St. Paul has once again arrived at the 11-day coup d’état known as the Winter Carnival. Undergirded by a rococo 19th-century legend in which globe-trotting monarch King Boreas and his benevolent brothers (the gods of the four winds) domicile over the fair city, the carnival marks St. Paul’s annual retreat from prim responsibility into bacchanalia — legendary dance parties, spirit-guzzling, feasting, and family-friendly ice-skating and pony rides.
Like pioneers erecting corn palaces to seek favor from the god of maize, St. Paulites appease their wintry overlords by donning animal-fur garb, howling at the moon and illuminating the night sky with explosives. They search for medallions in the snow and gaze enrapt at crystalline ice sculptures. Eventually, if tradition holds forth, King Boreas’ reign comes to an end when the Vulcans — his sworn nemeses — overthrow the wintry warlock on the steps of the James J. Hill Library.
So, question: Why, in midwinter for the past 129 years, has St. Paul shucked off its staid demeanor and lost its mind?
“We just have Minnesota pride, that’s all,” says 2015’s Klondike Kate.
“It’s really like a giant play,” said Tony Mahmood, a seasoned Vulcan, “and everyone has a part.”
“Some people want to know what the heck this thing is,” said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. “Well, as Minnesotans we have an ambivalent attitude about winter. It’s kind of like seeing your family on Thanksgiving. It’s nice to see you, let’s have some pumpkin pie, thanks for stopping by, now get outta here. That’s the Winter Carnival.”
Venturing into downtown St. Paul during the carnival is lurking into the white-hot flame of winter itself. Some Minnesotans may wait until the mighty Vulcans not only have restored meteorological decency but also quelled the beast-child aroused in Pig’s Eye. But for those brave enough, here’s a list of events or people we strongly encourage you to stay away from. (And make sure to wear your mittens.)
“Having stalked … no, not stalked, but followed the Kates for so many years, I really wanted to join them,” said Shelley Brown, 2015’s recently crowned Klondike Kate, the carnival’s mistress of fun, frivolity and good fellowship.
Brown grew up only reading about the carnival, but a few years back at a parade in her hometown of Inver Grove Heights, she spotted the float carrying full-bodied, full-voiced, flamboyant divas.
“I’d see the beautiful princess waving, but then these ladies came by and they were brash and beautiful, and I just knew I wanted to be them.”
When one of the Kates challenged Brown to sing on the spot, she balked. “I wasn’t ready yet.”
But she’d sing the next year and compete in the pageant for five years straight before winning this year.
“After my first year, I even traveled around with friends of my parents’, working on my voice. We played all the senior citizen centers. They played the accordion and the banjo, and I’d sing. It was great singing for an appreciative audience.”
The Klondike Kate tradition draws inspiration from Kathleen Rockwell, a charming dancehall girl who flashed a grin, a song and a cheeky attitude, warming prospectors’ ears and hearts on the harsh Yukon Trail. Since the 1970s, St. Paul has named annual Klondike Kates, adding them to an exclusive Yukon cosplay sorority.
“It’s a sisterhood,” Brown says, who describes her chief talent (beyond singing) as having a lot of “Kate-a-tude.”
Klondike Kate Cabaret: 7 p.m. Sat., DoubleTree by Hilton, 411 Minnesota St. $15-$22.
Klondike Kate Arctic Sizzle luncheon and cabaret: 11 a.m. Jan. 30. The Klub Haus, 1079 Rice St. $25-$30.
Vulcanus Rex and the Vulcan Krewe
St. Paul’s bawdiest band of philanthropists/inferno enthusiasts is back to parade across the city, paint V’s on the cheeks of children, and mobilize for their high-noon raid upon the library, all while dressed like a cross between Snidely Whiplash and a NASCAR driver. Tony Mahmood, owner of Aesop’s Table catering business, was in the Vulcan Krewe five years ago, and has since graduated to its parent organization, Fire and Brimstone.
“I once asked a historian how long we’ve been staying at the Kelly Inn, and he didn’t even know,” he said.
The Kelly Inn is where this band of merry usurpers bunkers down during Boreas’ occupation. In 2011, Mahmood played the part of the Duke of Klinker, one of seven principal Vulcans who accompany Vulcanus Rex.
“You got to be a runner that first time out. Put on the suit, the whole deal.”
What responsibilities did he have as Klinker?
“I was the last ember.”
“Well, I was Vulcanus Rex’s right-hand man and the last to go to bed. When we left an establishment I needed to account for everyone, you know, make certain we didn’t leave anyone behind.”
