Winter City

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I have a very specific memory of Edmonton in the winter, from about a decade ago. Some friends and I were going to the Black Dog pub on Whyte Ave, and it was cold. We rushed down the street in the blustery winter darkness, burst through the door, and my glasses immediately fogged up (as they do). As I was standing there, thawing, I felt so… welcome. I recall the inviting coziness of being indoors where it was warm, on that frigid night. It was so very Edmonton, so very hygge. Something clicked that night.

Another memory, years later: it was the early days of the Winter Light festival, and Montréal’s Circus Orange was scheduled to perform in Churchill Square. I honestly had no idea what to expect, except the description sounded cool, and by this point I was hooked on everything winter-festival. There was no way I would miss it.

As in the first story, it was ridiculously cold that day. A little too cold for most people, so the Three Bananas Café at Churchill Square was jam packed with attendees who would otherwise have been outdoors. When the performance began, many decided it wasn’t worth it and stayed inside, but my partner-at-the-time and I braved the elements to see what was happening.

It was… brilliant. Music boomed as a wacky, pyrotechnic, gigantic tricycle wound its way around Churchill Square, eventually stopping. That’s when my jaw dropped: the front wheel of the tricycle lifted into the air, performer running and leaping inside as if it was a hamster wheel, the entire contraption shooting fireworks every which way. Not only was it a great show, but it was a formative moment for my understanding of what a large-scale outdoor winter festival could be. Look, I found a video.

Winter Light was an important step for Edmonton. A three-year pilot project that was eventually disbanded because it was too successful. Go figure. While it may not be around anymore, many of the events have carried on independently, such as the former Baba Yaga Trail Adventure/Mill Creek Adventure Walk (elements of which transitioned into what is now the Flying Canoë Volant – see below for details). It also sparked a love of, and pride in, winter in our city. A season that was once detested and poorly executed (who remembers BrightNights?) was suddenly bursting with possibility. Soon after, the City of Edmonton began developing its WinterCity Strategy, a municipal initiative to change perceptions of Edmonton into the season being an asset, rather than a burden. If you have a bit of time, check out the numerous goals that were identified through this project. Every so often, bureaucracy can be transformative.

I’m writing this while looking out my apartment window at snow that hasn’t stopped falling for a few days now. It’s quiet and crunchy and sparkly. Don’t get me wrong – I love a glorious prairie summer day, but this is Edmonton, and winter is how we do.

What does the future hold for Edmonton in the winter? Besides the goals of the WinterCity Strategy, I dream of a city that dives even further into a love of winter. I want people to recognize that it’s okay – and encouraged – to love winter. I want to flip the script. For example, people often complain about the oppressive darkness of winter. While Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real challenge for many, when I think about my favourite winter memories, most of them happen under the cover of darkness.

For example, at one point a group of friends and I went skating every Monday night at the Legislature rink. One particular evening, I brought a package of sparklers with me – let’s say twenty. Partway through our skate, we lit the sparklers and skated around, joyfully, exuberant, sparkling like fireflies. Skating + sparklers = a very good time. We turned the darkness into an experience you can’t have in most cities. Most Edmontonians don’t seem to realize how lucky we are to have a climate so unique and full of possibility.

Little things like that can reframe your perspective on a situation and turn it into a beautiful thing. Metaphorically, that’s how I feel about winter in Edmonton – and our city overall. It is within our power to see this season, and our isolated prairie home, differently. You just have to have good boots, and a good attitude.

That said, and this is important, I also want the city to reduce barriers to loving winter, for those who have a harder time of it. I refuse to sugarcoat winter. My perspective is privileged. I can afford warmth, and I can wade through an uncleared sidewalk when necessary. From mobility issues to not being able to afford winter gear to poor urban planning, there are significant barriers to enjoying winter for many. I have to check my enthusiasm for the season sometimes, because it can be very difficult for people to live in this climate. People can die in this weather, and sadly, they do. So, I also dream of a city that supports its most vulnerable during the coldest months of the year.

