With plunging temperatures and hearty chili, Easthampton’s WinterFest lives up to its name

Last modified: Friday, February 19, 2016

EASTHAMPTON — Wind shook the trees at the Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary as guides pointed to deer tracks disappearing into the forest. Gusts blew across Nashawannuck Pond as a crowd watched two men harvest ice with antique tools. Snow drifted through the roads.

A cold spell struck the Pioneer Valley Saturday — right on cue for Easthampton’s third annual WinterFest.

“It took a long time to get here this year, didn’t it?” WinterFest volunteer Gail Golas, 60, of Easthampton said Saturday morning, trekking along a snowy path at the wildlife sanctuary. “I love winter. People look at me like I have ten heads.”

Predictions of plummeting temperatures and strong winds led Easthampton organizers to cancel some outdoor activities, including a snowman-making contest and horse-drawn wagon rides. In Amherst, organizers postponed their WinterFest to Feb. 20.

Temperatures were in the low teens Saturday morning, dropping to 7 degrees by the afternoon. The National Weather Service issued a warning of 32 degrees-below-zero wind chills for areas across Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island from 4 p.m. Saturday to noon Sunday.

At the wildlife sanctuary Saturday morning, one family braved the cold to begin a nature walk. But they bailed a few minutes in because they had a child whose feet were clad only in sneakers. Two guides and two WinterFest volunteers forged on, finding what they thought to be coyote tracks and examining a tree hollowed out by a woodpecker. Gary Golas, 57, of Easthampton, who teaches environmental science at Holyoke Community College, called out the scientific names of trees as they trudged through the snow.

Anne Lombard, a field walk leader volunteer for the sanctuary, said the cold wasn’t so bad as long as you dressed appropriately. Her advice: “Go inside if anything feels numb.”

Across town, people gingerly stepped out onto the frozen Nashawannuck Pond, where historian Dennis Picard, of Westfield, demonstrated how ice was harvested before the advent of modern refrigeration. Alec MacLachlan, 41, of Florence was there with his twin 7-year-old sons Rhys and Owen. Watching Picard extract blocks of ice reminded Rhys of the opening scene of Disney’s animated film “Frozen,” his dad said. They planned to get some hot chocolate and warm up before deciding what to do next.

“Refreshing!” Picard shouted as a blast of wind shot across frozen water. He didn’t mind the weather, he said, but was frustrated by the poor quality of the ice, which he said he could read the same way one reads rings to tell the age of a tree.

Last year, too, WinterFest fell on a particularly frigid day, said organizer Elaine Wood — part of the reason she was glad to be inside at Eastworks, manning the chili cook-off.

“What better thing to do on a cold Saturday than have chili inside and then shop?” Wood said, noting that attendance at the chili cook-off had more than doubled since last year.

Renata Smith, 28, of Amherst and Laya Bautista, 28, of Belchertown sat in a sunny corner of the room, chatting after having ranked the chili on color, aroma, consistency, taste and aftertaste. They planned to check out the craft fair and then head to a brewery — sticking indoors.

Outside the pop-up cafeteria, Lindsey Rothschild chased her three-year-old son around an inflatable abominable snow monster. Rothschild, 42, of Easthampton said they had begun their day at Flywheel with a pancake breakfast and dance party. Next up: nap time.

Down the hall, families wandered through booths selling candles, hats and assorted crafts. At one table, miniature pairs of colorful mittens hung off a clothesline. Val Driscoll, 27, of Holyoke, who runs Valley Mittens, said she had sold seven pairs, noting it was a good day to be selling winter gear.

Selling handmade hats and scarves, PJ Niver, 53, of Easthampton said she too had enjoyed a good trade, perhaps because it was “very cold” out. Still, given the weather channel’s warnings, Niver said it wasn’t as cold as she expected.

“We’re all used to it here,” she said. “We’re hardy.”

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at smcfeeters@gazettenet.com.


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