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Festival FANATICS

Folks come from all over for Voyageur fun

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CBC�s Rick Mercer spent the day at the Festival, sampling some pea soup and... leg wrestling.

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CBC�s Rick Mercer spent the day at the Festival, sampling some pea soup and... leg wrestling.

Guess it's true: Build it, and they will come.

Field of Dreams, the Hollywood movie about ghosts of baseball greats showing up at a ball diamond in an Iowa cornfield, isn't a Winnipeg thing, but the message certainly fit yesterday.

Building is a big theme at the annual Festival du Voyageur, whether it's ice sculptures or camaraderie. People come from all over to take in the annual 10-day event, now known as the biggest winter festival on the Prairies.

On Saturday, the first full day of the event, so many people flocked to Fort Gibraltar -- the hub of the fur trade 200 years ago -- it was easy to miss the celebrity who moved almost invisibly through their midst, even with the TV crew trailing his every step.

Canadian comedian and satirist Rick Mercer was at Whittier Park to film a segment for an upcoming episode of his weekly CBC show, Rick Mercer Report.

"We got here this morning and we generally go to the end of daylight -- that's the way we roll," Mercer said, trademark dry wit intact.

Mercer chatted about his visit during a short break in filming inside a teepee with Steve Greyeyes, an Ojibway man in the costume of a 19th-century chief.

The festival strives for authenticity; Greyeyes wore a polished brass gorget, much like the one then-general George Washington wore during the French and Indian Wars. They were also given as medals to honour aboriginal chiefs back in the fur trade era.

Greyeyes handed the TV celebrity a bowl of steaming pea soup -- again the real stuff, and not all that much different from the mush pea soup served in Mercer's own province, Newfoundland and Labrador.

In other words, the celebrity did everything tourists do at Fort Gibraltar.

He quaffed a glass of caribou (a sweet alcoholic drink from Quebec), checked out the fort and the blacksmith shop -- Mercer made a hook -- and chatted up the dozens of re-enactors in period voyageur and coureurs de bois costume.

"We were excited when we heard he was coming," said festival executive director Ginette Lavack Walters, standing at the teepee door during the segment.

Spoiler alert: The comedian challenged Festival president Geneviève Clément to a leg wrestling contest. You will have to watch Mercer's show to see who won the match.

Outside the teepee a little earlier in the day, the usual throngs headed into the maple taffy and sugar shack tents, the souvenir tent, the music venues. There were wagon rides and toboggan slides. Snowshoes hung in rows of standing stirrups for the adventurous to try out.

While the majority of traffic at Western Canada's biggest winter festival is regional, there are plenty of tourists who fly and drive to the heart of the continent in the dead of winter to attend the festival.

Sean Gallagher came to sculpt in snow from Bay City, Mich.

"The festival is unique," Gallagher said, "This is a symposium of sculpture, not a competition, so we're here enjoying the art of sculpting, the artists, and we get to enjoy each other's company. If someone needs help, we can run over and help them."

Gallagher was part of a three-man sculpting team invited from Michigan to carve a sculpture. Their choice was a winged sun disc, a three-dimensional version of the kind tough guys tattoo on their biceps.

More than a dozen sculptures transform Whittier Park, outside the fort, into Voyageur Park every year, each with a plaque representing the inspiration and country where it came from. It's a display sponsored by Air Canada, and sculptors are invited to the Festival to dazzle spectators.

Every year they manage to transform 450,000 cubic feet of snow into a winter wonderland, but the biggest is the gigantic sculpture of the voyageur emblem, 15 metres long and 5.5 feet high at the entrance.

The 45th annual festival runs until Feb. 23.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2014 A3

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