Tip: If you see someone struggling outside, call 211 and they will dispatch the Bissell Centre 24-hour crisis team.

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These days, there is so much to do in Edmonton during the winter. Now that the madness of the holidays has passed, there are a ton of events coming up that will help you love the season. Allow me to be your winter tour guide and inspire you to check out some of the following events:

  • Ice Castle in Hawrelak Park (ongoing until it melts): It’s baa-aaack! I was there on opening night, and it’s simply glorious. Step inside and be transported you to a different world… a world where the cold doesn’t bother you anyway. (Sorry, had to.)
  • Sunday Swing ‘n’ Skate at City Hall (January 8-February 26, 2017): Ice skating plus live swing, jazz, and big band music at City Hall. On February 14th, there is a Valentine’s Day Disco Skate.
  • Deep Freeze: A Byzantine Winter Festival (January 14 & 15, 2017): Arts on the Ave hosts two signature festivals each year, Kaleido Festival in the fall, and Deep Freeze in the winter. Attendees can expect everything from an ice slide to snow sculptures to deep freezer races to glass blowing… and so much more!
  • Ice on Whyte (January 26-29 & February 2-5, 2017): Ice sculptures on Whyte Ave. Self-explanatory. Always a good time.
  • Flying Canoë Volant (February 3 & 4, 2017): One of my favourite winter events. Descend into Mill Creek Ravine on paths lined with lanterns, interactive light installations, projections, teepees and a Métis village, warming fires, and ambiance up the wazoo. They always mix it up, but that’s what you can usually expect. It’s not always the best idea to wander into a ravine late at night, but do it anyway.
  • Canadian Birkebeiner (February 10-11, 2017): I have never seen it for myself, but if you’re into cross-country skiing or being outside, this might interest you. The Vikings’ Feast Banquet and Nordic Fair are particularly intriguing this year.
  • Silver Skate Festival (February 10-20, 2017): From snow sculptures to a folk trail to lover’s lane to fire sculpture (just look at the photos – 1, 2), this festival in Hawrelak Park celebrates its 27th year in 2017.
  • Parka Patio at Latitude 53 (March 12, 2017): Installation art, DJS, food/drink, and a silent auction. Okay, so this is a straight-up fundraiser rather than a festival persay, but it goes to show the creative ways we can enjoy our city in winter. Plus it’s fun.
  • Alberta Legislature holiday lights: Visiting the Legislature and taking in the beautiful light display is a holiday tradition for many, including myself. I just saw them tonight, as my bus drove past, so there’s still time to see them this year!
  • Various other activities: Tobogganing. Skating. The Freezeway at Victoria Park Oval – or another skating path, such as the ice trail in Kenilworth.

And, since this is my blog and not yours, I will humour with my latest favourite indoor winter event: the Chinook Series (February 9-19, 2017). I’ll talk about theatre and arts events in another post, but the timing is right to mention this. Think: warped and winter-y younger sibling of the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, bringing together Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre, Azimuth Theatre, and Fringe Theatre Adventures. If you enjoy boundary-pushing theatre, this is for you. Last year, I was lucky enough to see almost every play in the inaugural festival, and I was in withdrawal for weeks. So good.

Of course, there are other winter events that have passed for the season, but for the sake of completeness:

