The holidays have faded faster than daylight. But rather than hibernate in a frustrating ball of blues for the next couple months, consider venturing out for a weekend getaway. Enliven winter's dark and bone-chilling days at one of these festivals in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Cheer on racers crazy enough to ride bar stools down a bunny hill; root for your favorite in Duluth's landmark dog sled race; take in a sleigh and cutter parade on a homey Main Street, or explore the North Shore winter wonderland by snowmobile or skis.Bar Stool Races
The wintry wonderland drive to Drummond, Wis., conjures up images of a quiet, romantic weekend getaway. The occasional snowmobile whizzing by provides a hint of something different, though. Suddenly, the abandoned highway gives way to police directing traffic, snowmobiles dominating a field, and the local school bus transporting people from a nearby parking lot to a bar. That's right, a bar.
The upcoming Presidents' Day weekend marks the 12th annual Drummond Bar Stool Races, drawing people from all over the tri-state region and beyond (www.startribune.com/a50).
Despite the bar theme, the event focuses on good old-fashioned fun suitable for the whole family. Racers use a bar stool (or similar apparatus) attached to a pair of skis. They compete one-on-one by racing down a fairly steep bunny-sized ski hill, and the results are often entertaining.
You'll find a mix of locals and visitors exchanging great conversation, noshing on brats and burgers and enjoying beer while contemplating whether they'd ever have the courage (or be crazy enough) to attempt this unusual competition. You'll also see plenty of kids around, cheering on Dad or, in many cases, Mom.
The Feb. 19 festival is free but a fundraiser raffle takes place during the event.Mushing -- and puppies
The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Duluth has grown to include much more than a sled dog race, with events planned for Jan. 28 through Feb. 3 (www.beargrease.com).
One of the biggest crowd-pleasers will surely be the Cutest Puppy Contest that takes place at Fitger's Brewhouse (600 E. Superior St.) on Jan. 29, the day before the race.
The main event, in its 28th year, kicks off that Sunday morning, and kids will have an opportunity to meet the mushers -- and their dogs -- before the start of the race.
About 4,000 spectators turn out for the Beargrease, event spokeswoman Linda Nervick says. The race also draws a large online crowd, watching live video streamed on Beargrease.com and other media. "A few years ago we were included in ESPN's Top 10 videos of the day," she said.
The race is named after John Beargrease, the son of an Anishinabe chief. He and his brother are best known for delivering mail along the North Shore from 1879 to 1899, which played a critical role in helping establish settlements along the shore. The Eastman Johnson Ojibwe Exhibit will open at the Depot in Duluth on Jan. 29, coinciding with the Beargrease opening ceremonies. Also this year, four-time Iditarod champ Jeff King will speak at the marathon's annual fundraiser Jan. 28, and hard-core fans can participate in a winter camp-out along the North Shore.Horses galore
Horses take center stage in Waseca in early February at the state's oldest Sleigh and Cutter Festival. According to event organizer Ken Borgmann, Waseca also holds the title as the nation's longest continual sleigh and cutter festival -- 2011 will mark its 61st year.
"Others started before us, but they couldn't keep it going every year," he says. "As far as we know, we're the only ones who have done this every year."
The highlight of the festival -- the Sleigh and Cutter parade, on Feb. 12 -- will remind you of simpler days, as horse and sleigh combos make their way down Main Street. Be sure to stick around to see local schoolchildren cut ice chunks out of the lake by hand. The ice is then insulated with sawdust and stored in a shed until the town's July 4th festivities.
The festival now spans three weekends, Feb. 4 through 20, and includes plenty of outdoor activities to get your blood pumping -- including ice curling, kickball and a Polar Plunge. Once a struggling festival, the Sleigh and Cutter now draws more than 10,000 people.
Many other events such as a golf tournament (Feb. 19) and a snowmobile race (Feb. 13), both of which are fundraisers, are tied to the festival to provide a more wide-ranging experience for visitors (www.sleighandcutter.org).Icy wonderland
Cook County's Winter Tracks Festival showcases a region known for hundreds of miles of snowmobile and Nordic ski trails -- both of which are capitalized on during the Feb. 4-13 festival (www.startribune.com/a49).
The festival features a variety of activities, including a snowmobile fun run and a downhill ski fun fest at Lutsen Mountains, both on the first weekend of the festival, and plenty of great food and opportunities for shopping along the North Shore. Also on tap are guided snowshoe tours, ice skating, and dog sled and horse-drawn-sleigh rides.
The event that perhaps best captures the beauty of the North Shore is the Volks Ski 400, to be held Feb. 12. The Volks Ski trail system includes 400-plus kilometers of trails throughout the region, making it North America's largest groomed cross-country ski trail. Organizers are encouraging skiers to sign up to cover a specified part of the Volks trails so that the entire trail system is skied in one day (www.volksski.com).
Beth Probst is a freelance writer in Iron River, Wis.