Winter festival survives a century of changes

The 2022 Prince Albert Winter Festival kicks off today. During the past century it has recreated itself to withstand changing times. More than once the headlines suggested an end to our beloved February homage to the fur trade and forestry. But volunteers always stepped forward to continue the tradition of outdoor events such as sled dog races and lively indoor entertainment. Sometimes by our fingernails, we continue to hang on to local history.

Prince Albert held winter festivals in the 1920s but that ended in 1929. It was revived in 1965 in its present form. According to a 2018 article in this newspaper, the kick-off event was the Trappers’ Party. The program included competitions in wildlife calls (wolf, lynx, goose and moose), pelt preparation, jigging, and fish eating. This eventually became the King Trapper competitions, including the power-saw contest, log chopping, canoe portage race, and flour-packing in which contestants carry bags of flour on their backs weighing up to 1,000 pounds.

Many events were held on the ice of the North Saskatchewan River near downtown. The sled dog races also began on the ice. Boy Scouts set up camps on the river ice. Christmas trees made a jolly bonfire. Other Winter Festival events over the years have included ice sculpture, snowmobile races, variety shows, hockey games, parades, dances, cabarets, fashion shows, a “Beerd Derby” originally sponsored by our own Molson Brewery.

The festival moved off the ice in 1972 at the urging of the city’s police chief, Reg Brooman. The main disadvantage of holding the event on the river ice was uncertain weather and ice conditions. Traffic and security were also issues for the police chief.

The North Saskatchewan River has been a meeting place almost since the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. I have visited an archaeological site near Nipawin that reveals the artefacts of thousands of years of camping on the riverbank. Thick eggshells found in the sand dunes suggest people camped there in the spring. The archaeologist said maybe 100 people would meet to trade and socialize there. It would be the most people a person would see in their whole life.

It might not have been a winter festival, but those long-ago riverbank gatherings would have been welcome relief from the cold and isolation of a Saskatchewan winter… much like the P.A. Winter Festival.

The first event of the 2022 Prince Albert Winter Festival has changed in response to the continuing pandemic. The popular Winter Festival Juried Arts Show begins tonight with a virtual awards gala on Facebook at 7 p.m. streamed from Mann Art Gallery. The curator’s walk through will also be on Facebook on Feb. 12 at 10 a.m.

Several indoor in-person events have been planned but proof of vaccination is required.

Old Christmas trees will not be burnt in a bonfire because of air-quality concerns.

These changes and many more exemplify the strength and vision of several generations of local volunteers. Let the Winter Festival begin!