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Off-season Chelan event attracts thousands
Several years ago, the business owners  1and community boosters of Lake Chelan began to realize that the winter "off" season for this summer vacation paradise could be turned back "on" if people only knew that there were many exciting activities available during the winter.

It was a classic example of "build it and they will come" because this year's Winterfest celebration -- running January 13-27 -- will attract as many as 15,000 visitors who will be spending $9 million in the Lake Chelan communities. The event is held over two weekends -- one focused more on Chelan, one on Manson -- and boasts amazing ice sculptures, live music, wine and ale tasting, and many other activities.

Winterfest was actually born nearly 30 years ago with an emphasis on local outdoor sports and other fun things to do in the snow. Like many small town events, it started out modestly and was meant to be more of a local get-together.

By 2010, the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce enlisted an independent event director to take over Winterfest. The event still featured fireworks, a polar bear splash, a bonfire and other activities but live music was added. Then a few years ago the second weekend in Manson was added. Then came the Alefest and wish lanterns and, today, the event just continues to grow. "Winterfest has actually become the best weekend of the entire year for many businesses,' said Erin McCardle, the Winterfest event director.

That is really saying something when you consider that Lake Chelan enjoys one of the best tourist seasons in North Central Washington each and every summer. It's an even bigger feat when you factor in the winter weather. "Each year, the weather poses a bit of a challenge," McCardle said. "Two years ago it snowed during Winterfest weekend -- we'd never had to get rid of three inches of snow when all the tents were already up."

The answer was to enlist the City of Chelan, which used its trucks to plow and salt the streets. There was no easy solution to the other problem the event experienced for a few years between 2010 and 2014 when Winterfest seemed more like Springfest with unseasonably warm weather -- as high as 63 degrees at 9:30 in the evening. That's really not great weather for ice sculptures.

"We've battled all types of weather issues," McCardle said. "You just adjust."

Local sponsors have stepped up to help fund various aspects of Winterfest and McCardle points out that many locals get involved by volunteering to take one or more of the four-hour shifts for Winterfest helpers. Altogether Winterfest requires 500 event shifts and a total of 300 to 350 volunteers to make it all come together. This is a huge improvement, McCardle says, from the first few years she managed the event when it was tough to come up with 100 volunteers.

One of the highlights of entire event starts at 6 p.m. on Saturday, January 14. It's called the Winterfest Grand Procession and visitors will take a short .3 mile walk from the intersection of Johnson and Columbia Avenues to Don Morse Park for the Polar Bear Splash, Beach Bonfire and a spectacular fireworks show.

Among the other big attractions are the ice sculptures which are done by Creative Ice, a Seattle area company owned by Steve Cox. He and other sculptors from various parts of the state come to Chelan a few days before the event to create an ice bar and various ice carvings that are on display throughout downtown Chelan. They also do live carvings during the weekend so you can watch the various masters at work.

Another favorite is the Wine Walk which this year features 20 local wineries, the most ever offered for the event. In past years the event-goers have walked from store to store downtown where each winery was featured at a particular store. But the event proved so popular that the stores weren't able to handle all the foot traffic, so this year there will be two large tents where the 20 wineries will each offer tastings of two of their wines. There is also a one-afternoon VIP Wine Walk where the winemakers will be on hand to pour and talk about their favorite wines.

Visitors can buy a $5 button that gets them into most activities, although there are separate admission prices for Wine Walk, Alefest and certain other events. For complete information on the Lake Chelan Winterfest events this year, please visit www.lakechelan.com/winterfest or phone 509-682-3503.
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