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McCall, Idaho: Ice Sculptures

It isn’t easy throwing an outdoor festival in Idaho when it’s freezing cold. But every year, McCall pulls it off.

snow sculptures in McCall, Idaho
Photo caption
Artists put their best foot forward in the annual snow sculpture contest.

Snow is a white crystalline substance that falls from the sky in winter. This much science knows—but the soul of snow eludes both science and logic. It lives in certain giddy chambers of the heart. I learned this anew one Friday evening last January when I pulled up to an outdoor stage in tiny McCall, Idaho, 100 miles north of Boise. It was less than 10 degrees outside, and yet the psychedelic rock band Equaleyes was jamming away alfresco as part of the town’s splendid 10-day winter carnival. A thick crowd was gyrating on the packed powder dance floor with the joyous abandon of kids off school on a snow day, and nearby a few diehards were actually sipping beer at a sidewalk table. "Don’t you think it’s cold?" I asked. "Well," one local said philosophically, "it’s a dry cold." But I’d only begun to scratch the chilly surface of McCall’s snow mania.

The highlight of the carnival is snow sculptures. Each year, blindingly white works of pop art—likenesses of Buddha, for instance, and giant cheeseburgers and dragons—appear in front of local businesses. (In 2013, the festival will be held from January 25 through February 3.) Thousands of tourists flock in to slide about on the icy sidewalks and ride sleighs through the streets. McCall, population 5,000, may well neighbor Tamarack Resort, a glitzy new ski and golf haven in which tennis stars Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf are investors. But during the carnival in 2008, the biggest local celebrity will be John Schulz, an unassuming chain-saw artist who can carve bulldozed piles of the white stuff into sculptural marvels.

I was in McCall as a student of snow, and so on Saturday morning I toured the sculptures. The carnival’s theme during my visit was Wonders of the World. By the Forest Service office stood the Great Smokey Sphinx, a pyramid fronted by a familiar bear sporting, yes, an Egyptian goatee. Elsewhere I found the esteemed Bigfoot and a noble Mount Rushmore.

In time I reached Schulz’s masterpiece, The Great Barrier Reef, replete with porous snow resembling coral, myriad fish, and even a fin-footed scuba diver. The work garnered top honors in the city’s snow sculpture contest, as had Schulz’s entry in 2006, but still the artist regarded it with qualified pleasure. "You just can’t get much detail with snow," he said. "It won’t hold an edge, and you can’t get any contrast: You’re working with white on white."

Soon a parade was snaking down Third Street, offering up small-town silliness. Here was Brownie Troop 269 dressed up like ghosts, and the Paul’s Market drill team, jitterbugging in choreographed circles, chucking candy from shopping carts.

I grabbed a couple of pieces and then sped a half hour south, to the Nordic center at Tamarack Resort. Its 15 miles of rolling paths are groomed, so a novice can amble along with each ski in a straight-running slot; really, the going could not be much mellower. I glided for nearly two hours and then returned to my motel room, worn out but happy.

Payyette Lake, stretching north from downtown, was speckled with revelers idly strolling about on the ice the next day. I watched a gaggle of kids careen down a sled hill and thought of joining them. But after pondering the big, bone-crunching jumps pocking the hill, I ventured instead to the McCall Golf Course.

Three locals were practicing snowshoe golf. The sport, perhaps unique to McCall, is 8 years old but has not yet caught fire. When I reached the first tee, the three directors of the world’s preeminent snowshoe golf tourney were playing alone.

"The trick," said mortgage broker Jason Klure, handing me a driver, "is to get under it some."

I swung. A spray of snow rose from my club. The ball stayed in situ, however, and my next shot ricocheted onto a plowed, paved walkway and rolled. My score for the first hole was 13.

Klure was deeply consoling. "If you take this game seriously," he said, "something’s wrong with you." He nodded once, solemnly, as though he had just spoken great wisdom. Then we pressed on, laughing with a delight that only snow can afford.

Photography by Joshua Roper/


This article was first published in July 2008, but was updated in September 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.