didn’t really understand the event. There’s a king and queen crowned? And residents are encouraged to wear costumes and watch out for yetis? But she soon found out what the talk was all about.

“It was the most fun I’ve ever had,” she recalled recently.

Since its inception in 1960, Whitefish Winter Carnival has grown into a destination event that spans more than a month and is celebrated as one of the best cold-weather festivals in the U.S. There’s plenty of revelry to go around during the carnival, including a parade, crowning ceremony and skijoring competition. But for the past 15 years there’s also been an unofficial event that’s become one of the top-grossing fundraisers for Special Olympics in Montana.

The Penguin Plunge brings together individuals and teams that raise donations by vowing a cold jump in Whitefish Lake. This year’s event is at 11 a.m. on Feb. 2 and more than 300 participants are already registered, according to Gephart.

“I don’t think people had any idea that this vision for this carnival could ever get this big,” Gephart said. “Then when you have something like the Penguin Plunge that truly benefits someone else, and it’s just humbling.”

Gephart has helped organize the annual plunge every year along with her co-workers at First Interstate Bank in Whitefish, which is a major sponsor and organizer of the event. The first plunge took place in 1998 on Whitefish River. About 50 people jumped in the frigid water.

The following year the event moved to Whitefish Lake.

The fire department makes the frozen lake accessible and professional divers are positioned in the water for safety purposes. A hot tub and refreshments await plungers. The fundraiser is also connected to the Law Enforcement Torch Run, which sends officers across the state raising awareness and support for the Special Olympics.

“It’s an amazing production that entails a lot of people,” Gephart said.

Last year’s event drew about 300 participants, making it the most successful Special Olympics fundraiser in Montana, according to Gephart.

Even though the plunge is not a traditional carnival event, organizers have embraced it as one of their own and it’s now a popular highlight for spectators and participants alike.

“It has been an honor. And also to see how far it’s come and the spectators who enjoy it,” Gephart said. “It’s just this sense of small town that comes out. That’s why people live in this community because everybody is on the same level of enjoying the carnival. And there’s this feeling of happiness that comes over people during the plunge. Plus we have a beautiful area to have it in.

Jump in the Saddle
Skijoring events take place Jan. 25-27

Skier Ron Behrendt, left, and rider Mike Righetti, on Someo, compete in the Sport Division of last year’s Whitefish Winter Carnival’s skijoring competition. File photos by Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

What’s got horses, skiers, huge crowds and more than $20,000 in prizes? Only one of the most popular events of the Whitefish Winter Carnival: skijoring.

Events for the World Skijoring Championships begin with registration on Friday, Jan. 25, and with competition on Jan. 26 and 27.

Skijoring is one of Montana’s extreme sports: a skier is pulled by a horse over a series of jumps constructed in a U-shaped course. The skier is also required to weave in and out of gates between jumps, similar to a downhill ski race.

It’s a perfect combination of the ski culture in Whitefish and the deep equine history in Montana, even if it does seem a little odd from an outside perspective.

Vernon Kiser, a member of the ommittee organizing the championships this year, is one of the rare people who both skis and rides horses during the competition. He said it’s an activity that takes some getting used to for the uninitiated.

“It takes a couple of laps around there to get used to the feel of going off a jump being pulled by a horse,” Kiser said. “You don’t want to get much air. It takes a couple practice laps to get the feel of it.”

Luckily, Kiser and fellow committee member John Ping have been hosting practices for potential jumpers on Sundays to give them a feel for the event before performing before the burgeoning crowd. The practices also give skiers a chance to match up with skier-less horses, and vice versa.

The Friday sign-up for the weekend competition is a party in its own right, hosted at the Black Star Draught House in Whitefish. The event starts at noon on Saturday, Jan. 26 at the Whitefish Municipal Airport grounds, where three levels of competitors – novice, sport, and the most-experienced open division – will complete timed runs on the course.

That evening, Casey’s Pub and Grille hosts the Calcutta at 7 p.m., an event that invites people to bet on who they think will win during Sunday’s competition. Kiser said part of the money made from the Calcutta will go toward the nonprofit Human Therapy on Horseback.

