Michigan: Go get your ice skates on

By Kate Roff

The most snowy university in the US knows how to celebrate winter in true scarfie style, writes Kate Roff.

Michigan Tech students compete to sculpt the winning ice statue. Photo / AP
Michigan Tech students compete to sculpt the winning ice statue. Photo / AP

For one snowy weekend in the dead of winter, a small university town in Michigan honours a beloved tradition almost 100 years old - Winter Carnival.

The powdered streets of Houghton and the campus paths of Michigan Technological University are cleared to make way for the carnival's famous statues - colossal endeavours of ice carving and snow sculpture.

Hosted by a group called the Blue Key Honor Society, the Winter Carnival celebration started with a simple dress-up evening in 1922 and has snowballed (excuse the pun) into a weekend of all-night revelry.

The festival boasts a Winter Carnival Queen contest, human dog-sled races, ice hockey games, ice skating shows and the ever-popular beard competition (facial hair is understandably desirable in such a cold climate). Students, locals and visitors don warm boots, scarves and ear muffs to brave the late-night February chills at the snowiest college in the US. With temperatures dropping to an average low of -12C (and even a record low of -31C) in the Houghton winters, the traditional outdoor "broomball" game (ice hockey in sneakers with duct-taped broomsticks) is not for the faint-hearted.

But it's the statues that are the stars of the show. Created by the local fraternities, sororities and other student groups, the designs are entered in either the month-long competition or the shorter all-nighter category, and range from miniature carvings to 8.5m tall structures. There is an annual theme, for example "Games We Know Captured in Snow" (2010) and "Thousands of Pages Unfold in the Bitter Cold" (2011), resulting in everything from Rapunzel's tower to Harry Potter scenes.

The designs take months of preparation and often involve the use of snowploughs and heavy machinery for their creation. Techniques of ice-carving and snow-packing are passed down from university alumni to new students and teams of youths can be seen working through bitterly cold nights to put on the finishing touches.

Last year's theme of "Heroes and Villains find their Powers in these Frozen Winter Hours" produced scenes of Transformers, fire engines and futuristic landscapes moulded into the white backdrop.

Recently, Winter Carnival has seen other snow-themed feats put to the test: records have been attempted for the world's largest snowball; the world's biggest snowball fight; and the most people making snow-angels at the same time.

Blue Key Honor Society president, Andrew Conley, says the iconic carnival is a big part of the region's identity.

"Winter Carnival allows us to demonstrate our pride for Michigan Tech and the Keweenaw and to celebrate the incredible amount of snow we receive - the annual snowfall averages 187 inches, and this past winter we had 340 inches!"

Some of his favourite snow statues from carnivals gone by include this year's model of the Lion King and a 1969 scene of President Charles de Gaulle "taking" the Statue of Liberty back to France, cleverly titled "Da Gall of Dat Guy".

Michigan Tech advisor Beth Lunde says the whole city comes alive with the carnival, and that her favourite snow statues usually appear in the "interactive" category.

"With these statues you get the opportunity to play within them - putt a round of miniature golf, climb a wall of snow, or dance in the midst of giant speaker columns."

This is one winter carnival worth braving the cold for.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Houghton's off the tourist route but nearby Hancock has an airport with regular flights ex Chicago. Detroit is a 10-hour drive. If you rent a car, rememberto get snow chains.

Accommodation: The Travelodge in town is good, with indoor pool. Book early - rooms fill up fast for carnival.

Online: mtu.edu

- NZ Herald

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