From the January/February 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine
For those living in Anchorage in the 1930s, winter was one long slog—until a few stir-crazy residents put on a sports tournament to coincide with the days that miners and trappers brought their goods to town. Nearly 80 years later, Fur Rendezvous has evolved into a 10-day celebration of Alaskan life, highlighted by the running of the reindeer and sled dog races that draw mushers from around the world. Still, “Rondy” has remained true to its roots with a lineup of outdoor sports such as snowshoe softball, ice hockey, and a frostbite footrace. Feb. 21-Mar. 2.
Saranac Lake, New York
Deep in the Adirondack wilderness, the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival hosts traditional winter sports competitions—alpine and Nordic skiing, children’s skating races, and curling—as well as offbeat contests, such as the women’s frying pan toss. There are concerts, fireworks, and a parade that reflects a chosen theme (this year: aliens from outer space). But the centerpiece of this 115-year-old fete is an elaborate ice palace built by volunteers with thousands of blocks of ice harvested from Lake Flower. Jan. 31-Feb. 9
Winterlude transforms Canada’s capital into a wonderland of ice sculptures and hot chocolate stands during the dreariest time of year. The center of the festival is the frozen Rideau Canal Skateway, home of the Beaver Cup Hockey Classic, a winter triathlon (8-km skate, 5-km ski, and 5-km run), skating demos, and the quirky bed race. Families make a beeline to the Snowflake Kingdom in Gatineau for its snow slides. In the evenings, local chefs and winemakers show off Ontario’s bounty in multicourse dinners. Feb. 1-18.
St. Paul, Minnesota
Allegedly irked by a reporter’s dismissal of St. Paul as “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation in the winter” in 1886, a group of boosters set out to show off their city with two weeks of winter games, toboggan slides, and a towering ice castle. More than a century later, locals and visitors still gather at the Winter Carnival to march in torch-lit parades, run half-marathons, and admire detailed ice sculptures. Jan. 31-Feb. 17.
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
With average winter temperatures in Sault Ste. Marie hitting the low 20s, Saultites have every reason to be hermits, but the Bon Soo Winter Carnival draws them out in droves. Quirky fun during the 10-day festival includes downhill canoe races and bum slides, the latter done sans sled on tracks slicked by fire hoses for an extra slippery ride. Events are capped off with an annual polar bear swim, when some 200 hardy souls brave a dip in the frigid waters of Lake Superior. Jan. 23-Feb. 2.
Hanover, New Hampshire
Launched in 1910 as a field day for students, the Dartmouth Winter Carnival has become an iconic event in New England. In 1955, Sports Illustrated described the weekend, famously used to attract women to the school before it went coed in 1972, as a “30-ring circus.” Visitors cheer on Division 1 ski competitors or watch less elite athletes—often decked out in capes, pajamas, and other costumes—compete in a 3K ski race and human dogsled races on the college green. The public is invited for horse-drawn sleigh rides and a skating party on Occom Pond with live music. Feb. 7-16.
Drawing on the Quebecois custom of pre-Lenten celebrations, the Quebec Winter Carnival—the largest of its kind in the world—is steeped in tradition. Elite and amateur teams race canoes on the icy St. Lawrence River, and artists from around the globe compete in one of the oldest snow sculpture competitions. In a nod to Bonhomme, the festival’s snowman ambassador, revelers don red hats and sashes and toot red trumpets along parade routes, warming up with nips of caribou, a cocktail of brandy, vodka, sherry, and port. Jan. 31-Feb. 16.
Each year some two million visitors descend on Sapporo, the city in northern Japan famous for hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics, to admire the hundreds of intricate snow and ice sculptures carved by international teams for the annual Snow Festival. When not marveling at the massive scale of many of the sculptures, visitors can take figure-skating lessons, go snow-rafting, watch snow crystals through a loupe, sample regional specialties like ramen noodles, and partake in a host of other wintry diversions. Feb. 5-11.
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
With events that range from ski-jumping to slalom mountain biking, the Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival showcases the region’s rich winter sports heritage. A muzzle-loading biathlon, in which participants clad in vintage fur-trapper outfits compete on marksmanship and Nordic skiing, draws serious endurance athletes. For everyone else, there’s a ski parade, tubing party, and quirky street contests, including a donkey jump, a shovel race, and a 25-yard dash involving dogs pulling tots on toboggans. Don’t miss a glimpse of the lighted man, whose battery-powered suit weighs 70 pounds. Feb. 5-9.
Whitefish Winter Carnival, Montana
For more than 50 years the residents of Whitefish, Montana, have feted Ullr, a legendary god of snow who lives in nearby Big Mountain, with Fiesta Pescado Blanco, an annual weekend of street and ski parades; winter sports matchups in ski-racing, skijoring (in which skiers are towed by horses), and ice hockey; and the annual Penguin Plunge, a frigid dip in Whitefish Lake. Each year, a band of prankster snowmen known as the Yetis try to spoil the fun by kidnapping the snow queen and perpetrating other high jinks, but Ullr inevitably prevails, ensuring his standing among his subjects and next winter’s carnival. Feb. 7-9.