Arts & Culture » Culture

Sculpting a Winter Tradition

At 50 years old, the McCall Winter Carnival is more vibrant than ever


There is one thing that Jane Sager wants to make clear: she will not be wearing a tiara.

"My friends keep asking me if I'll wear a tiara. No, I'm not going to wear a tiara," she told Boise Weekly. "I'm going to be wearing whatever I need to stay warm."

If there is anyone who deserves to be treated like a princess from Frozen during McCall's 50th Winter Carnival, it's Sager. If it wasn't for her efforts—as well as those of her husband, Hal, and a few of their friends—the McCall Winter Carnival would look different today.

Sager moved to McCall in 1980 and fell in love with the carnival, which began in 1965. As McCall Star-News Co-Publisher Tom Grote put it, the problem was that by 1984 "the Winter Carnival was being suffocated by its own success."

With only a weekend-long schedule of events, the number of attendees clogged the small town. Sager and her friends took it upon themselves to extend the celebration to 10 days.

"It was a hairy task, but it happened, and it worked very well," Sager said.

To pull it off, Sager and her crew persuaded businesses to build more snow sculptures—even when it meant helping to build them herself. They created the Idaho Snow Sculpting Championship, pushed for the creation of several new events throughout the week and introduced an ATV race through the middle of downtown—dubbed the McCall Grand Prix.

"It was wild and crazy. After the first two years of that, we couldn't get the insurance," she said, laughing. "I can't imagine it these days."

Because of her work rejuvenating one of the state's most well-known festivals, she and her husband were selected as this year's grand marshals. The Sagers—who spend summers at their cabin in the Secesh wilderness near McCall—will fly from their winter home in Arizona to participate.

"We will probably be sitting on the back of an open car [during the parade] and waving," she said. Again, she wants you to know she won't be wearing the tiara.

Extending the carnival in 1984 was a game-changer. When the population of a small mountain town increases from 2,925 to almost 60,000 for one week, everyone feels the impact.

During carnival time, McCall Police Chief Justin Williams focuses on handling the influx of visitors. He adds an extra officer to every shift on the weekends, borrows three officers from the Idaho State Police and asks two Valley County sheriff's deputies to stay nearby during the festivities.

"We're a sworn-in department of 13, so it gets a little difficult, but we do it," Williams said. "[But] the clientele that comes up for the winter carnival is a lot different than the Fourth of July celebration, which is more like college kids on Spring Break. For the carnival, we get more families."

His officers concentrate on traffic control and congestion, as well as alcohol-related issues in the evening.

For Jerame Petry, manager of the Hunt Lodge Holiday Inn Express, the carnival means a fully booked hotel. It also means the construction of a giant snow sculpture outside.

Last year's creation—an Egyptian pyramid, complete with hieroglyphs, that spectators could walk through—won first place. This year the sculpture will mimic a wrecked pirate ship, complete with portholes viewers can peek through.

"It keeps the tradition alive," Petry said.

McCall artist John Schulz has built the hotel's sculpture for the past few years. He receives payment from the Hunt Lodge and, if he wins, he gets to keep the prize money as well.

Petry said having the largest, most impressive sculpture in town helps drive business from year to year.

"As soon as guests come up this year, they make their reservations for next year," he said.

McCall Winter Carnival Director McKenzie Christensen said a few new events have been added by the chamber of commerce and local businesses to mark the 50th anniversary, including the Last Chance Winter Dance at the North Fork Lodge on Saturday, Feb. 7, with local band Bottom Line playing covers of classic rock songs.

"For the 50th, we had a lot of pressure for something new and great," Christensen said. "What it resulted in was everyone adding something bigger to their own event."

Other new events include a nordic race and a fat tire bike race. The fireworks show is bigger and there will be 38 snow sculptures—a dozen more than last year. All of McCall's hotel rooms are already sold out and Christensen said vacation rentals and condos are filling up, too.

She's also looking forward to honoring this year's grand marshals, because she said so much of what the Winter Carnival is today came from them.

"I think it will run another 50 years," Christensen said. "I only imagine it growing from here."