Proceeds from other aspects of the skijoring competition, such as the $5 parking fee, will go toward the charity as well, and to help fund the Whitefish Winter Carnival.

Whitefish Winter Carnival’s 2012 Princess Freya, Emma Marchetti, sports a protective kiss from a Viking Diva and black straw hat during the skijoring event in Whitefish. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Skijoring continues on Jan. 27, with the awards ceremony taking place at the Craggy Range at 7 p.m. The winner will be the person who has the best combined times from both days, Kiser said.

This year, championships are set to give away more than $20,000 in prizes, Kiser said.

“It all depends; it fluctuates on how many entries we get,” Kiser said.

The committee is expecting close to 90 entries this year, he said. Teams come from all over Montana, as well as Wyoming, Oregon and Washington, he added.

At the end of the competition comes the long jump event off one big jump constructed in the snow.

“Last year one of the guys went 65 feet,” Kiser said.

There is no spectator fee, and there will be food vendors and beverages of all kinds available to crowd members. And the crowd keeps growing every year, Kiser said.

Anyone interested in participating in the World Skijoring Championships can visit www.whitefishskijoring.com for registration forms and information. The site also holds contact information for Sunday practices.

Let’s Make a Deal
Great Northern Brewing Company has 52 cases of beer up for grabs

A large crowd gathers around the stage constructed on Railway Street outside the Great Northern Brewing Company and Black Star Draught House to pick up free six packs after the conclusion of the Black Star Barter in 2011. File photo by Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

For as long as the Whitefish Winter Carnival has been around there has been no shortage of rambunctious fun to begin the new year.

The Great Northern Brewing Company in downtown is once again joining in the festivities with its Black Star Beer Barter. The third annual contest is Saturday, Feb. 2 at 4 p.m. on Central Avenue after the carnival’s Grand Parade.

The crux of the event is simple: what would you do or trade for essentially a year’s supply of beer?

This year’s grand prize winner will receive a combination of 52 cases of Black Star, Wheatfish Wheat Lager and Going-to-the-Sun IPA.

In the past judges have been tempted with some memorable proposals. How about a year’s supply of green eggs and ham? Or a young boy and his dog playing harmonica and singing? What about sticking $2.80 worth of coins up someone’s nose?

Last year’s barter drew more than 1,000 spectators who watched participants juggle fire, perform exhilarating skateboard tricks and offer a pair of vintage Volkswagen buses.

“It really captures the quirkiness of the Flathead Valley,” said Marcus Duffey, the general manager at Great Northern. “It’s a great event and fits really well with the Winter Carnival.”

This year’s panel of judges includes mayor John Muhlfeld, Whitefish High School soccer coach O’Brien Byrd, former city councilor Ryan Friel and Megan Grunow, the manager of Crush Wine Bar.

The key to succeeding is winning over both the judges and the crowd. This includes some showmanship. Last year’s winners included a spectacular shoeless fire dancer and a local resident who organized a tow truck to haul in the VW bus in exciting fashion.

“It’s all about presentation. You have to win over the crowd,” said Great Northern’s Jessica Lucey. “The crowd is a huge factor and definitely sways the judges’ opinion.”

Organizers are encouraging prospective traders to contact the brewery 48 hours in advance to coordinate special arrangements. For example, there was a bit of nervousness in years past when rumors floated around that a Texas longhorn could be making a surprise appearance.

Although the bull never arrived, the prospect of livestock running amok through town was a bit nerve-wracking. Organizers would prefer a heads up with those types of offerings, Duffey said.

This year’s event will take place on a stage in Central Avenue, which will be closed off to vehicle traffic. Barter items must be registered by 3 p.m. at the brewery on Feb. 2. Registration opens at 11 a.m.

“I just love the spontaneity of it,” Lucey said. “You don’t know what to expect. You never know who or what will show up on stage.”

For more information on the Black Star Beer Barter, visit greatnorthernbrewing.com or call 863-1000.

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