TRAVERSE CITY — Trevor Tkach stood atop an 8-foot cube of snow at the Open Space Park and stomped on the last few inches to pack it down.
The giant cube was created with the help of a front-loader and snow imported from a ski resort, a wooden form cobbled together by Traverse City Convention & Vistors Bureau President Brad Van Dommelen, and a dozen "stompers," including Tkach, executive director of the National Cherry Festival.
It was one of 10 cubes being readied for snow sculpture carving as part of this year's Cherry Capital Winter Wowfest.
The winter festival opens today and runs through Sunday, Feb. 19, at area locations including the Open Space, Downtown Traverse City and "Celebration Central" — City parking lots "B" and "T" adjacent to Grandview Parkway between Cass and Union Streets, also known as the Farmers Market lot. Other sites are Mt. Holiday Ski & Recreation Area and Grand Traverse Resort & Spa.
The sixth annual celebration — known in a previous incarnation as the Winter WonderFest — features family-friendly fare, from frozen pit-spitting and "brain freeze" ice cream-eating contests, to cardboard classic and frozen foot races.
New this year are a Cherry Pancake Breakfast, a Soup'r Chili 5K Race fun run/walk, a reformatted rail jam for skiers and snowboarders, and snowshoe and cross country skiing demonstrations. Also making its debut is an '80s-style Winter Wowfest Summer Festival Fantasy Party that celebrates KLT Radio's 30th anniversary.
Popular returning events include a Monster Dog Pull Competition, a Soup'r Bowl Soup Tasting Competition and Winter, Wine & Wow. The spirited sipping event kicks off the festival from 5 to 10 p.m. today and features wines from the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas, craft beers from Right Brain Brewery, vodkas from Grand Traverse Distillery and cherry-influenced edibles from Boathouse Restaurant.
"It was wildly popular last year and this year we're adding 'Empty Canvas' — painting on chocolate to music," said Susan Wilcox Olson, media and marketing manager for Wowfest partner National Cherry Festival. "They're two artist-musician brothers. As the musical brother is providing music and entertainment and song, the other brother is painting on a huge piece of chocolate that will be raffled off at the end."
Though the winter's unseasonably mild weather has threatened and even canceled some regional events, Winter Wowfest will go on with or without the cooperation of Mother Nature, officials said.
"We've been struggling with this for the last few years," said Mike Norton, media relations director for festival partner Traverse City Convention & VIsitors Bureau. "February can be kind of an iffy month so we had done quite a bit to insulate the festival from fluctuations in the weather."
This year that included importing 10 truckloads of snow from Shanty Creek Resorts for the massive snow sculpture carvings and for events like tubing and the rail jam, in which skiers and snowboarders descend a man-made mountain of steel and shred a snow-piled street.
"We'll be using parking lot snow to build up the hills and use fresh snow from Shanty Creek to dress them," Norton said. "The only thing we were worried about was the snowshoe and cross country ski demonstrations. That is still a little chancy, because you need a little more depth. Most of the other events can happen with or without snow."
Norton said the three-day festival is a chance for locals and visitors to mingle and a way to help spread the message that something is always happening in Traverse City.
The festival wraps up Sunday with a fireworks show beginning at 7 p.m. at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa. Registration and entry fees are required for some events. For more information, including a full schedule, see www.winterwowfest.com.