Snow, Sculptures & Sunshine At Winnipeg’s Festival du Voyageur
Written by Jaillan Yehia
‘Winnipegans just get on with it!’ I’m told as I travel with a group of fellow writers to Winnipeg’s famous February festival, Festival du Voyageur, in temperatures of -20. And that’s practically a heat wave for the Manitoban winter.
At that moment we overtake a committed cyclist; we’re all bundled up in our woollens despite being inside a car but the bike trundles its snowy path alongside us, proving that the people of the Manitoban capital really do have a Nike slogan-style attitude to life, whatever the weather…
And while in summers the prairie province is a balmy place to enjoy the outdoors, offering lake swimming and countless river pursuits, in winter as temperatures plummet it’s all about embracing what is available in spades, quite literally; the acres of snow which carpet the land.
But come summer or winter the sunshine and blue skies are a recurring theme, and its surprisingly easy to have fun in the snow when the sun is warming your face and you have an icy glass of caribou in your hand, the signature drink that’s a Québécois wine-whisky mix and de rigueur at Winnipeg’s famed winter shindig, Festival du Voyageur.
The first thing I notice about the festival’s main site at Fort Gibraltar, an early 19th Century trading post are the snow sculptures, part of the grandly-named International Snow Sculpting Symposium, a sort of gentleman’s competition (the prize is simply the honour of winning) whereby international teams of artisans work to create a unique sculpture from a simple block of 3 ft high and 4 ft wide snow.
I’m surprised to find entries from countries one would never associate with winter wonderlands – and ponder the Colombians’ potential kinship with the Jamaican bobsleigh team.
Across the board the results are impressive, varied and extremely photogenic, and I’m lucky enough to see a couple of the artists in action as they put the finishing touches to their icy work.
Before arriving I was surprised that so much of the activity on offer is outdoors – but that was before I understood just how hardy the Manitobans are – on the land surrounding Fort Gibraltar, which is renamed Voyageur Park during the festival, armies of little ones enjoy sledding, snow sliding and sleigh rides and for the grown-ups there are snowshoes for hire, but I decide to be a kid for the day and grab a sled for myself too.
It comes as a real surprise to me that despite the indoor options, even the bar and live music tents, I’m happiest outdoors breathing in what must be the freshest city air you could hope for, but I am drawn inside the cabins which are showcasing traditional crafts, including carpentry and arrow-making.
The festival uses actors to bring Franco-Manitoban history alive with re-enactments and stories which keep me and the rest of the crowd entertained and informed.
But despite the pull of the outdoors it’s the vibrant music scene in Winnipeg, whose reputation has preceded it, which defines the festival for the younger crowd, so I finally retire inside, throw off my boots and settle in for some music from local folk trio Red Moon Road.
There are over 80 bands playing at the festival and my friends from Winnipeg tell me that aside from the music at Fort Gibraltar the nightlife around the whole city takes a legendary turn during the festival, so I’m hoping to be back to sample more of the Manitoban joie de vivre just as soon as I can.
The Festival du Voyageur, now in its 45th year, takes place in Winnipeg every year in February.
Daily admission is $15 for adults, $10 for teens and $8 for children, with those under 6 admitted free.
A Voyageur pass giving unlimited admission for the duration of the festival costs $28, $15 and $10 respectively.
A free shuttle service runs every 30 minutes from The Forks and the Universite de Saint-Boniface where there’s ample parking.
For more information about Winnipeg, visit Tourism Winnipeg.
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