Re-branding Winter

Improving our mental (and physical) attitudes towards winter – there's much to gain.

Nick Meyer

It’s not all that long ago that I recall people steadily complaining about how boring Eau Claire was in the summer. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. Whether that was ever actually true is debatable of course, depending on your interests and point of view. But fast forward five or six years and now things are a whole different ball game. Toss in a new park, a bustling farmers market, a new baseball team, some live music, several new festivals and events, an ever-expanding recreational trail network (to name just a few things) and bang – we’ve collectively and dramatically “re-branded” summer in Eau Claire. Now anyone who thinks Eau Claire is boring around June, July, or August should be embarrassed at their complete lack of awareness.

Well it’s time we set our sites on a new season – it’s time this community re-branded winter too. Sure, there are several savvy winter sports enthusiasts among us who just can’t wait for the freezing temperatures to kick in and the season’s first dumping of snow to arrive. But then there’s the other 98% of us who mostly just complain about those things and instead opt to generally stay inside for 3 or 4 months out of the year and get fat. With our self-diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder, we basically pout all winter, waiting for the snow to melt and the sun to return so we can resume our warm-weather lives. 

So it’s clear a large-scale re-branding is in order – something to improve our mental (and physical) attitudes towards winter. But of course, how to achieve this is the trick. How can we capture even just a glimpse of the wintery energy enjoyed by some of the nation’s hearty mountain towns? Well, the good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch. We can start by connecting the dots between what we already have, and our massive Winter Fun section starting on page 23 can help do that. But where do we go from there? Clearly, full-on downhill skiing is out of the picture, but after taking stock of what’s already happening (and what easily could happen) – the collective re-branding of winter in the Chippewa Valley doesn’t seem an unattainable goal. Here are just a few ways to approach it.

1. Bring Winter Recreation Out in the Open
    On the recreation side, it’s fairly simple. And you don’t have to be some sort of athletic Norse god to participate in the winter fun. We have a long-running ski-jumping scene – great for both participation and spectating. We have a busy curling scene (with a new starter league starting in January) and a budding winter Kubb scene – both great for players of any level. We’ve got cross-country and snowshoe trails like crazy, and even a couple of events surrounding them. Though reasonably accessible, these and similar activities live mostly within their own subcultures. The general population might be vaguely aware of their existence, but that’s about it. The critical mass of awareness and the public’s embrace is merely a distant arctic wind. People enthusiastic about these activities must become aggressive ambassadors. Create high-profile events and groups, and get in front of people in any way you can. Get people outside in the snow.

2. Create Public Happenings Around Winter-based Activities
    One (overcome-able) obstacle is that in our area, much of winter recreation – skiing, snowshoeing, and skating – are solitary or small group endeavors. Heck, even snowman-making and other winter traditions are the same way. There aren’t many places where large groups of neighbors can gather for regular, recurring community happenings based on winter activities. In the summer, you can mosey on down to a massive farmers market or concert in Phoenix Park, but those activities don’t have a similar winter counterpart. Community enthusiasm – and increased enthusiasm for winter along with it – will breed among large groups of gathered people, even if it’s cold. A weekend winter festival, though a difficult task, is an obvious starting point. But for real success, we need activities spanning the 8-10 weeks when winter is its darkest and coldest. And I’m not just talking about several dozen kids on a sledding hill. We need locations and activities that draw out a mixed crowd of all ages and persuasions repeatedly throughout winter.

3. Make Winter Work for Everyone
    This isn’t entirely about convincing people to get out and trudge around in the snow. For real re-branding success, we need to reach the passives too. The people who, no matter how much they’re exposed to the idea, they’re just not going to slap on a pair of skis and hit the trail. That’s OK. But that means we need ways to make winter activities appeal to everyone. Again, it’s about creating happenings – or even spectacles – things people can just “take in” as opposed to actively engage in. As V1 mentions every year, we have international award-winning snow carvers living in our midst who are desperate for a way to carve in their hometown – we just have to give them a platform. So you wouldn’t necessarily have to run out and buy snowshoes to enjoy the cold, because everything that’s great about summer festivals – the food, music, art, etc. – can all be part of a winter happenings too. It’s not all about huffing and puffing in the middle of nowhere with cold, wet feet.

With winter playing such a big part in our yearly lives, our community literally can’t afford to let it be a mark in the “con” column. Cities across the world are realizing that sprucing up their winters can play a major role in keeping residents happy, pleasing visitors, and attracting economic development at all levels. It’s not just about building a snowman every once in a while – but that’s where it could start.

However, a major point here is that the potential re-framing of winter won’t be as easy or as natural as it was for summer. It’s going to be work. And it’s going to be cold. As individual citizens and as a community, we’re going to need to re-invest in enjoying that cold, as well as the snow and the long nights – turning them each into distinct advantages. We can either complain year in and year out, or we can take ownership of the season. We can get some warm clothes, pick a couple activities and secure some used starter gear, and maybe grab a thermos. Nothing is too cold that a warm beverage, an open fire, and a gathering of friendly neighbors can’t fix.