Courtesy International Falls CVB
A participant in the 2010 Icebox Derby hurls a frozen turkey toward a set of bowling pins.
In the middle of January you could certainly be forgiven for wanting to spend the days curled up in a Snuggie, nursing cups of hot tea and feeding pages of your quote-a-day calendar to the fire in desperate anticipation of spring.
Or you could head to International Falls, Minn., aka, the Icebox of the Nation, for the frigid festivities known as Icebox Days (Jan. 18–22). Now in its 32nd year, the five days of bone-chilling, teeth-chattering fun earns a tip of the tuque and top honors as January’s Weird Festival of the Month.
“We do suffer some long, cold months,” conceded Faye Whitbeck, president of the International Falls Chamber of Commerce. Whitbeck said that local officials came up with the festival in 1980 as a means to boost citizen morale and pump up the local economy.
“We wanted to play up what we could,” she told msnbc.com.
And how does one play up temperatures that typically hover between zero and -10 degrees? Apparently, by engaging in unique outdoor activities, including frozen-turkey bowling, smoosh racing and, for the truly hardy, the 5k/10K Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard Run (FYGBR).
Take frozen-turkey bowling, which, as the name suggests, involves tossing a rock-hard gobbler at a set of bowling pins. “You know, I think we just felt a kinship with frozen turkeys,” said Whitbeck, who also provided the answer to a reporter’s question about where a bowler might put his or her fingers.
“Anywhere they fit,” she said.
And smoosh racing? Smooshing, it turns out, is an activity in which teams of four strap their feet to 8-foot 2x4s — think cross-country skis with more weight, less maneuverability and three other people trying to coordinate strides — and race down a snow-covered street.
Courtesy International Falls CVB
Smoosh racers wrap themselves in the Canadian flag during last year's Icebox Days in International Falls, Minn.
“You can imagine the synchronicity that’s required,” said Whitbeck. This year, the festivities will include the first-ever kids’ smoosh race, which, as anybody who has watched small children ski or skate knows, promises its own brand of amusement.
Personal mortification aside, though, the biggest test of cold-weather courage during Icebox Days is the Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard Run, which operates under the motto of Only the Bold Run the Cold.
Of course, as part of Icebox Days, it’s only fitting that runners have been known to show up in grass skirts, Bermuda shorts and the occasional bumblebee outfit. With up to 300 competitors expected, the race is like a reunion, says longtime participant Bob Conner, drawing competitors from around the Upper Midwest and nearby Ontario.
Conner, in fact, has run in every race since the first one, chalking up his accomplishment to “sheer luck, some determination and an unknown amount of insanity and very good fortune.”
He also gives credit to event organizers who have never canceled a race due to excessive cold, although they apparently considered it in 1981 when the temperature dipped to -28 degrees, which plunged to -78 with the wind chill.
“People were worried as heck because the conditions were just brutal,” he told msnbc.com. The solution? “They cut the 10K down to a 5K.”
Fortunately, participants and spectators should have an easier go of it this year. Daytime highs in the nation’s Icebox are expected to be in the single digits during the week with the weekend seeing balmy temperatures about 10 to 20 degrees warmer.
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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.