Mill Creek Adventure Walk not just another winter festival

Another weekend, another winter festival. The local citizenry has come to expect this sort of thing, even take it for granted. And it’s not enough to erect a pile of odd-looking giant tents or throw up a bunch of snow sculptures and expect instant festival magic like you’re the Frozen Fringe or something. Discerning Edmontonians have more winter festival choices than ever. We demand top quality entertainment, ice slides, hot chocolate, and we want it free.

What is it this time? Winter Light’s Mill Creek Adventure Walk happens Friday and Saturday night at 7 p.m. at the Mill Creek trailhead (about 83 Avenue and 95 Street). You get to make a lantern, wander through woods and admire the “light installations” while costumed interpretive performers act out the story of Eager Beaver, who wants to build a huge lodge in the forest at taxpayer’s expense or he’ll move his team to Thunder Bay. Something like that.

“It’s a cheeky little allegory,” says festival director Pamela Anthony. The story is really about the balance between the environment and development. It’s an issue of particular importance in the Mill Creek area where condo development is at odds with the cute little hobbit houses that dot the area. Remember the old joke: the only difference between an environmentalist and the developer is that the environmentalist already has a house in the woods. But they’re not here to preach. It’s all about fun. This year’s “Story Adventure” features the work of Edmonton’s top artists and designers, stars magpies as reporters, skunks as researchers, local actor Dave Clarke as Eager Beaver and Mile Zero Dance’s Theresa Dextrase as Aurora: Queen of the Northern Lights, who will reveal herself in full Boreal regalia after the lantern parade at 9:30 p.m. Crows will encourage festival-goers to make lanterns. Imagine an interactive dinner theatre without the theatre – or the dinner (no concessions beyond hot chocolate at this event).

At the helm of the Winter Light Society and its three-year pilot project to promote hibernal festivalry, Anthony can be thanked for helping Edmontonians get used to the idea of winter festivals. She cites an annual increase in attendance from 70,000 to 140,000 over the 2009-2011 project “and it could even be better than that.” Winter festivals are nothing new. They have their own rituals, their own fashion. There was the Frosty Fest in the ‘80s, First Night in the ‘90s, then came Silver Skate, Deep Freeze, Ice on Whyte and then finally Winter Light, which produced 26 events in three years, “and that’s why the scene got kicked up,” Anthony says. The new festival, Metropolis – with its oddly-shaped tents in Churchill Square – is just getting its feet frozen, as it were. Despite the unfortunate cancellation of Winter Light’s Illuminations Festival due to an unexpected construction project that scuttled eight months of planning – Anthony doesn’t want to talk about it – winterfests are still going strong.

“I think we really created some traction for winter events,” Anthony says. “People didn’t really didn’t think of winter as a festival season – until now. Developing a winter culture around festivals was our mission and I think we succeeded. That’s certainly what I said in my report to the city!”

Admission to the Mill Creek Adventure Walk is free. Donations will be accepted.