Jaillan Yehia

Snow, Sculptures & Sunshine At Winnipeg’s Festival du Voyageur

Written by Jaillan Yehia

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Festival du Voyageur

A very cool tattoo, quite literally, at Festival du Voyageur

‘Winnipegans just get on with it!’

I’m told this undeniable fact as I travel with a group of fellow writers in temperatures of -20 to Winnipeg’s famous February alfresco shindig, Festival du Voyageur. And it’s practically a heat wave for the Manitoban winter.

Looking out of the window of the minivan at the bright blue skies and even brighter white landscape I see the evidence for myself; at that very moment we overtake a committed cyclist, happily pedalling against the snow flurries.

We’re all bundled up in our woollens despite being inside a car but the bicycle trundles its snowy path alongside us, proving that the people of the Manitoban capital really do have a Nike slogan as their 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; the acres of snow which carpet the land.

Maple taffy - just one way to make use of the snow!

Maple taffy – just one way to make use of the snow

But come summer or winter the sunshine and blue skies are a recurring theme here, and it’s 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. That’s the signature Québécois wine-whisky drink and it is de rigueur at the famed winter shindig which I’m here to try out: Festival du Voyageur.

The snowy rooftops of Fort Gibraltar

The snowy rooftops of Fort Gibraltar

The first thing I notice about the festival’s main site at Fort Gibraltar, an early 19th Century trading post, are the snow sculptures. They are 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 snow measuring 3 foot high by 4 foot wide.

One of the more angular snow sculptures

One of the more angular snow sculptures

One of my favourite snow sculptures at Festival du Voyageur

One of my favourite snow sculptures at Festival du Voyageur

I’m surprised to find entries from countries one would never associate with winter wonderlands – and find myself pondering the Colombians’ potential kinship with the Jamaican bobsleigh team.

Another elaborate snow sculpture

Another elaborate snow sculpture

Across the board the results of the sculpting 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.

Snow sculpting at Festival du Voyageur

Snow sculpting at Festival du Voyageur

Before arriving I was surprised that so much of the activity on offer in Winnipeg in winter is outdoors – but that was before I understood just how hardy the Manitobans are.

During the festival much of the activity is on the land surrounding Fort Gibraltar, which is renamed Voyageur Park for the duration of the event. Armies of little ones enjoy sledding, 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.

sledding at Festival du Voyageur

Big kids enjoy the sledding at Voyageur Park too

It comes as a real surprise to me that despite the multiple indoor entertainment options, including the bar and live music tents, I’m happiest outdoors breathing in what must be the freshest city air you could hope for. Though I am drawn inside the cabins from time to time, as they’re showcasing traditional crafts, including carpentry and arrow-making.

Traditional blacksmiths at work

Traditional blacksmiths at work

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.

The star of the re-enactments bringing Franco_Manitoban battle history alive

The star of the re-enactments bringing Franco-Manitoban battle history alive

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 friends from the area tell me that of all the things to do in Winnipeg year round it is the festival which puts the city on the map for music lovers.

As well as the music at Fort Gibraltar itself, the nightlife around the whole city takes a legendary turn during this time and I’m delighted to be able to sample the annual highlight of Manitoban joie de vivre.

Red Moon Road playing at Festival du Voyageur

Red Moon Road playing at Festival du Voyageur

More Info About Festival Du Voyageur


Caribou served in an ice glass

The Festival du Voyageur has been running for over 45 years and takes place in Winnipeg each February.

Admission (as of 2019) starts from $10 and children aged 5 and under are admitted free of charge.

A Voyageur pass giving unlimited admission for the duration of the festival costs $75 for adults with concession prices available for teens, seniors and children.

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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