Embracing winter's spirit at the Rossland Winter Carnival

In the southern Kootenays resort town of Rossland, a carnival warms up the chilly season with snow races and merriment

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      Got the winter blahs? Tired of looking at grey skies sodden with rain? Then why not pack up your skis, skates, and snow boots and head to the Kootenays for the Rossland Winter Carnival, which takes place Friday to Sunday (January 28 to 30)?

      Hands down, there’s no celebration quite like the bacchanal that folks in this Monashee Mountains hideaway have been perfecting for the past 114 years.

      Who knows? Perhaps you’ll stick around. As Arla Ballentine sees it, that’s exactly what more folks are doing these days. The long-time resident told the Georgia Straight that the former mining town perched on the slopes of an ancient volcanic crater has undergone quite a makeover since she first arrived in the 1980s. “In those days, everybody who couldn’t afford to live in Trail lived here. Now it’s the reverse. At last count, there were 69 doctors in residence. Our town is becoming increasingly popular with Australians as well, many of whom own vacation homes.”

      Rossland doesn’t fit the image of a typical B.C. resort town. Much like those in neighbouring Trail—home to mining giant Teck’s lead-zinc smelter operations—as well as in Nelson, 70 kilometres north, many homes still bear the hallmarks of working-class bungalows. What sets Rossland apart, particularly in winter, is its elevated status. Literally. At 1,023 metres, the town of 3,500 sits above the Columbia River just north of the Washington state border. On winter days when fog encases the valley below, sunshine floods the slopes of four peaks that dominate the horizon: Granite, Roberts, Grey, and Red. “We call it the Kootenay Sea,” Ballentine said of the mist. “The fog is the reason our main airport in Castlegar is referred to as Cancelgar”¦If you’re flying in from Vancouver, it’s much better and cheaper to go via Trail.”

      No matter how you journey to the carnival, be prepared for a party designed with outdoor souls in mind. After all, the traditional inspiration for such midwinter follies is to get everyone out of the house and into the streets or onto iced-over playing fields, where events such as the Sonny Samuelson Bobsled Race and the B.C. pond-hockey championships are staged.

      An evening parade down the town’s main drag kicks off proceedings, headed by a fire engine with sirens wailing and, for good measure, a snowplow of behemoth proportions to clear the way. Close behind follows a procession of townsfolk attired in retro gear, whether of the 1990s neon-coloured ski-fashion variety or heirloom threads more typical of the roaring 1890s, when Norwegian ski-jumping champion Olaus Jeldness—whose ashes lie mingled with iron ore on Red Mountain—organized the inaugural celebration. In a nod to the town’s recreational esprit, members of the municipal council, led by the mayor hoisting a sign emblazoned with “Ship of State”, tote a sea kayak. As an inducement to join in, all participants are entered in a draw for a season pass to Red Mountain Resort, a destination that general manager Erik Kalacis described as a “slackcountry mecca” in reference to the vast expanses of ungroomed backcountry terrain favoured by those with telemark or alpine-touring equipment.

      Beyond doubt, the weekend’s centrepiece is the Sunday-morning running of the bobsled race. Spectators throng the steep, slick sidewalks along Spokane Street, which—with a pitch like that of Vancouver’s Oak Street north of Broadway—plummets several blocks into the downtown core, making this one of B.C.’s most hair-raising and entertaining sport spectacles.

      Custom-made four-person sleds mounted on ski runners reach speeds as high as 85 kilometres per hour. In a nod to the safety of competitors and onlookers alike, braking systems must pass inspection before sleds are allowed on the course. Two standout entries cheered on by the Georgia Straight at last year’s downhill plunge were Iron Maiden, a serious contender shaped like the fuselage of a Cessna light plane, and Wild Ones, what appeared to be a wooden dugout with the driver arched forward across the bow Superman-style.

      Although nothing short of an alcoholic stupor might tempt you onto a bobsled, how about giving luge a try? During the weekend, the Rossland Radicals Luge Club offers free lessons on the lower slopes of Red Mountain. Unlike the icy luge track featured at the Whistler Sliding Centre, natural luge courses are set up on snowy hillsides that have been groomed and marked by a series of gates similar to a giant-slalom run.

      Mike Curry, a club member for 15 years, told the Georgia Straight that inspiration for the sport grew following the Calgary 1988 Winter Olympic Games. “I moved here from Alberta, where I’d been a member of the Canmore Luge Club. The Olympics really inspired me to enjoy the outdoors more. Luge is like tobogganing with control. All the free-skiing antics that go around here result in a lot of broken skis. What do you do with them? Build a luge, of course, using the sawed-off skis for kufen, or runners, Kootenay-style.”

      Even if you miss the carnival when passing through Rossland this winter, pause at the elaborately sculpted ice bar on Columbia Street, a showpiece where the vibe from music and merriment remains until it’s melted by the spring thaw.

      ACCESS: Rossland lies 640 kilometres east of Vancouver on Highway 3B. For information on the festivities, visit the Rossland Winter Carnival website. A complete list of winter festivals in B.C. is posted at the Hello BC website.