Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t live in Whitefish for a reason. The odds of a groundhog ever seeing a ray of sunshine during a Flathead Valley sun-free winter is just about nil. And shadow or no, everyone knows those winters will never end in six weeks or less.
By the time the local residents have flipped their calendars over to the month of February, the long months of sun deprivation will have visibly taken a toll on many. The distractions inherent with a bustling holiday season can only last so long, and in with the new year comes the cabin fever and depression. Unfortunately any time spent outside, such as on the slopes of the Big Mountain, can offer little in the way of light nourishment for those noticeably deficient in vitamin D.
The Big Mountain isn’t as big as its name implies, and from my experience, it rarely offered the skiers who graced its slopes with an elevation sufficient enough to place them above the foggy cloud that casts a perpetual shadow over the valley throughout the winter. Quite the opposite in fact, for when the resort’s chair lifts drop sun-seeking skiers off at the top of the mountain, it tends to plop them right down in the thickest part of the cloud. It’s enough to make your head spin, hence my personal Big Mountain nickname, “the vertigo capital of the world.”
Around the time Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is preparing to celebrate the appearance of a groundhog named Phil in accordance with the region’s traditional German folklore, Whitefish, Montana is attempting to revive its winter-weary citizenry with an annual Winter Carnival under the auspices of honoring an old Nordic Snow King named Ullr.
Now old folklore doesn’t always make sense, which is probably why the tale of King Ullr never made any sense to me. Aside from the fact that it was “once upon a time”, I could never understand why any seafaring Nordic King would insist on making his Snow Queen and royal entourage trek inland 550 miles away from the nearest coastline to settle in a place like Whitefish. Just to say he was King of the Big Mountain? And while some would say it’s always good to be king of something, perhaps the legend was simply one of convenience. Even a good excuse to have a parade.
Whatever the story, February’s Winter Carnival in Whitefish is considered a local tradition, replete with surrogate royalty selected from the community’s most prominent socialites. The parade is one of the carnival’s main events, and its participants are recruited from every school, business, restaurant, church, and organization in the area.
I’ll never forget my first Winter Carnival parade in 1993. The skies were as clear as could be expected under the abiding cloud cover, and it was bitter cold, which I suppose was to be expected as well. It didn’t seem to matter to the gathering crowds who were appropriately dressed for the occasion. The Yetis in the parade that were heavily dressed in fleecy costumes were undoubtedly grateful for the freezing temperatures, especially since their primary purpose was to run along the parade route, throw candy into the crowds, and terrorize unsuspecting spectators with creepy Yeti pinches.
I reckon community obligation made it necessary for Whitefish High School to give its show of support by putting a “float” and the marching band in the parade every year. Accordingly, the town could always expect to see the football team, the team’s cheerleaders, and some of the student body notables riding in the back of a large flatbed truck (the “float”) with side panels decorated in the school’s gold and green like a Bulldog pep rally.
This is how the parade predictably floated along year after year … until the year of the winter mooning that is.
Unfortunately my parade position was on the sidelines during the year in question, which didn’t allow me to personally witness the sophomoric prank that gave the local morality police a god complex; but I heard all about it all the same. And then I read all about it every week for months thereafter in the "Whitefish Pilot".
What I gleaned from the numerous accounts swirling around town after the fact was that the high school students in the Bulldog float did exactly what I’d expect of most normal high schoolers - they freely expressed their opinions in a way they believed was congruent with the social consciousness of the time. In this case, it was the nation’s newfound awareness about the far reaching and fatal effects of HIV-AIDS. Several of the students made their point by throwing a few condoms into the crowd and holding up some signs that mentioned safe sex. Nothing disrespectful per se; until they chose to end the parade with a synchronized mooning over the side of the float.
The indignant old fogeys who’d apparently forgotten what it was like to be young and idealistic went ballistic, and unmercifully set out to make an example of the student with the most to lose. And it wasn’t a Bulldog on the football team. Their unlucky target was a senior honor student, and from what I understood, a girl who’d earned several college acceptances and had scholarships lined up for the coming fall. In the end, the powers that be showed her the kind of wrath that only the almighty can exact when they had her permanently expelled from the Whitefish School District without appeal three months before the end of her senior year.
Her tearful pleading and public apologies were published in the paper for weeks, but there weren’t enough mea culpas in the world to appease the hard hearts of the Whitefish morality police.
Having raised independent and free-thinking daughters of my own (and proud of it), I still can’t help but feel some sadness when I think about what happened to this young woman I never knew in person. My greatest hope is that she used her smarts to bypass those small town trolls on the bridge, and showed them all what real revenge can look like when exacted with the empowerment of success.
Chef offers me an unapologetic mooning at
Trestles Beach, Southern California
Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King