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February winters in upstate New York can be a bleak time of year. The charm of the first snowfall has long since faded, the warm glow of Christmas lights are a distant memory, and Punxsutawney Phil’s shadow has just projected a glum forecast: six more weeks of winter.
This Saturday, however, Chautauqua Lake Snowmobile Services (CLSS) will provide an opportunity to shake off the winter blues with their fourth annual WinterFest. Instead of lamenting the snow, this festival celebrates it: the event is jam-packed with outdoor activities, live music, local vendors, and a massive bonfire to fend off the cold. This year’s WinterFest will take place from 12-6 p.m. at the Bemus Point Golf Club, and as always, is free of charge.
Origins of WinterFest
The idea for WinterFest was born five years ago when couple and co-owners of CLSS, Bryce Steffen and Rachael Wiley-Steffen, met a friend for dinner.
“[We] were sitting at dinner, talking about how we wanted to give back to snowmobile clubs in the area,” said Steffen. “We thought, let’s do some type of party, raise money, and give all the money back to those clubs. So that’s what we did: we started WinterFest.”
The clubs in question were the five clubs that maintain Chautauqua County’s 450 miles of snowmobiling trails, the second longest linage in the state. The clubs – Sunset Drifters Snowmobile Club, Cherry Creek Snowmobile Club, Lake Effect Trailbreakers, Ellery Sno-Cruisers, and Chautauqua Lake Snowmobile Club – are all volunteer-based and not-for-profit.
“The volunteers do a lot of hard trail work,” Steffen said. “They go out there and make it possible for snowmobilers to ride.”
In the first year that WinterFest was held, the whole production was arranged in just over two weeks. While the festival is free, revenue is raised from vendors, raffle ticket sales, and activities, 100 percent of which goes to local snowmobile clubs. That first year it rained the entire day, but community members still trekked out to show their support. They raised a few thousand dollars. The next year’s festival took place on the day of a blizzard, and Steffen said the snowmobiles turned out to the golf course in droves. They raised a little more that year. And last year, despite it being 65 degrees and sunny, Steffen said the festival saw its best crowd yet and raised over $5,000. This year, he hopes, will be the biggest yet.
“It’s getting bigger every year and the prizes are getting better,” he said. “The festival is also gaining more awareness thanks to social media.”
WinterFest 2017 Events
This year’s WinterFest has received more community backing than perhaps ever before. It will be hosted by CLSS with help from LOUD Performance Products and The RiderScope, with significant sponsorship provided by Ziebart of Jamestown, Ed Shults, KacZar Collision, and Line-X. Volunteers from the United Methodist Church will be also helping with festival set-up and operation. All this support means one thing: more activities, more vendors, and more fun.
Festival-goers are welcome to show up to the golf course on Saturday any time between 12 and 6 p.m., whether by foot, by car, or by snowmobile. Live music is slated to begin just past noon, with the band Black Widow performing from 12:30-4:30 p.m. and DJ Matt Terrill from DXtoonz to follow.
Food and business vendors will be set up all day, alongside various family-friendly activities, such as a snow pile for sledding, an airboat and hovercraft demonstration by the Bemus Point and Dewittville fire departments, and for the adults, a life-sized game of pong using 50-gallon drums and a basketball. Tickets will also be sold for a 50/50 raffle and a Chinese auction.
“We have some really cool things we’re raffling off this year,” Steffen said. “For example, we’ll have tickets to win a jersey autographed by Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
Other highlights of this year’s festival will be the Take a Friend Snowmobiling event, sponsored by the New York State Snowmobile Association and the Chautauqua County snowmobile clubs. According to Steffen, the activity is a great way to introduce newcomers to snowmobiling. “You can bring people who don’t have any experience on snowmobiles, and they can go for a ride on the golf course,” he said. “Or, if they’re up for it, they can even drive a snowmobile under the supervision of a guide.”
Besides snowmobile rides provided by local clubs, there will also be a large selection of snowmobile dealers at Saturday’s festival. They will be displaying the newest sleds of 2017 so that snowmobile aficionados can window shop and take new models for a test drive.
And at the heart of all this activity and entertainment is the 3:00 p.m. lighting of the Christmas Tree Bonfire, an event that is one of Steffen’s favorite parts of the festival.
“The idea for the bonfire goes back about 25 years ago,” he said. “My dad was friends with Norm Skillman, who was a big practical jokester. Everybody in Bemus knew my dad, and everybody knew Norm.”
Steffen told the story of how one winter, while Skillman was on vacation, Steffen’s father put signs up around Bemus that read: Christmas Tree Dump, 23 Elm St., Bemus Point. Before long, the whole community was in on the joke and everyone was chucking their old trees at 23 Elm. By the time Skillman returned home, his entire front yard had been converted to a Christmas tree graveyard.
“That inspired the idea to start a Christmas tree dump at the Bemus Golf Course,” Steffen said. “Now we use those trees for our WinterFest bonfire.”
Whether you love or hate the snow, Bemus Point’s WinterFest is an event that is worth coming out for. Find out more about the festival by visiting the WinterFest 2017 Facebook page. To learn more about snowmobiling in Chautauqua County or to book a rental or a guided tour, visit Chautauqua Lake Snowmobile Service’s Facebook page or their website at clsnowmobiles.com.