By Joyce Wiswell, Contributing Writer
The students of Houghton’s Michigan Tech University not only endure the 300 or so inches of snow that fall each year, they actively celebrate them with their annual Winter Carnival, set this year for February 8-11.
This is the 101st year for the event, which is hosted by the university’s Blue Key Society. Though much of the fun takes place on Tech’s campus at Houghton’s south end, the fun sprawls out all over town and even across the canal into Hancock.
Winter Carnival has changed and grown over the past century, but some old favorites still reign supreme, particularly the snow sculpting contest. Tech’s fraternities, sororities and other student organizations spend weeks building giant structures and dioramas that are astounding in their detail. (Then again, this is an engineering school after all.) No less elaborate are the sculptures crafted in a group frenzy during the festive All Nighter. Both events are judged and bragging rights are taken very seriously.
Hugely popular each year are the Catholic masses held inside the impressive Ice Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows, which is specially constructed each year for Carnival. If you choose to partake, dress warmly, come early to snag a spot and be prepared to stand throughout the service.
Other activities include human dog sleds, tug-o-wars, speedskating competitions, snow volleyball, curling and broomball, a hockey/soccer hybrid played on ice that’s all the rage on campus. While much of the fun is student-centric, visitors are welcome to roam around and soak it all in.
The carnival atmosphere stretches throughout Houghton’s picture-perfect downtown of historic sandstone buildings. Sledders are seen just about everywhere — and the scent of exhaust is not unwelcome in shops and restaurants.
Among Houghton’s more popular downtown establishments are the Ambassador (splendid vintage murals and stained glass), the Downtowner (about as no-frills as you can get), and Joey’s for seafood. Suomi is a local’s favorite for breakfast, and craft beer lovers shouldn’t miss the Keweenaw Brewing Company or the Library. If you’re a railroad buff, make tracks to the Copper Range Depot and its impressive collection of memorabilia from the 1899 Copper Ridge Railroad.
A snowmobile trail runs right along the Portage Canal a block off downtown Houghton, over the dedicated sled trail on the Portage Lift Bridge and through downtown Hancock – then all the way up further into the Keweenaw Peninsula and its 200-plus miles of trails.
Mont Ripley provides a dramatic backdrop to the festivities, especially when lit up for nighttime skiing and tubing. This is the site of a Winter Carnival highlight, a breathtaking lighted torch run followed by fireworks (tentative date at press time is February 11). Hancock offers several dining options including the old-school Nutini’s Supper Club, Studio Pizza (be sure to take a peek into the very cool Orpheum Theater in the back) and, featured elsewhere in this issue, Gino’s. The long-established Kaleva Café is always humming, and if you come on a Saturday morning, try the pannukakku, a sinfully rich Finnish baked pancake.
Accommodations are plentiful in Houghton/Hancock and run the gamut from mom-and-pop joints to modest chain motels to trendy boutique spots. Most are booked solid during Carnival so don’t delay in making reservations. There is also a good variety of vacation rental properties in the heart of town, perched along the waterfront or tucked deep into the woods. Parking around both downtowns is free and easy.
Visit mtu.edu/winter-carnival for a schedule and keweenawsnowmobileclub.com for updated trails reports.