The Vulcans’ fervor for hard partying has caught headlines, but Mahmood says the men of Fire and Brimstone stay busy during the year (more than 200 events) as ambassadors of St. Paul and raising money for charities.
“We learn the entire lore,” he said, adding he had no theater background but as a business owner, he wanted to be involved in the community. “We evict Boreas. That’s basically what we do. We’re the rightful rulers, anyway.”
Vulcan Victory Dance: 8 p.m. Jan. 31, Crowne Plaza Hotel (11 E. Kellogg Blvd.), immediately following the overthrow of King Boreas. $20. www.vulcans.org.
Brent Reykdal, coordinator of the Winter Carnival ice-carving competitions, remembers last year’s winning entry in the multi-block field.
“It was called ‘Gone Fishing’ and featured, and I’d never seen this before, an actual piece of ice acting as a piece of ice … for the frozen lake.”
Beginning this Thursday, teams acquire blocks of ice, then chisel, melt, saw and shape them day and night. By Saturday, the cubes are transformed into stunning ice sculptures. The single-block competition is Sunday.
“We’ve got structural engineers, jewelers,” said Reykdal of the competitors. “They pay attention to everything from the angle of the sun to the temperature. It’s amazing.”
And what happens to the sculptures after they’re gone?
“We just bulldoze the sculptures. It’d be nice to keep them. But you know … how?”
And while there is no ice palace this year (the last one was in 2004, and the next is expected in 2018 for the Super Bowl), be sure to visit another old favorite attraction in Rice Park: the ice royal court, featuring an ice throne, an ice slide and cutouts of the royal family, including Klondike Kate.
Multi-block competition: 9 a.m. Thu.-9 a.m. Sat., Rice Park.
Single-block competition: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun., Rice Park.
Three big parades shuffle through downtown St. Paul, coinciding with the ebbs and flows of power structure within the ongoing feud between King Boreas’ Royal Family and the Vulcans.
The festivities begin with the Moonglow Parade, Thursday at 6 p.m. starting at the Chamber of Commerce offices and moving down to Rice Park. Walkers light the way with luminarias, and illuminated hot air balloons greet those in the park.
The second parade, celebrating the crowning of King Boreas, is the Grande Day Parade at 2 p.m. Saturday. Organizers promise “dozens of marching bands, floats and other festive folk” winding down W. 7th Street to Rice Park, marking the apex of the family’s rule.
The festival culminates with the Vulcan Victory Torchlight Parade on Jan. 31 at 5:30 p.m., running from 5th and Wacouta streets, traveling west down 5th to Washington Avenue to 4th Street and arriving on St. Peter.
Red Bull Crashed Ice
“A lot of hockey guys will try out, but you need to be more than a straight-line skater,” says Ryan Sullivan, field marketing manager for Red Bull Crashed Ice, which returns to St. Paul during the Winter Carnival for a fourth year.
Crashed Ice — essentially downhill ice-track racing on skates — is the epitome of energy-drink-sponsored winter sporting events. “I don’t even know how fast they go. But it’s fast,” Sullivan says.
Last year’s races in downtown St. Paul attracted more than 120,000 people. Sullivan expects over 130,000 this year.
“Given St. Paul’s love for outdoor sports, the relationship makes perfect sense,” he says. “Also, practically, where else are we going to find over 120,000 people to stand outside and watch an event like this in the middle of seven-degree days?”
This year’s event features a faster course starting at the Cathedral of St. Paul, and is the opening leg of the Red Bull Crashed Ice series (riders gain points at each showcase, culminating in a world championship in Edmonton, Alberta, in March).
Said Sullivan, “It’s our hope to see this at the Olympics or the X-Games someday.”
Red Bull Crashed Ice: 6:45-9 p.m. Sat., Cathedral of St. Paul, 239 Selby Av.; TV: 4 p.m. Sun, Fox (Ch. 9); Info: www.redbullcrashedice.com.
St. Paul Winter Carnival
When: Jan. 22-Feb. 1.
Parades: 6 p.m. Thu., 2 p.m. Sat., 5:30 p.m. Jan. 31.
Saintly City Cat Show: Sat.-Sun., RiverCentre, www.saintlycitycatclub.com.
Beer Dabbler: 3:30-7:30 p.m. Sat., State Fairgrounds, www.beerdabbler.com
Red Bull Crashed Ice: 6:45-9 p.m. Sat., Cathedral of St. Paul.
Kat Perkins concert: 7 p.m. Sat., Rice Park.
Autonomous Snowplow Competition: Sat.-Sun.
Fireworks: Jan. 31, Raspberry Island.
More info: www.wintercarnival.com.