CRYSTAL TOWNSHIP — For an event that depends entirely on the elements of Mother Nature for success, the Crystal Lake Winter Festival provided perhaps its most rewarding experience to date for the hundreds of visitors who braved the freezing temperatures.
With a steady downfall of light flurries throughout Saturday and sunshine and temperatures that never eclipsed 20 degrees, this year’s festival saw the the small lakeside community abuzz as if it were a beautiful summer day on the Fourth of July.
Be it turkey bowling, horse-drawn carriage rides, sledding and ice skating, snowmobiling across the frozen lake, ice fishing or the signature polar dip event, there were plenty of events to keep festival-goers entertained from dawn till dusk.
Crystal Lake Winter Festival Committee Chairwoman Deb Powell, in her first year of organizing the event, said things couldn’t have gone much better.
“Today was awesome,” she said. “The weather was perfect. We had sunshine and a little bit of snow. There were long lines to get a horse carriage ride and we had more than 50 people participate in the polar dip. I’m very happy with the turnout.”
Last year, the lake managed to freeze over just days before the festival. In 2012, the festival was cancelled due to an abnormally warm winter.
But in the festival’s fifth year, with historic snow levels and several weeks of freezing temperatures, Saturday’s conditions were ideal.
Additional parking for the festival was actually available on Crystal Lake, which was more than strong enough to hold dozens of cars and trucks.
Things kicked off in the morning with a fishing derby as participants spread across the lake aiming to fetch the biggest catch of the day.
At noon, with the crowd beginning to roll in, the chili and pie cook-off attracted many visitors who sampled more than 25 different kinds of chili, either for taste or to warm up from the cold.
“I couldn’t tell you how many pies we had and we had more than 18 individual chilies and seven or eight chilies from businesses,” Powell said. “Everyone had a lot of fun with that.”
At 3 p.m., nearly all who attended the festival gathered on the lake to watch as 54 participants took the brave leap into the chilly waters of Crystal Lake during the “Polar Dip.”
Each participant paid a $5 entry fee, but many went on to seek larger donations, all of which went to benefit the Crystal Township Fire Department, which dug the hole in the ice and supervised the event.
For cousins Kaylee Eller, 12, of Sumner Township, and Ally Crippen, 13, of Sheridan, their leap into the icy waters was a first, but rewarding experience as they did so holding hands, making the leap together.
“It was cold, but a lot of fun,” Crippen said. “We’re definitely doing it again next year.”
When Adam Soule of Sumner Township was next in line to jump, he decided to pump up the crowd by running a lap around the fenced-off area in nothing but his swimsuit, high-fiving spectators, and occasionally slipping and falling, along the way.
“It woke me up, that’s for sure,” he said. “It was refreshing, but very cold beforehand. It was actually colder running around. My daughter wanted me to jump, I told her I would, and I did it.”
Not everyone had a successful first jump, but that didn’t stop the fun.
As Trenton Christensen of Sheridan began his leap, he suddenly slipped as he approached the water, belly-flopping into the water, thankfully without injury.
“It didn’t hurt, surprisingly,” he said with a laugh, adding that his second, more successful jump, was actually worse than the first.
“The second time I jumped, it took my breath away, but I would do it again,” he said. “It’s so much worse getting out of the water than jumping in.”
Christensen’s girlfriend, Jenny Burkett of Crystal, jumped a total of three times and said she’ll continue to jump again in the future.
“I jumped last year, so this was my second year jumping and I love doing it,” she said. “Hitting the water, it’s more of a numbing sensation than feeling any pain. The first time is the easy time, the second and third times you know what’s coming.”
The festival managed to attracted visitors from as far away as St. Johns, and others such as Rod Gregory of Belding visited the area for the very first time.
“This is the first time I’ve been here to Crystal, it’s pretty cool,” he said.
Gregory also participated in the polar dip, wearing a Halloween costume to add to the fun.
“I always wanted to jump and I’m getting older,” he said. “The older I get the less likely I’d be to do it.”
The conclusion of the festival was one that lit up the sky, with a lantern launch that saw flickers of light raise into the sky, to an evening fireworks show that reflected beautifully off the snow and ice covered lake.
Tabby McPherson and her daughter, Ieasha, 6, of Belding, spent the entire day enjoying the events, but were eagerly awaiting the evening’s fireworks show.
“The fact that they have fireworks in the wintertime, that rocks!” she said. “Other than being cold, it’s been awesome.”
And the fireworks show, though admittedly short at about 10 minutes, did not disappoint. Launched not far from the public beach on the frozen lake, spectators felt as if they were directly below the colored lights.
It was an exciting end to a festival that did little, if anything, to disappoint.
For Dawn Steffes of Crystal, this year’s festival stood out from the rest.
“Awesome (both) day and night, best ever Crystal Winter Fest,” she said.
“Seeing people from so far away visit Crystal, it’s so cool,” Powell said. “I’m so happy. I did see some things that need to change for next year, but this year went really well.”