Winter is a reminder that almost anything is possible in the Wolverine State.
Hearty Michiganders are known to bundle up for fireworks along snow-smacked shorelines and strip to bathing trunks for quick, numbing plunges into frigid lakes. Outdoor chili and stew cook-offs warm the belly. Games of broomball and hockey test the reflexes.
Have warming tent, will travel. Have blues? Will chase away. That’s unless the subject is annual blues music festivals, which occur in Ferndale (ferndalebluesfestival.org) in January and Petoskey (downtownpetoskey.com) in February.
On the last Saturday of February, races in decorated outhouses in Coopersville (The Outhouse 500, coopersvillefarmmuseum.org) and Trenary (The Outhouse Classic, trenaryouthouseclassic.com) challenge the imagination while rewarding good humor and speed.
This is the season when arrival of fresh snow might be the purpose of a party, not a reason to cancel plans. Most shows go on regardless of subzero temps or windchill factors, and some are extreme tests of skill that also turn festive.
Speeds exceed 100 mph at the I-500 Snowmobile Race (i-500.com) in Sault Ste. Marie in January. The U.P. 200 Dogsled Race (up200.org) in Marquette in February is an Iditarod qualifier. Both races turn into an excuse for community-wide fun and include activities for children.
North American Snow Festival, Cadillac — You’ll be hard-pressed to find a Michigan winter event that attracts more snowmobiles than this one. Picture 10,000 of these motorized sleds in competitive races and leisurely poker runs. They traditionally form a nighttime parade of lights on ice, circling the perimeter of Cadillac Lake. In the area are 200 miles of groomed snowmobile trails.
The Heikki Lunta (marquettecountry.org) on Negaunee’s Teal Lake in January pays homage to the Finnish god whose dancing is said to produce snow. The festival happens a week or two before the Heikinpaiva (pasty.com/heikki) in Hancock, whose traditional Finnish buffet might include pickled herring, beef/pork ragout, mashed rutabaga, rice pudding and butter prune tarts.
Sometimes an icy brew is enough of a reason to gather, and Michigan’s growing craft beer scene enriches the Michigan Winter Beer Festival (mibeer.com) in grand rapids in 2015, Winter Microbrew and Music Festival (microbrewandmusic.com) in Traverse City, Frost Fest (frostfest.org) in Lansing, Winter Beer Fest in Royal Oak and Southern Michigan Winter Beer Festival (www.jacksoncountyfair.net/beerfest) at Jackson County Fairgrounds.
That doesn’t count additional beer-music-food events, such as Kalamazoo Beer Week in January and Grand Rapids Beer Week in February. Grand Rapids also presents the Fox Brew Ha Ha in January. Ashley’s Belgian Beer Festival happens in February in Westland, and beer lovers converge in a tent below ski slopes during the Brew-Ski Festival in March at Harbor Springs. For more details about these and other events, go to beerfestivals.org.
Here are 10 additional Michigan festivals that make the best of winter’s chilling effects. Wherever you head, consider booking a cozy room through the 150-member Michigan Lake to Lake Bed and Breakfast Association, laketolake.com, (888) 575-0270.
10 MICHIGAN WINTER FESTIVALS
Tip Up Town Usa, Houghton Lake — Don’t be surprised if the Queen’s Court at this Upper Peninsula event wear snowmobile suits and fur-lined hats with ear flaps. Pay one price for a badge that provides access to almost everything, pony and carnival rides to skating on ice and games with prizes. “Tip up,” a reference to ice-fishing equipment, acknowledges the core of the festival, which began as an ice-fishing contest. That remains a big lure today.
Plymouth Ice Festival, Plymouth — Organizers tout this bash as Michigan’s biggest display of ice sculptures with more than 100 contestants converging to chisel and saw frozen blocks of water. One-half million people typically attend this free festival, 25 miles west of Detroit. it began in 1982 and was among the first to introduce ice carving as a competitive event. plymouthicefestival.com
North American International Auto Show, Detroit — To write off this extravaganza as simply a car show or auto industry trade show would be a crime. The audience and showcase are international, dozens of new vehicles make their debut and the annual black-tie Charity Preview is among the world’s biggest single-night fundraisers. Add the auto show shuffle, a 5k walk-run along the Motor city’s downtown riverfront.
Zehnder’s Snowfest, Frankenmuth — Exquisite artistry in ice and snow sets this winter fest aside from the rest. The national collegiate ice-carving champ is chosen here. So is Michigan’s state snow sculpting champ. High schoolers get their own sculpting contest; other categories attract international entrants. All happens at a resort in a city of 5,000 with proud Bavarian roots, south of Saginaw.
Party in Your Parka, Muskegon — Michigan’s official birthday party happens in the 1,200-acre Muskegon Winter Sports Complex, whose offerings include an 850-footlong luge track, for use by beginners to experts. Most activities happen outdoors, but for sale at the Made in the Mitten tent (a reference to the state’s shape) are Michigan-made art and other products.
Pine Mountain Continental Cup, Iron Mountain — The Pine Mountain Continental Cup (kiwanisskiclub.com) brings international ski jumping competition to Iron Mountain in February, the same month as North American Vasa (vasa.org) cross-country ski racing in Traverse City. The Vasa is a race with deep Swedish roots, and an affinity for Scandinavian heritage also surfaces during winter in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where a significant percentage of residents claim Finnish ancestry.
Ann Arbor Folk Festival, Ann Arbor — Performances by a mix of homespun talent and nationally known singers at the University of Michigan to raise money for the ark, a nonprofit group that nurtures ethnic, folk and roots music singers and projects. Count John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Leon Redbone and Bonnie Raitt among the headliners since the event began in 1977.
Michigan Tech University Winter Carnival, Houghton — Engineering students design and construct industrial-sized sculptures from snow and ice. Some loom 30 feet tall, and materials aren’t hard to find, thanks to the area’s average snowfall of 218 inches per winter. Other time-honored Yooper traditions are odd competitions (ice bowling, human sled dog racing) and wacky skits (which began at the first festival in 1922).
Winter Break Gallery Stroll, Saugatuck — the small town with a big arts identity on lake Michigan’s southwest shore makes sure this annual ode to winter coincides with a weekend near Valentine’s day. Sled or ski down the hefty sand dunes at Oval Beach, explore galleries and boutiques, and take advantage of the ease of booking reservations at hotels and restaurants during this community’s quiet season.
Gilda’s LaughFest, Grand Rapids — Nationally known comedians yuk it up while cutting the doldrums of winter and raising money to fight cancer. The citywide festival of laughter that began in 2011 is named after the late comedienne Gilda Radner and now involves more than 250 events, most free. Some comedy acts are geared toward children.
This article originally appeared in the 2014 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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