Edmonton prides itself on being a city of festivals, and though this often calls to mind summer events, we’ve got winter covered, too. This past weekend ushered in the 11th annual installment of Deep Freeze, the cool counterpart to Kaleido Fest, which is a summer initiative of Arts on the Ave. Both festivals are something to see, but Deep Freeze is particularly magical.
The website for Deep Freeze advertises the Byzantine Winter Festival as “a free family event that brings together Ukrainian, Franco-Albertan, Franco-African, Indigenous, and Acadian/East Coast communities,” and unlike most advertisements, this one happens to ring true on every point.
For the whole weekend, a stretch of 118 Avenue is closed to vehicle traffic and becomes a uniquely Canadian winter wonderland. Costumed performers on stilts meander through the crowd, stopping for photographs and conversation. At the west end of the avenue is a group devoted to the historical re-creation of Viking life, and the roast pig that they parade down the street is actually available to eat at a booth behind the community league building. A pair of horse-drawn wagons share the road, while the occupants happily lick cabane à sucre from popsicle sticks and drink from cups of hot chocolate. While we warm our hands around one of many mobile fire pits, a woman who is new to Canada roasts her first marshmallow. I play a game of ice sculpture tic-tac-toe with a man who has been coming to the festival for years. “You can’t just come once,” he tells me, and he’s not wrong.
Deep Freeze offers so much to see and experience that it would be impossible to do it all in one go. I spent the whole weekend there and barely scratched the surface of what was available on the main drag. No less than three rinks were set up: two small ones with ice for hockey and curling, and a larger asphalt one for the weekend-long street hockey tournament. The Nina Haggarty Art Centre was full of people admiring artwork, listening to live musical performances, and browsing through a selection of handmade wares available for purchase. Smaller venues such as the trio of tipis in Pipon Village played host to activities like snowshoeing and craft-making, while the Big Bear Yurt Stage and other pavilions showcased a range of traditional music and dance from around the world. Even Canadian icon Rick Mercer made an appearance on the deep freezer race track.
What makes Deep Freeze memorable, though, is the atmosphere. Strangers share their time and their goodwill, neighbours come together to partake in their community, and somewhere between the free axe throwing, drum circles, and marshmallow roasting, there is a sense not only of having been entertained, but of being at ease. There is truly something for everyone.