Edmonton winters can be tough. For seven months of the year, the streets and sidewalks are frozen, icy, and covered in snow. Some days, our city is the coldest place on the entire planet. This can make it hard to find enough motivation to leave the house. Netflix and the couch seem like pretty welcoming alternatives when the air outside hurts your face.
The good news is that Edmonton is also the city of festivals. As it happens, many of these festivals take place in the winter. The Silver Skate Festival and Ice on Whyte are two of the most popular.
The Silver Skate Festival boasts a winter triathlon and duathlon, as well as snowshoeing and skating. The festival also includes the International Festival of Winter Cinema, a heritage village, snow sculptures, a fire sculpture, and the beloved snow
Ritchie Velthius, creative director of the Silver Skate Festival, coordinates the arts and culture components and the artists involved in the snow sculpting competition. Velthius says he has been “involved with all of the winter festivals in the city as a visual artist,” and is “really proud of Edmonton and its winter city initiative.”
“We’re a multi-disciplinary festival, so there’s lots of sports and recreation components to it. Being a visual artist, I tend to gravitate towards the arts and cultural kinds of things. I really enjoy collaborating with other artists to make something magical and special for the festival,” he explains.
Erin DiLoreto, executive producer of the festival, says that she cannot choose one piece of the festival as her favourite.
“That’s like asking a mother to pick her favourite child,” she laughs.
However, she does believe there is something for anybody and everybody at the festival.
“If you have a bent for culture, then you’ll enjoy the heritage village,” says DiLoreto.
If you enjoy the arts, she suggests checking out the folk trail or the fire sculpture.
“The fire sculpture, to me, is always magical at night and in the evening, and we seem to have a younger audience there.”
“The live music is great, but then there’s always those athletes who want to come out and try urban poling, or try snowshoeing, or participate in the speed-skating races,” says DiLoreto.
She explains, “I think that’s one of the great things about us, is that we’re multi-faceted. So depending on where your bent is or what interests you, you could come down with a group of 10 people and everyone would be happy and could find something that would keep them entertained.”
“Much of the festival is very participatory,” Velthius adds.
He also says, “For me, the festival is all about community building and community gathering. We have a long winter, and I think that once it gets colder we get more isolated — we don’t connect with community as much. So I think that these festivals are an opportunity to connect.”
DiLoreto believes getting out to these winter festivals is also about changing people’s mindsets.
“You dress for success and you can come out and have a glorious day. Instead of Netflixing it out and chilling, you can get outside and meet your neighbours. It’s about building a community or being able to enjoy your community. Winter is six months of the year, if not longer here in Edmonton, and it’s good to get out into the fresh air and get to see what Edmonton has to offer,” she says.
She also adds that the festival works hard to highlight local talent and artists.
“Everything you see down at the festival, with the exception of a few international snow artists, is local — locally grown and handmade by Edmontonians that are celebrating winter and showcasing their talents.”
Another festival that works hard to showcase local wares and businesses and draws large local and international crowds is Ice on Whyte. Ice on Whyte features one of only three international ice carving competitions in Canada. This year the festival will also feature a new program called “Complete your Old Strathcona Experience,” which involves a group of businesses in the community — restaurants, bars, escape rooms, etc. — that will be offering special deals to attendees of the festival.
Wanda Bornn, festival producer of Ice on Whyte, says she believes university students would find the international ice carving competition interesting for a number of reasons. She adds the new location on Whyte Avenue and Gateway Boulevard will attract university students and hopefully give them the opportunity to enjoy the carvings, learn about the artists, and support some of the local businesses.
“Winter is six months of the year, if not longer here in Edmonton, and it’s good to get out into the fresh air and get to see what Edmonton has to offer.”
She thinks students might want to participate in the adult ice carving lessons that have been added to the program this year. The lessons take place on Saturday and Sunday nights for the duration of the festival.
“Something else new that we are introducing this year is an ice bar. It’s featuring only locally brewed and distilled products. We really want to showcase the local businesses,” Bornn says.
The bar will feature four local distilleries and breweries: Rig Brew from Nisku, Hansen’s Distillery from the west end, Situation Brewing, and Strathcona Spirits. The bar will also be made primarily out of ice.
Aside from the ice bar, the festival will be moving most of its other programming to businesses on the Ave. Live music will be held at Blues on Whyte, the annual chili cook-off will be held at El Cortez, and painting parties will be held in association with the Paint Spot.
Bornn says this year’s event is focused on “who the demographic of the neighbourhood is, which is post-secondary (students and staff), visitors, and tourists … to simplify the event on the site but broaden it throughout the community.”
Winter festivals are a great way to get outside and experience outdoor winter sports, culture, and art while checking out Edmonton’s local businesses and vendors. They give Edmontonians the opportunity to make light of our cold winter months and embrace the wonder that winter has to offer.
In the Ice on Whyte office, there hangs a proclamation from their very first festival in 2004. It was written by Todd Babiak, the Honorary Lord Mayor of Old Strathcona at the time. It is a humorous tongue-in-cheek document that helps illuminate the important place these festivals have in building community and helping us appreciate our
The proclamation asserts that, while “it is unhealthy and depressing to hide from your relatives in the basement, eating corn chips, drinking Hochtaler straight from the bottle and watching Law and Order marathons … these sculptures, like all art, delight and challenge us and humble us and make us think, Geez, maybe human beings aren’t so pathetic and doomed after all.”
A fitting endorsement for the festivals that force us out of our Netflix-ridden blanket forts and into the glorious winter air.
Photography by Ice on Whyte and Matthew Jacula.