Uniquely U.P.A few of the pure U.P. winter festivals and events

As one of the coldest and snowiest places in the country, the Upper Peninsula is -- not surprisingly -- home to countless winter festivals and events.

These community-oriented gatherings embrace the season, celebrate regional heritage, and winter sports and activities. They’re also economic engines for tourism, drawing tens of thousands of visitors to the U.P.

“In the U.P., we love to celebrate winter,” says Adonia Finendale, a spokeswoman for the Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association. “Our festivals give visitors and locals a chance to get together and enjoy the season.”

You can cheer snowmobile drivers at the International 500 in Sault Ste. Marie, watch jumpers at the FIS Continental Cup at Pine Mountain or rally for your favorite team at the LaBatt Blue UP Pond Hockey Championship in St. Ignace. The possibilities are endless.

“Festivals are definitely part of living in the U.P. in the winter,” says Susan Estler, executive director of Travel Marquette. “It gets people out and doing active things and exploring new areas. Our saying is ‘We don’t hibernate, we recreate.’ That’s definitely true during the winter months.”

 Many festivals began as a simple idea and have evolved to become part of the cultural fabric of the U.P. Some have already occurred this season. Here, we highlight a few upcoming festivals and events (by no means an exhaustive selection) that we find uniquely U.P.

Downtown Marquette hosts the start of the annual UP200.

UP 200, Midnight Run, Jack Pine 30, February 16-20 

A qualifier for the legendary Iditarod, the UP200 Powered by NMU is one of the premier sled-dog races in the country. Each year about 20 mushers from the United States and Canada compete in the 12-dog, 220-mile race through some of the most rugged terrain in the Upper Peninsula. Think near-wilderness, thick forests, hills and creek crossings. Running along Lake Superior’s southern shore, the race begins in Marquette, and this year --- in a change of recent tradition -- ends at the Ojibwa Casino. “The UP200 is really an anchor for a lot of winter sports and people coming up here,” says Marquette’s Estler. “The morning of the race they are literally dumping snow and grooming on Washington Street to create a good base for the sleds and dogs. It’s really uniquely Marquette.”

While the U.P. has a long history of sled dog racing, as an event, the UP200, traces its beginnings to an Alaskan who relocated to Marquette. An avid sled dog racer, the Alaskan met up with other like-minded enthusiasts in the Upper, and they launched the UP200 in 1990. The race has been held every year except 2021 — canceled because of the pandemic. 

The UP200 also has spurred two other races: the Midnight Run and the Jack Pine 30, all of them organized by the Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association. The Midnight Run is an eight-dog, 90-mile race. The Jack Pine 30 is a six-dog, 26-mile race. The UP200 and Midnight Run kick off Friday evening. The Jack Pine 30 is held Saturday morning. Oh, by the way, the top-finisher in the UP200 wins $7,800.

Information: UP200

Icy formations make Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore the ideal host of the Michigan Ice Fest.

Michigan Ice Fest, Munising, February 8-12

Truly a celebration of Lake Superior’s icy shores, the Michigan Ice Festival is believed to be the oldest event of its kind in the country. The day-long festival in and around Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore welcomes the experienced and the new. That is, anyone interested in learning how to ice climb can join in the fun. “That’s why we do the festival,” Bill Thompson, festival organizer explains. “It’s not the kind of sport where you can simply go into a store and buy stuff and go climb. It can be difficult and challenging. If you show up with no experience, we can provide all that gear and instruction. Ice climbing could become a new sport for you, or your new passion.”

About 1,200 people from all over participate each year. There are spectators, too, though Thompson cautions, “We have lots of spectators, but it’s like going to an ice cream shop and watching people eat ice cream. It’s not so much fun to watch.” The festival includes backcountry adventures, climbing instruction, ice climbing photography, gear demos, social gathering and presentation from pro athletes.

“What makes the ice climbing in Michigan so unique is that we have Pictured Rocks and various porous sandstone,” Thompson says. “The early snow, lots of rain in the fall and low temperature cause water to seep out of these rocks to create these climbing formations. Dozens of waterfalls freeze as well. There are miles and miles of ice to climb.”

