Meet the costume-clad volunteers who brave the frigid streets every winter to make our lives a little warmer
Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Mandy MohlerThe yeti is nodding his yeti head in agreement. He understands the mountain man’s lament. His neighborhood is changing, too. Whitefish isn’t the little train town it once was. Even a penguin can see that.
“Everything is so different now,” the yeti tells the penguin, who is now nodding her penguin head in solidarity. But the mountain man simply stares into the distance, perhaps longing for days of yore but more likely eyeing his rifle. He’s going to need it in a minute for the photo shoot. In fact, does everyone have their weapons?
The yeti holds up his thumping club. Check. The mountain man walks over to his firearm and picks it up. Check. Then the Viking diva emerges with her sword. Check. They’re all sufficiently armed, except for the penguin, who’s a pacifist.
The four of them huddle together, basking in the soft glow of a photographer’s studio lighting. They assume poses as naturally as walking. They’ve had their pictures taken too many times to count. That’s what happens when you go out in public in full-body yeti and penguin suits, or adorned head to toe in ancient Norse warrior garb and 19th century fur trapper leather. People get their cameras out.
Rochelle “Bee” Bickel, Lester Johnson, Louis Beitl and Lani Johnson have 80 years of combined experience dressing up for the Whitefish Winter Carnival, that wonderfully weird festival held every January and February. To them and their comrades, it’s not just a chance to be silly. It’s a civic duty they take seriously. The event boosts morale amid the icy doldrums of late winter. It’s a part of Whitefish’s identity. Above all, it’s a magical time for children.
Without hesitation, all four say that the main reason they keep throwing on their costumes every year and braving the frigid Whitefish streets is kids. When we see a woman dressed as a penguin, a 4-year-old boy sees Happy Feet.
“I actually did the dance from the movie,” Lani Johnson says. “His eyes got big. He was so excited to meet the penguin from Happy Feet.”
Johnson can’t remember exactly how long she’s been a penguin but says it’s about 20 years. Lester Johnson, no relation, has been a mountain man for 35 years. He was one of the originals, and he’s the only one from that first crew still rocking the leather. Beitl is the baby of the group, clocking in at seven years.
This will be Bickel’s 18th year as a Viking diva, although she took one year off to serve as queen for the festival’s 50th anniversary in 2009. She was princess back in 1972. Before then, she attended the inaugural event in 1960. She was one of those wide-eyed little kids she now loves to entertain.
Not all costumed volunteers endure as long as these diehards. Yetis, as they are wont to do, come and go. Mountain men return to the mountains, or the comfort of their living rooms, retiring the leather forever. Penguins do whatever penguins do, and even the fiercest Viking divas recognize when the good fight’s been fought and it’s time to lay down their swords.
But there’s always someone there to pick up where they leave off, and those newcomers fall right into step with the Bickels and Johnsons of the carnival world. For the uninitiated, this world can be alarming. You think you’re heading downtown for a quiet beer and suddenly you’re accosted by a club-wielding yeti that, frankly, looks less like a sasquatch than it does a masked man draped in a tattered throw blanket.
This is what we all love about the carnival, though. It reminds us to do two things that many of us leave behind at the doorstep to adulthood: be silly simply because it’s fun, and let our imaginations wander for the same reason.
The lore that spawned these characters begins with the legend of the Nordic god Ullr, who went in search of a suitable home and landed on Big Mountain, accompanied by his prime minister and queen. Their quiet mountain life was soon disturbed by marauding yetis attempting to kidnap the queen. Ullr and his followers warded off the intruders.
When humans arrived to the valley, Ullr protected them from the yetis. Thus, Ullr became their king. Every winter, he descends from his mountain perch to revel with his human followers. During this celebration, the Whitefish Winter Carnival, the yetis maintain their futile efforts in capturing the queen.
Helping Ullr to push back the yetis are the Viking divas, who offer kisses and the “V” mark of protection. Mountain men, rugged and stern, similarly dedicate themselves to keeping peace among the yeti chaos, but they do so without kisses. Penguins are on hand to keep spirits high and entertain the children. Other costumed characters through the event’s history have included Klumsy Klowns, Great Northern Goats and more.
That’s the mythology behind the carnival. The more straightforward origin story is that a group of Whitefish residents in the 1950s called the “Dirty Dozen” – led by Norm Kurtz – masterminded the event as a late-winter reprieve, modeling it after the famous Saint Paul Winter Carnival, which started in 1886.
Over the years, the festival has grown to encompass weeks of fun, beginning this year with the Merry Maker on Jan. 9, followed by the king and queen coronation and disco party on Jan. 16, then skijoring and more. The month-long celebration culminates with the 57th annual carnival main weekend on Feb. 5-7, which includes a gala, “Penguin Plunge,” kids’ carnival, grand parade, pancake breakfast, and much more.
New kings and queens are announced every year, and while royalty gets much of the attention, the costumed volunteers ply their trade in relative obscurity, or complete anonymity. Their jobs don’t always end when the carnival ends, either. A number of them travel with the king and queen to participate in parades in Spokane, Missoula, Calgary, Cranbrook and elsewhere.
That’s why Lester Johnson refers to his “35 years of carnival service” – it’s indeed a service, a civic duty, an annual commitment. The participation in out-of-town parades is meant to promote Whitefish, which is more than an exercise in building community goodwill and camaraderie. It’s work that has a tangible impact in the form of tourism dollars.
More than 425,000 spectators and 2 million TV viewers watched the Whitefish Winter Carnival parade entry win best municipal float at the 2011 Calgary Stampede. Prince William and Kate presided over the parade’s opening. Whitefish’s festival was also featured in National Geographic in 2012.
Lester Johnson was active in the Whitefish Theatre Company when the idea arose in 1981 to put mountain men in the carnival parade. Jim Trout spearheaded the effort, which included a Hollywood designer crafting four mountain men outfits from buckskin, including the one Johnson still wears today, though it’s accumulated accoutrements over the decades.
“Nobody’s going to get this (outfit) from me,” Johnson says, playfully but with a rifle in his hand. “This leather’s almost become my other skin.”
Beitl also finds time to travel with the parade as one of the “float goats,” who are responsible for taking care of the traveling float. He runs a handyman business, though many people know him as Barbecue Lou after he ran Glacier Barbecue in West Glacier for many years.
“I don’t know how many kids I’ve given high fives to – in the thousands,” Beitl says. “That’s what’s fun for me.”
Bickel says much of the magic simply lies in maintaining the carnival, year after year, and providing a light at the end of winter’s dark tunnel.
“I enjoy just keeping it going, meeting all the people involved in it and developing great friendships,” Bickel says. “It feels good to make people smile.”