These 5 Keweenaw Festivals will Make You Fall in Love with Winter

Posted on January 27th, 2020

5 minute read

While the rest of the country is watching winter turn into soggy shoulder season, Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula is just getting warmed up. The months of January, February, and March bring some of the Keweenaw’s biggest snowfalls, creating a winter wonderland unlike anywhere else in the Midwest. And thanks to our peninsula’s windswept microclimate, midwinter brings more than its share of sunny bluebird days and crystal-clear nights. In short, the Keweenaw is the perfect place for falling in love with winter.     

The only thing Keweenaw locals love more than a day of winter adventure is celebrating the season as a community. From sports to science, from culture to pure craziness, our top five winter festivals in the Keweenaw help you celebrate winter in the way that fits you best.  

Heikinpäivä — January 9-28, 2020

Woman participates in polar bear plunge at Heikinpaiva

A polar bear plunge participant backflips into the canal during Heikinpäivä.

This midwinter celebration of Finnish culture brings out the wacky side of winter. Starting in mid-January, just as the midwinter blues begin to hit, the shenanigans of Heikinpäivä (hosted by Hancock’s Finlandia University) last for up to a month. Key events include a Polar Plunge into the iced-over Portage Canal, the Heikinpäivä parade featuring creatures from Finnish legend, and the legendary wife-carrying contest, an obstacle course that sends married couples careening from one bizarre station to another. In between, there are kicksled races, musical performances, cultural and craft-making workshops, and a traditional Finnish contra-dance with a live band.

Winter Carnival — February 5-8, 2020

A snow statue at Michigan Tech's Winter Carnival

An intricately built snow statue at Michigan Tech’s Winter Carnival. Photo credit: Michigan Tech

In the days leading up to Winter Carnival, you’ll start to notice something odd: two- and three-story blocks of solid snow plunked in the front yards on Fraternity Row. These blocks quickly transform into jaw-dropping works of sculpture and architecture, from Old West towns to space stations to scenes from classic movies. This cartoonish landscape is all for the sake of the snow sculpture contest, one of the highlights of Winter Carnival, a proud Keweenaw tradition hosted by Michigan Tech since 1922. During this weekend, the university pulls out all the stops for winter fun. Front campus comes alive with broomball matches, dogsled rides, and ice bowling, as well as more traditional winter sports like ice skating, snowboarding and even curling. In the evening, look for the zany, improv-heavy Stage Revue, a snowmobile freestyle demonstration, and the coronation ceremony for this year’s Winter Queen. (It sounds like a beauty pageant, but trust us, it’s anything but.) Make sure to find a good spot on the Houghton side of the river to watch the torchlight ski parade down Mont Ripley—it’s a moment of pure winter magic.

Copper Dog 150 — February 28 – March 1, 2020

A sled dog pulling a sled

Mushers and their intrepid four-legged friends come from all over the world to compete in this iconic race. Easily one of the Keweenaw’s most popular winter events, this three-day event starts and ends on Calumet’s historic 5th Street. Join the crowd on Friday night, buy a hot chocolate and find a spot along the track, and watch as more than 350 sled dogs from around the world explode from the starting gate and go mushing into the starlit night. In between heats, enjoy live music, fuel up with snacks from food carts, and keep warm beside a roaring outdoor fire ring. You can follow the pack over the next two days as they continue on to the tip of the Keweenaw and back, or stay in Calumet and take part in the Dog House Races, where teams of seven (humans, that is) link up to drag a home-built doghouse through town.

Great Bear Chase — March 7, 2020

Cross country skiers race at Swedetown Recreation Area in Calumet.

Contestants of the Great Bear Chase Ski Marathon in Calumet, MI. Photo credit: Brockit, Inc

Nordic skiing through Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula is one of the most serene winter activities you can imagine. It’s also one of the Keweenaw’s most fiercely competitive sports. Calumet’s 1900-acre Swedetown Recreation Area is the setting for this amateur cross-country ski race. If you’re feeling fit and adventurous, register for the 13K, the 25K or the 50K races, offered in both Classic and Freestyle, with prizes offered for a wide range of age groups. (Race registration is open until three days before the race.) If you prefer to be a spectator—and no shame if you do—post up along a good site line and make sure to bring a camera.

Clean Snowmobile Challenge — March 9-14, 2020

A snowmobile rider rides on fresh powder

This intercollegiate design competition challenges engineering students to build a snowmobile that reduces emissions and noise while maintaining optimal performance. The event draws a worldwide roster of competitors to the Keweenaw Research Center, just north of Houghton, where teams of engineering students put their new and improved snowmobile models through a series of tests that measure each machine’s noise and carbon emissions, as well as their speed, acceleration, endurance, and general “fun” factor. (Which, let’s be honest, is the real reason snowmobiles exist.) Despite the noise and the rowdy reputation of snowmobilers, you’re advised to bring your golf manners when you attend this event. The competition is intense and the culminating event, a 100-mile run from Houghton to Copper Harbor, is a nail-biter, as much for who breaks down along the way as for who wins the race.

About the Author

Chelsea Batten is a Keweenaw writer/photographer and co-founder of The Last Coast Media. 

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