JASPER, Alta. - It's like a big small-town party in the mountains.
Jasper in January is an annual festival scheduled smack-dab in the middle of winter for those brave enough to celebrate the cold instead of running off to the beaches of Mexico.
"We don't all have to hibernate throughout the winter," says Mary Darling, a spokeswoman with Tourism Jasper. "There's still things you can do."
Family fun, evening entertainment and outdoor adventures — many of them free — take place daily over two weeks, bringing the town of 5,000 to nearly double its size.
Picture it: making gooey smores over an outdoor fire, strapping on snowshoes surrounded by majestic mountains, throwing snowballs inside a pub while sipping a pint of beer, even sporting a Speedo while leaping into an icy lake.
"It's rejuvenating," says Peter Scott, a local electrician who plans to participate in his fourth Polar Bear Dip this Sunday.
Scott, who has Type 1 diabetes, says the charity swim raises thousands of dollars each year for diabetes research. And it's also just plain fun. Some of the 40 people who do the dip each year at Patricia Lake even show up in costume. Scott admits that one time he pulled on a ballet tutu and rabbit ears before diving in.
Once your body hits the water, he says, all you can think about is climbing out and making the dash to the warm-up tent.
Scott moved from the Ottawa area nine years ago and describes Jasper as one of his favourite places on Earth, "rustic and beautiful."
Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, Jasper is about a 3 1/2-hour drive west of Edmonton. To many, it's considered Banff's little sister. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. While Banff is crowded and commercial, Jasper is more quiet and laid-back.
History shows Jasper was a place where people lived before it became a travel destination. It was settled as a fur trading post, then designated a national park in 1907.
The addition of hotels, spas and five-star restaurants hasn't dampened its cosy and comfortable feel. And Jasper in January captures that allure, right from ice skating on a frozen pond to noshing on some homemade chili.
In fact, the chili cook-off this Friday night is the only event that has carried on each year since the festival started 24 years ago. Would-be chefs team up and mix pots of chili at the local activity centre, creating more than a dozen flavours that anyone can buy and sample.
Darling says the street party this Saturday is also one of the festival's most popular events. The town's main road is closed to traffic so vendors can sell food, such as burgers and pizza. There will also be street performers, Aboriginal drummers and other live music.
For the first time, liquor will be served from an ice bar along the way. And for those who need a different kind of warmup, there will be several fire pits going. People can roast marshmallows and settle around the fire with guitars to strum some tunes.
The night caps off with fireworks at 9:30 p.m. — early enough for the kiddies.
Darling promises the festival is bound to help people shake off those post-Christmas blues and enjoy the season before it's gone.
"It's really magical to be out in the winter and just renewing your energy about what you can do."
If You Go ...
Jasper in January runs through Jan. 27.
Most hotels are offering hot deals during the festival and Marmot Basin is also giving discounts on its ski lift tickets.
For more information, including a full calendar of events, check out http://www.jinj.ca or http://www.jasperinjanuary.com