Birds on Ice

Frozen Turkey Bowling Below Zero at Minnesota’s Ice Box Festival

It may be freezing outside, but that’s no reason to mope around indoors. Take a page from the unimaginably cold International Falls and set up a competitive game of turkey bowling.

01.07.14 10:45 AM ET

If scientists are right in predicting that climate change will result in more extreme cold and heat, residents of our more northern reaches might consider taking up the unique sport of frozen turkey bowling.

The sport was invented some three decades ago as part of the annual Ice Box Festival in the Minnesota town of International Falls. The town holds a trademark on the moniker “The Nation’s Ice Box,” which was again proven appropriate by Monday’s low temperature of 30 degrees below zero. The exact identity of the father of frozen turkey bowling is apparently lost to history.

“It was invented so many years ago, so I can’t really tell you,” said Faye Whitbeck, president of the International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.

Rule wise, frozen turkey bowling is essentially the same as the traditional variety. The difference begins with the lane.

“Right outside on the sidewalk, they make a little lane,” Whitbeck said.

The sidewalk in question, located in the Nation’s Ice Box during winter, is necessarily coated with ice. The boundaries are marked with Day-Glo paint.

“Set up the pins and away they go,” Whitbeck said.

A frozen turkey may be a touch more unwieldy than a bowling ball, but it’s well up to the task.

“They knock down a lot of pins,” Whitbeck noted.

She reported that the sport is particularly popular with the younger set.

“It seems like the kids get the biggest charge out of that,” she said, adding, “Every child wins a prize.”

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The festival, which is to be held this year from January 16 through 19, also features a sport called “smooshing.” That involves teams of four who lash their left feet to one board, their right feet to another, and race down the street as if on cross country skis.

The big event is the Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard Race, which is actually two foot races, a 5K followed by a 10k. The race has never been canceled, though it was shortened in 1981, when the wind chill factor dropped to 71 degrees below zero. The full race was run even in 1987, when the actual temperature was 28 below. The winner that year was a hardy school teacher named Dave Avenson of Cohasset, MN.

“It isn’t that bad if you dress right,” Avenson said on Monday. “The first mile is cold, maybe, but after that you  warm up pretty good. Just wear a few sweats and tight underwear, a turtleneck, jacket, stuff like that.”

He adds, “I never wear a face mask, hardly ever. I just breathe the air the way it is. People say, ‘You’re going to freeze your lungs,’ but that doesn’t really happen.”

He reports that slipping and sliding is no real concern.

“Believe it or not, your footing is really good in this cold,” he said. “The snow is so dry it doesn’t stick to the bottom of your shoes, so you get really good traction.”

Avenson allowed that he did not try his hand at frozen turkey bowling when he was up in International Falls.

“I never did do that.” he said. “But it sounds like fun.”

He added, “The things they do to keep themselves occupied.”

He suggested that what is important in such temperatures is to be active.

“I wouldn’t want to stand out in the cold that’s for sure,” he said. “As long as you keep going…”

He allowed that he does have a limit of 30 below, not counting the wind chill factor.

“If it’s just plain old cold and not windy, it’s okay,” he said. “Throw on a little wind and that gets bad. Then I go on a treadmill.”

International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce

The interview was interrupted at one point when his phone line went dead, apparently as a result of Monday’s cold. He resumed the chat on his cell phone.

”I think it’s like negative 25, something like that,” he said. “That’s our high.  It was 30 something below last night. It’s pretty cold.”

He figured he would go for a jog anyway, having a day off from work because Minnesota’s governor closed the state’s schools due to the cold. The schools closure was met with some surprise by the folks up in the home of frozen turkey bowling.

“We’re a little perplexed up here on the northern edge,” Whitbeck said. “Back in the day when I was a kid we went when it was 40, 45 below.”

She emphasized that the residents of International Falls are not physiologically different from residents of warmer climes.

“We’re still made like all the other human beings, we still feel that snap nap and sting,” she said. “But we’ve gotten used to it.”

She further reported, “We don’t really change our lifestyle too much, just put on more layers and keep our cars running 24 hours a day.”

And International Falls in winter is one town that does not have to worry about loiterers.

“You’ll notice that people are not just hanging out having conversations on the corner,” she said. “Everybody’s got a place to go and be.”

In the estimation of several prominent scientists, this week’s cold is from an “arctic vortex,” the North Pole version of a hurricane. It tends to remain much farther north than even the Nation’s Ice Box, but warmer temperatures in the arctic seem to have weakened the containing vortex so that the frigid air broke free and swept south.

If such events do become more frequent, there is always frozen turkey bowling. Those who wish give it a try up in International Falls need only show up. You don’t even have to bring your own bird. You also don’t have to worry about being party to wasting food.

 “If the skin isn’t broken, somebody usually cooks it,” Whitbeck said. “We’re not wasteful.”