Information: Michigan Ice Fest

A fairly new event at the Heikki Lunta Winter Festival, the Rail Jam is popular among spectators.

Heikki Lunta Winter Festival, Negaunee, February 3-4

Yes, there are plenty of winter festivals across Michigan, but you’d be hard pressed to find another named after a snow god. That snow god would be Heikki Lunta, a folklore created some time ago when the snow wouldn't cooperate with a planned winter event. At least that’s one version of the story. This weekend event has gone through changes over the years, now organized by the Negaunee Downtown Development Authority. “It really embodies bracing winter,” says Mona Lang, Consulting director for the Negaunee DDA. “It plays up a little bit of the Finnish heritage. One of the things I really enjoy is seeing people out and about and really taking advantage of the winter weather rather than hibernating. There’s a real sense of community.”

This festival is made up of many small winter-related events, held in one weekend. Festivities kick off with the lighting of the traditional bonfire at Tobin and Iron streets. One of the newer events is the Rail Jam, which offers snowboarders and skiers to show off their skills on a specially built course downtown. “It’s really a fun activity, one spectators really love to watch,” Lang says. Other weekend highlights include a Finnish pancake breakfast, Teal Lake Ice Fishing tournament. fish fry, activities at the UP Luge Club, fat tire bike race, and lantern-lit snowshoe tours through Old Town Negaunee, an area abandoned because of mining concerns years ago. Fireworks cap the weekend. 

Information: Heikki Lunta Winter Festival

A team races in last year's Trenary Outhouse Classic.

Trenary Outhouse Classic, Trenary, February 25

Here’s a festival like no other: The Trenary Outhouse Classic. Held every February in this tiny town in the heart of the U.P. (about 25 miles south of Munising), this event is a race of outhouses. Here’s how it works: Participants create homemade outhouses out of wood, cardboard, plastic, tape, or other materials. Install a toilet seat and a roll of toilet paper. Place the outhouses on skis. Then two people push the outhouse about 500 feet down Main Street. There are races for adults and children. The team with the best time wins a cash prize for 1st and 2nd place. Race tip: Push straight to improve time.

In its third decade, this classic was the brainchild of the late Toivo Aho, who was inspired by a mattress race during a trip to Washington. “It was something to do to break up the winter and it just took off,” says Mimi Cady, president of the Trenary Outhouse Classic. “It's fun to step outdoors and see outhouses being pushed down Main Street. It’s really quirky and fun.” Media attention has come from all over the world and the event draws 2,000 to 4,000 people to this tiny village of 400. For those who can’t make it, an online store of Trenary Outhouse Classic apparel is available; go to www.trenaryouthouseclassic.com.

Information: Trenary Outhouse Classic

The one-mile track at the I-500, a grueling challenge for many snowmobilers.

International 500, Sault Ste. Marie, January 29-February 4

Considered one of the most prestigious snowmobile races on the globe, the International 500 draws snowmobile riders from all over the country. They come to compete on a 1-mile, ice oval track. “It’s a real thrill,” says Linda Hoath, executive director of the Sault Ste. Marie Convention and Visitors Bureau, whose father was on the board that helped create the race more than five decades ago. “It’s like a Daytona 500 race. Think about it. Snowmobiles traveling 117 mph on straightaways,” she says, noting that the race is 500 laps, 500 miles. “It’s grueling.”

One of the world’s biggest winter sporting events, “the Soo-500,” as it’s sometimes called, has been around since 1969. The track was built on an old creek bed of gravel and clay. The site was an ammunition dump during World War II. Today, the race is known as the largest, single-day snowmobile race in the world, attracting around 10,000 spectators. A host of events precedes race day, Feb. 4. “There’s nothing like it in Michigan,” Hoath says. “There’s always snow, sometimes not as much as we’d like but it doesn’t stop people from coming.”

Information: International 500 Snowmobile Race

To find other winter festivals and events, go to Upper Peninsula Travel and Recreation Association.
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