OKOBOJI, Iowa -- I called to interview Kiley Zankowski about the 39th annual University of Okoboji Winter Games. Zankowski, director of membership and events for the Iowa Great Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce, prepped for an "avalanche" of 30,000 to 45,000 guests this weekend and, as an aside, mentioned I'd featured her in a story a few years ago.
"I'm the barefoot bassist who played in the Okoboji High School Jazz Band," she said.
I remember it well. Kiley was a senior at Okoboji High School in 2012 when she slipped off her black Alex Marie heels and stepped behind the bass to solo for a defending state champion jazz band directed by the legendary Greg Forney. Photographer Jim Lee pictured the musician AND her feet. "People saw my toes in the paper," she said with a laugh.
Following high school, this Okoboji Pioneer earned degrees in event management and hospitality management at Iowa State University. She's using that knowledge -- and her feet (toasty warm in boots this week, I reckon) -- making tracks from Spirit Lake to Milford in marshaling business officials and volunteers who join forces to roll out the frozen red carpet for another Winter Games.
The late January extravaganza, for most, commences with the Oak Hill Marina Chili Cook-Off at the Dickson County Exposition Center on Friday. A $5 bill gets you -- and an estimated 1,800 other diners -- an official 2019 U of O Winter Games mug and all the chili you'd like to sample. Over the weekend there are 100 or so events throughout the Iowa Great Lakes, ranging from bingo to the immensely popular Polar Plunge on Smith's Bay and the Burning of the Greens where all Christmas trees go up in flames prior to fireworks.
"It is such a big event," Zankowski said. "You plan for months and then watch as the community rallies together and makes such a fun event happen."
Zankowski and a few thousand Dickinson County residents kept their eyes on the skies on Tuesday, ever-hopeful another few inches of snow dropped, adding to a Friday storm that helped whiten and brighten an otherwise grassy Great Lakes. One year ago, Mother Nature blessed the region with 12 inches of snow on the Monday of Winter Games week, a storm that likely had a "million-dollar impact" on the area.
"Last year we had similar late ice and late snow," Zankowski said. "As you know, Winter Games happens no matter what kind of weather we have."
The 2019 University of Okoboji Winter Games Chair Dr. Adelee Dixon, a native of nearby Heron Lake, Minnesota, said she returned to the Iowa Great Lakes with her husband, Dr. Wade Dixon, 19 years ago. That was the year the New York Times dispatched a reporter to cover the Winter Games that featured no winter. "It was 60 degrees that year and we still had Winter Games," Dixon said.
The slow-arriving winter, one leading to January golf in parts of Siouxland, has resulted in a sheet of uneven ice across the region. Folks in Storm Lake, Iowa, this week are dealing with the tragic loss of two lives after a vehicle crashed through the ice Sunday, a heart-breaking reminder that danger lurks across these lakes.
"The ice here has spots that ranges from 12 inches to 17 inches in thickness," Zankowski reported. "But there are still open spots on the lake. The lakes this year froze at a higher water level than normal, so some spots were left open."
That said, the official Okoboji Winter Games outdoor ice-related activity held on Smith's Bay as well as on points around Arnolds Park and on East Lake Okoboji will go on as scheduled. This includes the popular Polar Plunge as well as softball and broom-ball tournaments. A flag football tourney on the ice near Parks Marina will go as scheduled.
"Where our Chamber events are held, we're good for foot traffic," Zankowski said. "We don't promote vehicle traffic (on the ice). The ice is varying is so many spots."
Dixon and Zankowski both mentioned a new event for 2019 that involves showing giant kites on the ice near Preservation Plaza adjacent to Arnolds Park Amusement Park. Arnolds Park Mayor Jim Hussong, of Kozy Heat, partnered with Steve Boote of Eagle Construction to sponsor and bring 30 huge kites from New Zealand for this edition (and future editions) of the University of Okoboji Winter Games. This gathering of kites, some of them measuring 30 feet in length, will offer a colorful vista on Saturday.
"Many of these big kites need a handler," said Hussong, who borrowed the idea from a celebration on Clear Lake in north-central Iowa. "We have a guy from Denver who will fly them. They'll put a spike into the ice, get them up and tie them to the ice. The really large ones will fly all day."
Additionally, a warming station on the ice by Arnolds Park Amusement Park will feature live music while offering a place for children to make and fly their own kites.
Touchstone Energy, in cooperation with Iowa Lakes Electrical Cooperative, is also bringing a hot air balloon to this spot on Saturday and will tether the balloon for yet another visual treat. "When we do the 'Burning of the Greens' on Saturday night, the balloon will be lit up," Hussong said.
"No matter what we've done all day in past years, we make sure we're there at 6:30 p.m. Saturday for 'Burning of the Greens,'" said Dixon, who will join co-chair Brent Harris in helping register Polar Plunge participants from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Saturday.
Dixon laughed and shared an early forecast for Saturday, one calling for temperatures down around single digits. "This year, people at the Polar Plunge will jump in to WARM UP!"