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News Feature

The Island
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, January 26, 2023
Pickleball, pom squad and pyrotechnics
WinterFest events attract hundreds for island celebration

“My crib”

The annual WinterFest Cribbage Tournament is always a big draw. From left, Gleason Gray, Wendy Gray, Cat Melton and Randy Edwards concentrate on a match between Wendy Gray and Melton.

Photo by Jack Beaudoin Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Jack Beaudoin and Will Robinson

Organizer René Colson Hudson might have worried about trying to pack WinterFest 2023 into a single day this year. After all, previous editions had been spread across an extended weekend. But everything went right on schedule January 21—even a timely winter storm that dropped nearly a half-foot of fluffy snow a day earlier.

Frosty the Snow Person, played this year by Pastor Elaine Hewes of St. Brendan the Navigator Episcopal Church, was on hand to greet islanders when the doors of the Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School opened at 10 a.m. Inside, community groups, local governments and businesses staffed information tables, provided goodies and offered activities for festivalgoers.

High school freshman and multi-instrumentalist Sam Robbins was playing mandolin with the musical group The Church of the Morning After, which included Matt Williamson, Larry Moffett, Jim Eaton, Kathy O’Rourke, Lynn Winters and a special guest appearance by Deer Isle Town Manager Jim Fisher.

“I play with them when I can,” Fisher said at the town’s information table after contributing his signature guitar stylings to a song.

At the next table, Ashley Pesek, program director for the Opiate-Free Island Partnership, was preparing for one of two Narcan trainings on the schedule. By day’s end, Pesek said she distributed 21 boxes of Narcan, up from four at the last, pre-COVID-19 WinterFest.

“We feel strongly this represents a positive shift in the community,” she said.

Kids—who made up about half the crowd—appeared thrilled to be back at school for a day without books and exams. They roamed the halls and pointed out their classrooms as their parents trailed behind. A popular stop was the Stonington Public Library’s “Make a Snowflake” table. Library director Christopher Ross was showing youngsters the “Martha Stewart method,” which involved paper, blue-handled scissors and crayons—enough to scare parents away, some of whom headed for the cribbage tournament in the school’s cafeteria.

“Well, it can be cut-throat,” cribbage organizer and competitor Karol Fifield acknowledged with a smile. A brand new plaque for the winner had everyone’s competitive juices flowing in the double-elimination tournament, and in the end, Wally Garroway of Stonington was crowned “WinterFest 2023 Cribbage Tournament Champion.”

Pleased with the turnout, Fifield said she hoped to set up a regular community cribbage night later in the year.

The Deer Isle-Stonington Pom Squad was too busy to come cheer on the cribbage players as they moved up the bracket—the young women were performing a number of dance and cheer routines for an appreciative and enthusiastic crowd at the Reach Auditorium.

In all, Hudson estimated that about 500 islanders attended or participated in the school events.

“We had a fantastic turnout,” she said. “So many community members participate in some way—whether it’s staffing tables or offering an activity for their organization, competing in the cribbage tournament, playing music, leading cake walks, monitoring the climbing wall, potting plants in the greenhouse, offering a presentation, dance lessons or pom performance, cooking soup and preparing lunch, baking cookies or popping popcorn.”

In a pickle

The action shifted to Stonington in the afternoon, where pickleballers took over the gym at the Island Community Center. Nearly two dozen players rotated in and out, many trying their hand at pickleball for the very first time. A half-dozen regulars, who had been playing outdoors all winter until the snow finally fell, provided guidance.

“I learned to play pickleball at WinterFest a few years ago,” Anne Beerits said of the sport, which combines facets of tennis, ping pong and badminton. “The great thing is that you don’t have to be an athlete to compete and have fun.”

“I’ve only been playing pickleball since last summer,” Joni Banks of Little Deer Isle said. “But I just love it.”

Across the gym at Court Number 2, Morgan Eaton was helping a foursome find their footing in the sport. “Service always starts on the right side,” she reminded them. “You only switch sides if you get a point.”

The veterans called Eaton their “star player,” and she’s traveled up and down the Maine coast playing the game.

“There used to be a vibrant pickleball community here on the island, but COVID-19 shut it down for a while,” Eaton said. Now the community is growing again, “and it’s great to see so many people here today!”

Meanwhile, down at the Opera House, kids ruled—nearly 75 in all. Activities included a free family movie (Small Foot) as well as cookie decorating—and eating.

Evening finale

WinterFest 2023 came to an end in a bonfire-lit, firework-filled musical extravaganza, as children played in the freshly fallen snow and parents huddled around the warmth of the fire pits. The smell of roasting hot dogs and steaming hot cocoa permeated the frigid night air as about 100 people gathered behind the Stonington community center.

Just as the clock struck 6:45 p.m., the boom and flash of the night’s first firework echoed across the snowy Stonington landscape, a signal for the crowd to gather outside the nearby ballfield. The explosive display was set up by two self-proclaimed “sky artists,” Mark Briggs and Lee Parent of Pyrotecnico Fireworks.

The pair had spent the afternoon carefully setting up the night’s entertainment and said they were eager to impress. With decades of fireworks experience between them, they planned the show to be utterly safe but dangerously exciting. Oohs and aahs drifted up from the crowd as sparking silvers and vibrant reds, greens and blues cascaded into the clear sky. The satisfied roar of the crowd only increased as Briggs and Parent shifted into the final barrage, saturating the air with constant color and sound for several minutes. When the display ended and the applause died down, the shivering crowd hopped into their cars and headed to Stonecutters Kitchen for live music and hot pizza. 

As Along for the Ride started their set, the Stonington eatery was packed with people of all ages. Dancing, drinking, laughter and free pizza kept everyone happy well into the night as the island fully embraced Winter 2023.

“My crib”

The annual WinterFest Cribbage Tournament is always a big draw. From left, Gleason Gray, Wendy Gray, Cat Melton and Randy Edwards concentrate on a match between Wendy Gray and Melton.

Photo by Jack Beaudoin
Firepit fun

Festivalgoers gather for hot dogs, marshmallows and hot cocoa while they wait for the WinterFest 2023 fireworks to begin.

Photo by Jack Beaudoin
Wally Garroway

Wally Garroway won the WinterFest 2023 Cribbage Tournament, topping a strong bracket of competitors at the Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School cafeteria.

Photo by René Colson Hudson
Flake Makers

Stonington Public Library Director Christopher Ross offers pointers on the “Martha Stewart” method of making snowflakes at WinterFest 2023.

Photo by Jack Beaudoin