Are you looking for a little something different to round out your winter fun? Make plans to attend one of the most unique winter festivals in North Carolina – WinterFest Smoky Style. The festival offers a closer look into the winter sport of dog sledding as well as many other activities celebrating the working dog breeds. Learn more in my recent article published in The Laurel of Asheville, which provides on overview of what ot expect at this year’s festival!
Outdoors: WinterFest Smoky Style
Story by Anna Smather; Photos by Beth Brown Photography
If you’re suffering from cabin fever this winter, look no further than the mountains of Western North Carolina for relief. With an abundance of seasonal activities—hiking, skiing, and even outdoor festivals—it’s a sure fire way to combat the winter blues. One such event is WinterFest Smoky Style, slated for February 26–28 in Maggie Valley.
The idea of WinterFest first came about when Ron DeSimone, mayor of Maggie Valley at the time, was introduced to professional Alaskan dog musher Hugh Neff. Ron was on a mission to boost winter tourism in his community and Hugh’s passion for dogsledding became the inspiration for WinterFest Smoky Style. Ron reasoned that a sight like mushing combined with an emphasis on other seasonal outdoor activities might make for a perfect draw for a winter-based event.
“Ron’s vision, as he explained it to me, was to figure out how to attract more people to discover the magic of winter in our mountains,” says Kirk Wall, one of the lead organizers of WinterFest. Kirk, a fellow dogsledding enthusiast, jumped at the opportunity to join Ron’s mission. The idea quickly gained momentum and soon WinterFest Smoky Style was born. Giving nod to working dogs, mushing, and the great outdoors, the festival would have a strong canine presence along with components unlike any other local winter event.
The inaugural event, held in February 2015, featured professional dogsledding, a sanctioned canine International Weight Pull Association competition, the local K-9 unit, timber sports, and winter survival lessons, among other activities. The festival’s success proved that despite colder temperatures and even a snowstorm, an outdoor winter festival could thrive in Maggie Valley. Following the festival, the committee, under the direction of the passionate mayor, began efforts to build on the festival’s achievements. A dream of a bigger, better WinterFest Smoky Style in 2016 was well underway.
Sadly, in July 2015, tragedy struck when Maggie Valley’s beloved Mayor DeSimone was killed in a construction accident. The community, along with the WinterFest committee, mourned the loss of its steadfast leader and dear friend. The group’s members knew, however, they had to continue moving the festival forward, in honor of DeSimone and the community he loved.
“Ron was—and still is—the inspiration for all who continue to push WinterFest to capture his vision of Maggie Valley and all of Haywood County being a year-round tourist destination where people looked forward to exploring our mountains in the winter as much as they already do in the summer,” says Kirk.
This year’s event will carry on Ron’s legacy with an even larger emphasis on the great outdoors. The National Park Service (NPS is celebrating its 100th anniversary) will be part of the festival. With significant portions of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park located in Haywood County, NPS will be highlighting winter park events and offering hiking safety tips.
The festival will open with a special ceremony and blessing for the animals and participants by native Cherokee storyteller, Jerry Wolfe. Volunteers with the Museum of the Cherokee Indian will offer demonstrations in arrowhead making, traditional dances, and storytelling.
The popular sled dogs will return again, offering a closer look into the exciting sport of recreational urban dog mushing. Snow actually isn’t required to mush, as specially-designed sleds with wheels instead of runners are utilized. Several crowd-pleasing events from the first year will also return, including the weight pull competition, K-9 units from area police departments, and even a group of Plott Hounds, the state dog of North Carolina, whose breed originated in Haywood County.
Spencer Boljack, owner of the Land of the Sky Wilderness School and star of the former reality show Hillbilly Blood, will demonstrate winter survival skills. And Haywood Community College’s award-winning timber sports team will showcase their competition skills, including ax-throwing and the standing block chop.
Local music, along with food and craft vendors, will be available throughout the festival. There will also be a grand bonfire on Saturday evening, allowing festivalgoers to cap off their day by the warmth of a cozy fire.
The festival kicks off Friday, February 26, at the annual Wild Game Dinner hosted by the Haywood Community College’s Wildlife Club. The rest of the festivities will get underway—come rain, snow, or shine—at 10 a.m. on Saturday, February 27, at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds, 3374 Soco Road in Maggie Valley. For more, visit winterfestsmokystyle.com. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for children.