Breathing life into Polar Fest

Sure, Detroit Lakes is known for its summer activities and the lakes, but once the new year starts, the activities dwindle. In 1996, Ericka Johnson decided to change that. She formed a group and came up with Polar Fest, a February break from wint...

Ice golf tournament
A golfer tees off during the first Polar Fest ice golf tournament in February of 1996.

Sure, Detroit Lakes is known for its summer activities and the lakes, but once the new year starts, the activities dwindle.

In 1996, Ericka Johnson decided to change that. She formed a group and came up with Polar Fest, a February break from wintery nothingness.

She said she was on the chamber's tourism committee at the time and "it started with just a bunch of people kind of working independently but as a group, hosting different events."

After a few years of events, it dwindled to just the plunge. When Amy Stearns moved to town though, in 2002, she took over and revived it.

"I was just disappointed in that," Stearns said of the dying event. "I understand things dwindle, things change and stuff. A few years ago, I talked to Pat Petermann and said it would be really cool if we could resurrect Polar Fest, would you be open to that. He loved the idea."


So, Stearns e-mailed a group of people to see if there was more of an interest, and thus began the revival.

"What is fun about it is that it's something in the middle of the winter and it gets people involved in activities when there's not as much going on. It kind of brings different people out into the community to do different things," Johnson said.

"It's kind of hearty. It's Minnesota. It's just fun."

"It takes the sting out of the middle of the winter," Boys and Girls Club Executive Director Pat Petermann agreed.

The most successful and most consistent event of the Polar Fest over the years has been the Polar Plunge, from which all proceeds benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Detroit Lakes.

In 1996, the plunge raised about $5,000. Last year, that amount grew to $53,000. This year, the club has set a goal of raising $60,000.

The inaugural year, "Too Tall" Tom Szymanski, then a weatherman for KVLY TV in Fargo, plunged. Since then, Petermann said he's always looking for a local "celebrity" to bring in the donations and plunge.

The first year, the newspaper reported about 70 plungers, and last year, Petermann said there were 155.


"I pray for 20 degrees and no wind and everyone will be happy," he added.

In the first year, there was a pancake feed, sleigh rides, snow soccer, bonfire, a cross-country ski race and more.

The events may have changed, but the purpose hasn't.

"I think it's really taken off again," Stearns said. "I just wanted to see a celebration of winter here in Detroit Lakes, to be able to see a way we could involve more groups and organizations and anyone."

Growing into the eight-day list of activities, there is truly "something for everybody," Petermann said.

"From age zero to 90, people could find something to do or see," he said.

There is turkey bowling at St. Mary's Innovis, the Freeze Your Buns 5K run, ice golf, fireworks, a dance and more.

More events


  • The Detroit Lakes Library is also getting involved, hosting a short story contest for adults and kids.

Prizes will be awarded at a special Polar Fest celebration at the library on Tuesday, Feb. 9, at 7 p.m. Listen to the best stories, see who wins the cash prizes and enjoy cider and cookies.
Stories of 1,000 words or less on "The Legend of Polar Pete" must be submitted by Feb. 4. For more information, call the library at 847-2168.

  • Miss Polar Fest Pageant -- Sunday, Jan. 31, at 7:30 p.m. in the Holmes Theatre.
  • The Great Polar Race, Saturday, Feb. 6, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. in the Washington Square Mall. Cost is $10 for individual participation or $35 for a team of four. Register at the DLCCC by Jan 30.

What's it all about? Well, do you love scavenger hunts or "The Amazing Race," Sudokus or brain teasers?
Teams of four people will venture around Detroit Lakes completing fun challenges -- a puzzle, a physical feat or some other task must be conquered at each location.

Of course there are prizes at the end of the race.

  • Doubles racquetball tournament on Saturday, Feb. 6, at 8 a.m. in the DLCCC racquetball courts.

Cost is $20 for members, $25 for non-members.
For those interested in an indoor activity, there will be men's, women's and mixed teams, A, B and C divisions.

  • C. Willi Myles performs Thursday, Feb. 11, at 7:30 p.m. Pre-party at 6 p.m. Adults pay $20 and students $10.

A Southern guy in Minnesota for his first winter equals plenty of laughs. The comedian has performed and toured with Bill Cosby, Sinbad, Dennis Miller and others.

  • Daddy's Little Sweetheart Dance is Friday, Feb. 12, from 6-9 p.m. in the Holmes. Dads are $10, and daughters are $5.

The Princess Package for $20 includes a chocolate rose, photo, tiara, wand and balloon. Purchase tickets by Monday, Feb. 8, and order a corsage for $5.
In its fourth year, Daddy's Little Sweetheart event is for daughters (ages 2-12) and their dads, grandfathers, uncles or special friends.

  • The Ice Tee Golf Event is Friday, Feb. 12, at noon.

Lunch at Zorbaz is free with team registration.
Golf starts in front of Zorbaz on Little Detroit Lake. Cost is $100 per team. Each team member receives Ice Tee winter apparel item and Zorbaz lunch.

Expect nine holes of frozen fun. And some prizes. Golf clubs and balls will be provided.


"It's such a blast; it's so fun," organizer Brent Wolf said. Depending on the snow, we make some berms, and it's cleared like a green and fareway."

  • Registration for the Freeze Your Buns Run is Saturday, Feb. 13, at 8 a.m. at the DLCCC. The 5k run starts at 9. Cost is $15 before Feb. 10 or $18 after.

The DLCCC is hosting a once-a-week training session before the event to prep for running outside in the winter.
"We've run when it's under 30 below and when it 30 above," Wolf said, a 60 degree difference at about the same date each year.

n A fireworks display can be viewed on the beach on Saturday, Feb. 13, at 7 p.m. Bring a warm blanket.

  • The Lakes Area Parrot Heads host the 4th annual "Welcome to Polaritaville" dance Saturday, Feb. 13, following the fireworks display. The event will be in Zorbaz.

Live entertainment is provided by The Arthurs, and "the tradition continues with the dance floor covered in sand. It's warm inside, so wear your favorite tropical attire and compete for the King and Queen of Polaritaville competition," organizer Jim Brogren said.
Admission is a free-will donation to benefit the Boys and Girls Club of Detroit Lakes.

"Come experience the Northern Latitudes/Tropical Attitudes. This dance will warm up your winter," he added.

"What's really impressive is over the years, all these people who have come forward and put on a race, a soccer team, you know. It's like, 'wow!'" Johnson said.

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