It can be scary to launch a new event. Will anyone come? Will the weather hold up? Will participants enjoy it? The Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park took that toboggan ride into the unknown with its 2015 Winter Festival, held from Feb. 19 to 22 at the institute’s 80-acre oceanside campus in Winter Harbor, Maine. I hopped on board for what turned out to be a bracing and memorable run down the hill.
The experience was best summed up by one of the more than 100 people who came from as far away as Boston and New York to attend some portion of the festival, be it a talk by the great naturalist and writer Bernd Heinrich or a birding hike or a paper-snowflake workshop. “This is so much fun,” she told me in the cold morning sunshine as she and others built a multi-piece, illuminated ice sculpture atop a snowbank. “It has changed my whole relationship with winter.”
For those of you who didn’t make it to the event, here is a glimpse of 10 things you missed:
1) A new way of enjoying Maine’s awesome, historic, bring-on-the-blizzards winter.
The secret to surviving a season of sub-zero cold and 100 inches of snow is to embrace the experience. I put on my warmest snow boots (which I bought before covering the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics in Norway back when I was the editor of Sports Illustrated For Kids magazine) and headed out for a variety of activities, among them an animal-tracking hike with outdoor educator Chuck Whitney, the birding expedition (also led by Chuck) and a peaceful walk through the forest to visit the winter camping site set up by wilderness guide Garrett Conover. Other festival participants cross-country skied, built a quinzhee snow hut (more on that below), tried open-fire cooking (more on that too) and found other ways to explore and engage with the winter world. They loved it.
2) Frozen Water Balloons. The illuminated-ice-scupture workshop, taught by sculptor and art educator Blake Hendrickson, brought out the creative inner kid in participants of all ages. Blake brought vessels in which to freeze ice pieces of many shapes and sizes.
Blake also provided white and colored lights to weave through the outdoor installation of those pieces. Some of the lights changed color in response to sounds—clapping, talking, even the strong wind that gusted one night.
3) Nature. This is the essence of Schoodic at any time of year. Hearing Bernd Heinrich describe how animals survive here in the harsh winter conditions changed how many of us looked at the landscape we were exploring. We envisioned the tree holes, dens, snow nooks and other homes keeping animals alive. Bernd told of grouse diving into the snow and making temporary tunnels in which to hide from both cold and predators. The next morning, as I walked through the woods, a grouse exploded from the snow and flew past me. An electrifying winter moment.
4) Outdoor beauty. This too is a Schoodic hallmark, and the snow only enhanced it.
5) Great indoor food. We fueled up in Schoodic’s cafeteria-style dining hall, which has the warmth of a woodsy lodge. Home-baked lasagna, seafood chowder, chicken-salad wraps, Caesar salad, pumpkin chocolate-chip cookies, blueberry pancakes, vegetarian options—the food was all delicious, and we shared it at communal tables where new friends were made at each meal.
6) Great outdoor food. Naturalist and outdoors educator Alexandra Conover Bennett taught the workshop on baking bannock bread, a camping favorite cooked on a stick over an open fire.
7) Snowflake-making. Instructor Breanna Pinkham Bebb was adamant: Snowflakes are hexagonal (six-sided), not octagonal (eight-sided), and to cut eight-sided snowflakes—as some crafty types apparently do—is inauthentic. I’m science-based all the way, so I was on board to learn the correct, if more challenging, technique of folding and cutting a piece of copier paper to resemble real snow crystals.
8) A different view of Cadillac Mountain. Schoodic Peninsula is a bit more than an hour’s drive up the coast from Mount Desert Island, where the larger portion of Acadia National Park is located, but by water the two bodies of land aren’t far apart. Time and again during the festival I looked up and saw Cadillac—the tallest mountain on MDI—rising in the distance.
9) The quinzhee snow hut. Unlike an igloo, which is made from piled blocks of snow, a quinzhee is hollowed out from a mound of snow. It’s a survival cave, but a cozy one. The group had a blast building one near the Schoodic Institute’s baseball field.
Side note because I’m a word nerd: The term quinzhee was coined by a Native American tribe in Canada, and last summer it was one of about 25 Canadian-originated words added to the official Scrabble dictionary. Quinzhee was the most exciting addition for Scrabble players because it includes a q and a z (each worth a lot of points) and, if played on the top row of the board, ending on the top right square, can supposedly score 401 points for a player. That’s an almost unbelievable total for a single play.
10) The people. Shared experiences build unique camaraderie, and the pioneering group that attended the winter festival bonded with each other as well as with the place.
If this sounds like an event you might like to attend in 2016, check out the Schoodic Institute’s website (http://www.schoodicinstitute.org) and keep following The Naturalist’s Notebook here and on our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Naturalistsnotebook?ref=aymt_homepage_panel). Keep enjoying the winter! —Craig Neff