  • Candy Cane Lane: It isn’t what it used to be, but visiting Candy Cane Lane is one of the most quintessentially Edmonton experiences of the season. Read about its history here.
  • Downtown Business Association Holiday Light-Up: Every year, Edmontonians are invited to gather downtown for the official light-up of the hallmark winter lights that adorn lampposts in the downtown core, as well as the tree in Churchill Square.
  • Festival of Trees: An Edmonton classic. Still the best place I’ve found to see impressive gingerbread houses, and what’s more “holiday” than gingerbread houses? Also, one time I saw a young girl singing in a choir turn green and vomit mid-song. You definitely needed to know that. Memories.
  • Santa’s Parade of Lights: Anyone who lived in Edmonton in the ’80s and ’90s will remember the (and here’s where I really editorialize) piss-poor excuse for an indoor Santa Claus Parade. Well, last year some changes were made, and the parade moved outdoors! It’s tiny, it’s adorable, it’s perfect for now. I look forward to seeing how it evolves from here.
  • All is Bright on 124: Music, street performers, sleigh rides, and more.
  • Christmas Reflections at Fort Edmonton Park: Take a trip back to the 1880s and 1920s at, for lack of a better description, this quaint and adorable annual winter event.
  • Zoominescence: A Festival of Light: I’m really not a zoo person, but I am definitely a light-in-the-winter-darkness person. This event features light installations at the Edmonton Valley Zoo, and word on the street is that it gets better every year. It’ll have to do, at least until we see something on the scale of Montréal’s Luminothérapie. We’re getting there.
  • ETS Christmas Lights Tours: Hop on a bus and look at Christmas lights while staying warm. Fun!
  • Various houses: While Christmas at Bob’s (75 Ave & 108 St) is my personal favourite, there are numerous holiday light displays to choose from. Sadly, we have lost some well-known displays, such as Maisie’s Magical Christmas House. Overall, these houses seem to be picking up where Candy Cane Lane left off.

Fire up those bookmarks. Edmonton, we’ve got this. See you at a winter event sometime, okay?

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Christmas at Bob’s, December 2016

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Ice Castle, December 2016

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A grainy photo of the oh-so-cute Santa’s Parade of Lights, November 2015

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Lights at City Hall/Churchill Square, first day of snow 2015

Next week, I’ll be diving into my many non-Instagram photos to give you more of a visual tour of my favourite parts of the city. Until then, stay warm.

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2017: Year of the Blog

It’s a peculiar thing, being one of the people who never left.

The holidays are always exciting. Friends come home to visit in various combinations, and I find myself in bars more than usual. This year, I saw nine different former Edmontonians now scattered around the world. The holidays are also a time to see people who live here who I rarely see. All in all, I love a good winter holiday reunion. It allows me to indulge my fantasy that everyone lives here again (life is complicated, but I can dream).

There’s something about reuniting with old friends that gets me thinking about the concepts of place, home, and change. Over the past week, I explored the city with a fresh perspective. Friends and I had numerous conversations about what has changed and what has stayed the same. The biggest surprises to those who hadn’t visited for a while were the closure of Funky Pickle pizza, move of Metro Cinema into the Garneau Theatre, demolition of the old New City building on 101 St & Jasper Ave, and the changes around the arena district. I advised them to check out the piecemeal destruction of the old Garneau neighbourhood, new buildings on the MacEwan campus downtown, changes in the McCauley/Norwood/Alberta Ave communities, and the city’s ever-expanding suburban waistline. We looked at old houses and told stories that once felt so present, but nowadays exist as amusing and distant anecdotes from a previous life.

Then just like that, life resumed as normal. Celebrating the new year involved gatherings of friends who do live here. Today, I took the same bus that I’ve taken for years, through the same section of downtown that I have passed through daily since I was a teenager, but to a destination that was not normal to me until recently. Old things felt even more sentimental, and the new things highlighted the inevitability of change. Without the injection of a previous life into my reality, I looked again at a city that has been many things to me over the years.

Not leaving your hometown means moving daily within a world saturated with memory. I think that might be why I’m compelled to capture it.

On that note…

YEGuncovered.com is back! It’s my new year’s resolution. I’ve been so busy offline that it has been difficult to dedicate enough time to this blog. This year, I will be updating weekly on Mondays. Expect cloyingly sentimental posts about Edmonton-related things, on topics such as to-be-determined, buildings-I-love, and memories-that-strike-me.

Because I want to remember. I need to remember.

Until next week.

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Photos by Ester Malzahn. Instagram: @thehoove