There's a saying: If you don't like winter, don't go to McCall. But if you like ice in the shape of a katana-wielding samurai, performance art, Mardi Gras beads or mountain towns that look carbon-copied from a Hallmark Christmas movie, you might want to reconsider.
Between Friday, Jan. 25, and Sunday, Feb. 3, some 50,000 people will brave slippery sidewalks and full parking lots to experience the 54th-annual McCall Winter Carnival. And if you're wondering what keeps mountain-loving overnighters and daytrippers returning, consider Winter Carnivals past.
"In 1924, the first 'Winter Carnival' was the Payette Winter Games. That year, 248 people came from Boise by train to McCall," said McKenzie Kraemer, events and marketing coordinator for the McCall Area Chamber of Commerce. "At the time, it was really a way for people to beat cabin fever, which is still at the heart of Winter Carnival."
Kraemer doesn't skirt around the fact that the Winter Carnival, McCall's 10 busiest days of the year, is a lucrative event, as much for visitors as it is for the town's roughly 4,000 residents. She cites a 2016 economic impact study conducted by the University of Idaho that estimated in the average attendance year, 40,000 visitors can inject some $20 million into the economy in those 10 days. And that's with free activities.
"We love Winter Carnival because it shows off our town in a fabulous way, and it generates significant funds for our local economy," Kraemer said. "McCall's a big winter destination, but mid-week is slow. That money helps people get through those slow winter days."
With livelihoods on the line, it takes a village to make a carnival. The Chamber plans the event, but it's the local business owners and organizations that are credited with the work. Kraemer said business owners will staff up, extend hours and even modify menus to accomodate more people.
They also sponsor activities—the McCall Public Library is hosting this year's kids' snowman-building contest, for example—and open their properties and storefronts to the Carnival's 40 snow sculptures, a staple of the event.
With so many organizations working together, visitors can expect more than snow sculptures from the 2019 schedule. Parade floats are likely to follow this year's theme, "Legends, Myths and Superheroes." Meanwhile, McCall's Activity Barn will become Winter Carnival's first snow maze—ideal for people who love to wander and don't want to wait for pumpkin-spice latte season to do it.
Additionally, the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge kicks off Tuesday, Jan. 29, at Ponderosa State Park, with a ceremonial start and Meet the Mushers event. Teams are slated to finish the 150-mile and 300-mile legs in Cascade and McCall on Friday, Feb. 1. This year's challenge is set to up the ante, as it's a qualifying event for the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, with some teams vying for the triple crown: the Rocky Mountain Cup.
- Kelsey Hawes
For less disciplined furry companions, there's the Monster Dog Pull, benefitting the MCPAWS Regional Animal Shelter. From fluffy Pomeranians to imposing German shepherds, competitors pull weighted sleds for a chance at the No. 1 spot.
On top of all that, there's a Mardi Gras parade, a beer garden, the Alpine Playhouse production of the "modern sex farce" Bedtime Stories, professional skaters at the McCall Starz on Ice show and no lack of local talent.
"Some of our residents tend to hibernate during the Carnival," said Lindsey Harris, senior administrator for the Chamber. "But we have made a concerted effort this year to incorporate local musicians and talent on our main stage. We wanted to create a more community feel, so everyone can enjoy the fun."
Featuring acts with more McCall roots, the Carnival will bring classic rock/Americana band Innocent Man to the main stage while artist Joseph Bedford creates pieces to auction off to benefit Hodia, a camp for kids and teens with diabetes.
- Kelsey Hawes
For Harris, it's the community vibe that makes the Winter Carnival so important for visitors and locals. As a McCall native, she has always participated in the event in some capacity. She helped build a snow sculpture. She hosted exchange students in town for the Carnival. She even convinced visiting friends to walk the parade route as Sharlie, the Payette Lake Monster, during a 30th-birthday bash.
And if you ask Harris, she won't tell you that she did those things out of obligation.
"I love the opportunity to show people what McCall is all about," she said.
For the full schedule of events, accommodation listings and more information on parking and shuttles, visit mccallchamber.org/winter-carnival.