Every year for a month-long stretch in the dead of winter, Whitefish comes alive with the wacky weirdness that is the Whitefish Winter Carnival. It’s part Nordic mythology, part wild party with a dash of old-time fun and the enlivened spirit of community.
This year, the carnival, which includes hallmarks like the polar plunge, skijoring, Merry Maker, and the coronation of the royal court, will celebrate its 59th year of controlled debauchery. The chosen theme, Fly like an Eagle, is a nod to this year’s emcee, British olympic ski jumper Michael Edwards, known as “Eddie the Eagle.”
The carnival has seen changes in its nearly 60-year run, but one thread that remains consistent is the myth the tradition is based upon: the legend of King Ullr.
The story goes something like this: King Ullr was a God who created the beauty of winter. He lived in the mountains of the Nordic region with his wife, Queen of the Snows, his loyal Prime Minister and other members of the royal court. But the people under his rule lost interest in wintertime activities — and, therefore, in the king — prompting his relocation to Whitefish’s Big Mountain. The king’s arrival did not go unnoticed: the native Yetis assembled and hatched a plan to capture the queen. Though they did manage to take the Queen of the Snows, she was later rescued by the king. The royals and Yetis continued to live alongside one another, but not without the occasional skirmish.
Characters from the story play out their roles at the carnival’s various events, beginning with the Merry Maker — the infamous roast of Whitefish — and ending with the celebration’s crown jewel, the Carnival Parade. Joining the cast of characters are the penguins, Prince Frey, Princess Freya, the yetis, viking divas and mountain men.
The story and the idea for the carnival itself came from Whitefish native Norm Kurtz, who wanted to create a bright spot amid the winter gloom between the end of the holiday season and the beginning of spring.
“The ideas for the winter carnival came from a lot of dreaming and a little bit of drinking from time to time,” Kurtz said in the 2010 film “Whitefish Winter Carnival: A Documentary.”
Kurtz and eleven other locals, who were later dubbed the dirty dozen, hatched a plan for the first carnival, which was held March 10-13, 1960. While the event wasn’t financially lucrative, organizers considered it a wild success.
“I think we probably made about 38 cents on the whole thing,” Kurtz said in the film.
Dave Hamilton, who was among the first carnival committee members, was quoted in the Whitefish Pilot, asking “Was it worth it?” To which he added, “From the standpoint of financial benefit, it wasn’t. …From the number of visitors it brought, it wasn’t. But from the standpoint of a great community celebration, it was a rousing success!”
Early events included skijoring down main street, a snow sculpture contest, and broom hockey in the streets, where a penalty meant the offender would have a foot sawed off their broomstick. To entertain the children, organizers would toss a load of coins beneath a pile of snow, and task the youngsters with digging for quarters.
The carnival was inspired in part by a much larger celebration held annually in St. Paul, Minnesota. Susan Abell, Queen of the Snows in 1962, said the two winter carnivals were linked by railroaders employed by the Great Northern Railway, which happened to travel from Whitefish to Minnesota. The workers, who were familiar with the St. Paul carnival, suggested Minnesotan carnival organizers help out the burgeoning event in Whitefish; for the first three years, they did just that.
“The winter carnival here started only with a king and queen,” Abell said, “but at the end of the very first Winter Carnival, before the St. Paul carnival royalty left, they had a Prime Minister …and he took off his red coat at that time and gave it to Norm Kurtz and said, ‘you people need a Prime Minister and this gentlemen is the first one because he was the emcee all weekend.’”
The role of the Prime Minister remains the same to this day — he functions as the announcer for carnival events and introduces the king and queen.
To involve the local high school students, Prince Frey and Princess Freya were added to the royal lineup in the years to come. Various costumed groups entered the scene, as well. The penguins, which remain among the most popular characters, were welcomed into the carnival in 1961. Vikings, clowns, goats and others joined in, with some coming and going as the event grew and changed.
“It just became an activity that everybody looked forward to and I think that’s still the case,” Abell said.
“In the old days, it was loggers and railroaders and now it’s lawyers and real estate people,” her husband Charlie added, of carnival participants.
But both longtime carnival participants said the primary aim of the event is the same as it was in the early days.
“It’s the love of community, I think,” Charlie said. “Many of the new people who have come have gotten involved and become a major part of it, not just us people who have been there a while. The objective continues to be to have some fun — don’t get too serious about it.”
The carnival, and the legend behind it, also made a strong impression on Whitefish resident Paul Coats. Coats was so enamored with the annual community affair that he authored a children’s book published this year, detailing the legend of King Ullr and his queen. The book, titled “Ullr and the Yeti: The Legend of the Whitefish Winter Carnival,” touches on the carnival mythology, but also on the real-life history of Montana’s early days, such as the influence of trappers, loggers and immigrant groups like the Chinese and Norwegian.
“I think the part of carnival that really attracted me was the story that brought the community together in this really fun, lighthearted way,” Coats said. “To have a town like this with a legend that’s been going on now for close to 60 years is really, really unique and the legend does connect us to the mountains and the wild things that we have around. I wanted to give this community a story that kids could relate to that would help to connect them to place.”
Coats said the Whitefish School Foundation is considering plans to incorporate his creation into the local curriculum and noted that one day, he’d like to bring the legend to the stage in musical form.
But for now, it will play out in the city streets, as it has for more than five decades: yetis running after the queen, viking divas bestowing protective kisses on passersby, and the whole delightful menagerie parading down the city center one February afternoon.