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Occasion: Dartmouth Winter Carnival

Occasion: Dartmouth Winter Carnival
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SLIDE SHOW: Dartmouth Winter Carnival

If I had to choose one image from last year’s Winter Carnival, one signature winter-in-New-England Dartmouth moment, I’d have to go with what happened 10 seconds into the “Carni Classic” ski race that kicked off the college’s famous weekend. A low-snow winter had left broad swaths of bare ground in Hanover; the loop around the golf course was icy and hard. The sun shone brightly; a brisk northwest wind dropped the wind chill into the single digits. Amid the chaotic mass start of the race–where Superman capes and spiky green Mohawk haircuts clashed with gold lamé evening gowns, and competitors broke out from the starting line on skinny skis and telemark skis, snowshoes and in-line skates and all manner of other conveyances–a tandem bicycle with knobby tires lost traction as it hit the first incline. The rider in the rear pumped furiously against the pedals, her feet in snowshoes flopping around and around as if they had clown shoes on them, while the guy in front pedaled just as frantically, wearing cross-country skis on his feet. They soon lost out to gravity and fell over in a heap, piling up racers behind them, all of them laughing so hard it was impossible to tell whether there was pain involved, or even disappointment.

Bare-chested frat brothers flaunting feather boas, young women in bathing suits, and a guy in a fuzzy bunny suit all skied past the pile-up, some of them hopping deftly aside at the last split-second, and a remarkable number skate-skiing powerfully uphill on the icy track. The moment seemed to capture the crazy youthful energy, the athletic skill, and the singular way that Dartmouth College has been thumbing its nose at winter for the past 100 years.

A year after founding the first collegiate outing club in the country, Dartmouth borrowed the “winter field day” idea from Vermont Academy, a private school in Saxtons River, about an hour south of Hanover. Then in 1911 they gave it a name and eventually a big ski jump, brought in trainloads of college girls, put a giant snow sculpture at the center of it all, and created the definitive collegiate winter celebration. A 1920 National Geographic article called it “the Mardi Gras of the North.” Through the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, “Winter Carnival” was a cultural icon in the same way that spring break in Fort Lauderdale would be in the decades to come.

For years, the fancy balls and the crowning of a Carnival Queen defined the annual event, but the spread of its reputation also coincided with the national rise of Dartmouth’s alpine and Nordic ski teams. From the beginning, intercollegiate competition has been a big part of Carnival weekend. These days, ski teams from across the Northeast race against one another on a “carnival circuit,” moving from one host school to another throughout the season; a resurgent Dartmouth program has dominated the circuit over the past few winters.

But the spirit of Winter Carnival has always been friendly, and fun, marked by the informal snow-sculpture competition among dorms and fraternities, the polar-bear swim in Occom Pond, the human dogsled races on the college green, the downhill canoe races–all of which have survived changes in fashion and taste and the shifting cultural landscape of American collegiate life. In recent years, in a nod to improving town/gown relations, Carnival weekend has incorporated a community-wide skating party, complete with live music, horse-drawn sleigh rides, and other attractions for families and kids of all ages. It’s been a wholesome addition.

At the “Opening Ceremonies” on Thursday night last year, in front of a ruined Roman Colosseum snow sculpture in the middle of the dark green, a throng of Dartmouth students crowded around the college’s new president, Jim Yong Kim, huddling close together against the bitter cold. Kim congratulated the students for being outside on such a night, then made a playful reference to Harvard, Dartmouth’s longtime rival. “Unlike the cowardly institution to our south, where I was once affiliated, where this time of year makes students even more depressed than they already are, Dartmouth embraces winter. That’s one of the reasons why the bonds are so close here,” he told them. The students all cheered.

On cue, but sporadically and not that impressively, giant sparklers sputtered and flared around the rim of the Colosseum, and the carnival was officially on. I heard a student behind me say, “They should have used Roman candles.”

Dartmouth will celebrate its 103rd Winter Carnival February 6-9, 2014. For more information: dartmouth.edu/~sao/events/carnival

Please Note: This article was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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