Small-town festivals celebrating the outdoors through wacky contests aren’t reserved for the warmer months — at least not at Minnesota’s northern border.
Frozen turkeys will be bowled and toilet seats tossed this week as International Falls celebrates the 35th Icebox Days, a four-day toast to Minnesota’s frigid weather. The schedule is packed with more than 30 events ranging from skateless hockey to a moonlight snowshoe hike.
And don’t expect weather cancellations. The festival’s signature Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard 10K run has never been canceled, even when windchills dipped to minus 72 degrees in the early 1980s. The 6.2-mile event draws about 300 runners a year, including many participants from Canada and states that border Minnesota.
“Icebox” refers to the town’s nickname, “Icebox of the Nation,” which the town successfully trademarked after a long debate over the name with a town in Colorado.
The festival was created in 1980 as a way to attract visitors to the town of approximately 6,500 in the colder months, said Faye Whitbeck, president of the International Falls Chamber of Commerce, which hosts Icebox Days.
Celebration of ‘our vitality and our spunk’
“The handful of people that got this going wanted to maximize the winter economy and also show the world why we’ve been given that name,” Whitbeck said. “We also celebrate our character and our vitality and our spunk.”
“So therefore all these events are planned during the cold outside.”
Some of the race’s international participants are drawn by the famous Arrowhead 135 Ultramarathon, which starts about a week later, Whitbeck said.
All that outdoor activity might be a bit more bearable this year, with lows for the week expected to be between 11 and 19 degrees. “We know that will bring out a lot more local people, too,” Whitbeck said.
He’s never missed a race
One of the stars of the Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard Run is Bemidji’s Bob Connor, who hasn’t missed a race in 35 years. He recalls how the smoke bent sideways because of the air temperatures on that minus 72-degree windchill day in 1981, when air temperatures were around 28 below.
“I felt kind of sorry for all the volunteers because at least we were moving,” Connor said. “And they weren’t.”
He plans to drive up from Bemidji to International Falls on Friday afternoon, a day before the race — something that has become an annual tradition ever since he realized the risk of a race-day car breakdown could tarnish his growing streak.
He has no special plans for this anniversary, except a goal to finish in under an hour.
The message of the event is that life goes on despite the cold, said Connor, a youth counselor. “It’s the idea of enjoying the fact that it’s cold and you can get through it,” he said.
The events kick into full gear on Saturday with the 5K and 10K races, frozen turkey bowling, a chili cook-off, fireworks and Smoosh races — a take on three-legged races involving four-person teams tied to wooden boards.
“It’s not just the race. They have all kinds of neat events going on,” Connor said.
“They do a good job of that.”