Holiday rentals can really fill up, and there are the die-hards who attend the Disco year-in and year-out, but winter at Bear Lake is comparatively slow.
Catyse Easton, who has a place in Garden City, drove up from Logan with her 15-year-old son, Kolton, to catch Cisco for bait. Most fishermen catch the small fish as bait for larger Bear Lake fish, which show a preference to the native swimmer. Aside from the Cisco Disco, few people catch them primarily to eat. Easton says she visits more in the winter months than in the summer. “Winter is the best time for Bear Lake,” she insists.
It is not an uncommon sentiment, and such was the thinking of the Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau when they hatched the idea for the Bear Lake Monster Winterfest.
The Bear Lake … monster?
The Bear Lake Monster has over a century-long legacy, which seems an obvious allusion to the Loch Ness Monster. The tale originated in the 19th century and was reportedly based on Native American legend. In the late 1800s, John C. Rich wrote several articles about the “monster,” which he later maintained were in jest. Years later, one intrepid man built a “monster” boat and would occasionally drive around the lake, perpetuating the Bear Lake Monster myth with children who might catch a glimpse of the vessel. Today, Utah State University maintains a digital collection of art and writings about the Bear Lake Monster.
Many of my own memories at Bear Lake include tales of the Monster, which we would occasionally see, always for a fleeting moment. Invariably a parent, mine or that of a friend, was happy to devise a new story about the creature. Those memories have taken on a “Lake Wobegon” quality for me. Learning to waterski on the glassy, clear water of an early summer morning; swimming to wood rafts anchored 20 yards offshore then lying under the sun, waiting for a boat to return; catching crawdads in the rocks at the marina, or flies in a jar at the cabin; attending community plays at Pickleville Playhouse; sleeping on a cot under the stars and picking raspberries.
Bear Lake has a fairytale kind of way about it.
Taking the Plunge
But Winter in Bear Lake has a similar capacity to create memory-making experiences. For years, the Cisco Disco had been drawing crowds to the lake in the winter. The Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau reasoned that they could build on this — add a social, a chili cookoff, perhaps a polar plunge-type event and some vendors. In 2018, the Bear Lake Monster Winterfest marked its ninth year, and it continues to grow.
Back at the Garden City Marina, the Winterfest festivities are in full swing.
Near the dock, a group of individuals are standing over their portable stoves and large pots. A Bear Lake chili cookoff means several varieties of meat that aren’t beef. “I’ve got a pound of deer steak, three pounds of hamburger, course ground deer burger, his is moose, and he’s got elk,” says Talentino, the defending champion.
The Conks are using the moose. “Brian is the heater, and I’m the sweeter,” says Emily, who entered the chili cookoff together with her husband. There’s a trick to the sweeter, says Brian. “You let it cook almost all the way down, and then,” he pauses, “you put peaches in it.” The heater, he says, has habanero garlic, pickled by a friend’s grandmother in Colorado.
Each participant has cups for sampling, and a tip jar for the public to choose their favorites. The tips and other proceeds from the Winterfest the year I visited went to Common Ground Outdoor Adventures, a Logan-based charity. Lindsey and Brittney Wahlberg, sisters from Garden City, are the winners of the 2018 chili cookoff and take home a gift certificate to Sportsman’s Warehouse.
Meanwhile, prep for the Monster Plunge is underway.
“It’s probably 30 degrees warmer outside than it was a year ago,” says Glen Gillies, a sort of “do everything’” rodeo announcer/host/auctioneer. Gillies is the undeniable king of Movember: He wears a Yosemite Sam mustache that reaches his chest — an accessory to his rugged persona. Gillies, who hails from Malad, Idaho, has come to MC the Bear Lake Monster Winterfest, which includes announcing contest winners and color commentary for the Monster Plunge.
“Jay the cowboy, you’re gonna start us off,” he says, as Jay makes his way toward the water. Through throngs of spectators, 95 brave souls queue up at the edge of the dock. Group by group, dressed in full regalia, they gladly add their names to prior rolls of poor-decision makers.
Most are in costume, some in swimsuits, some fully-clothed, and while most entered the water with smiles on their faces, with the chill of the winter water, it was a bit more difficult to emerge the same way. Fortunately, a nearby warming hut kept the mood high.
With hundreds of happy attendees, Winterfest is an indisputable success. After visiting, it is hard to miss the peacefulness of Bear Lake in the winter. It feels private, but remains inviting. The atmosphere is relaxed, and for the adventurous, the options are endless. With plenty of lodging, snowmobiling, skiing, fishing, snowshoeing, and a host of other activities, are all just a couple of hours north of Salt Lake City, at Bear Lake.
Learn more about fishing at Bear Lake State Park