It's easy to love the summer, what with its cool drinks, svelte bodies in skimpy clothing and the warming caress of a lingering sun.
But here, on the Canadian border, those who can't or don't flee to warmer climates have little choice but to embrace the harsh, dark days of winter. The snow. The ice. The biting wind and frigid temperatures that redden noses, freeze fingers and numb toes.
With the reckless abandon of small children, this place that promotes itself as the "Icebox of the Nation" has spent the last four days celebrating its annual ode to the cold.
In a relay run in snowshoes, Mayor Harry Swendsen stumbled the City Council to victory over Canadian sister-city Fort Frances. A dozen or so people ventured to Tara's Wharf in nearby Ranier, stripped down to their shorts and dived into the snow covering a long-frozen Rainy Lake.
And for the 22nd time in 23 years, Dick Ostroot pulled on his running gear to participate in the Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard Run, a 10-kilometer road race that draws nearly 200 runners from Canada and states including Iowa and Michigan. At race time on Saturday morning, the temperature was minus 3, with a windchill of minus 17.
"You think while you're out there, 'This is really dumb,' " said Ostroot, a former track coach here who now lives in Grand Rapids, Minn., as he cooled down at the finish line. "But now that it's over, I'm glad I did it. I always am."
Writers have long waxed eloquent about winter's gloom. Take, for instance, this passage from Charles Kingsley's "The Saints' Tragedy":
When the great sun has turned his face away,
The earth goes down into a vale of grief,
And fasts, and weeps, and shrouds herself in sables,
Leaving her wedding-garlands to decay --
Then leaps in spring to his returning kisses.
But many who live in the world's coldest places don't sit around feeling sorry for themselves. Residents of Nome, Alaska, sink coffee cans in the ice as part of the six-hole Bering Sea Ice Golf Classic every year. The city of Sapporo in Japan has an annual Snow Festival featuring towering ice sculptures. And across Finland, tens of thousands of people regularly go ice swimming.
Some are thrill seekers. But mostly these events, and the people who participate in them, are making do with what's available. Florida has sun and warmth most of the year. Seattle has fog. International Falls, and places like it, are plenty cold.
"We're all kind of tied to the weather," said Paul Nevanen, 42, who grew up here, left for several years and now raises his family in International Falls. "It becomes part of your identity. You really have to make a friend of the winter, otherwise it will consume you."
Life in this border town of nearly 7,000 revolves around fishing and hunting seasons. Winter comes early and often stays long after others are enjoying the spring.
But cold weather here is a resource. Other places are colder, but few do as good a job of marketing that fact.
The place has such a reputation for harsh temperatures that engineers from around the world have come to town for half a century to test their cars against nature's worst weather. And when warmer-than-usual weather sent car companies into even colder places for testing, city and county officials invested in a $300,000 "cold box" facility, which allows companies to test products at temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees even when the weather doesn't cooperate.
As a way to bring in tourist dollars during the winter, the area has extensive snowmobile trails. Hundreds of people pull portable fishing shacks onto Rainy Lake, often filling them with heat, furniture and televisions.
"People get tired of being cooped up," said Kallie Briggs, executive director of the International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.
And that was one of the primary reasons the town came up with the idea for Icebox Days, as this weekend's events are called. Everyone gets involved. There's a snow sculpture contest, a preschool Olympics, a bridge tournament, ice skating for the children, bowling with frozen turkeys and a community bonfire in Smokey Bear Park.
"It's a time when the community pulls together," Briggs said.
And it keeps people coming back. Bob Conner, 45, of Bemidji, Minn., is the only person to have run all 23 years of the "Gizzard." And now he looks forward to meeting up with old friends such as Dreena Duhane, 66, a member of the Prairie Sky Road Runners of Winnipeg in the Canadian province of Manitoba. They drive down every year.
"The first time we ran, the windchill was minus 72 degrees," she said after finishing Saturday's race. While all are avid runners, she said it's mostly for fun.
The club's T-shirts have this slogan: The drinking club with a running problem.
"It's summer camp for grown-ups," Duhane said. "It's a nice respite in the middle of winter. We can't afford to go to Mexico, so we come here."
Amy Carlson and two of her friends drove up from Duluth to take part in the 5K run (added this year) and take an ice dip in their bathing suits in Rainy Lake. They skipped the dip because the sauna used to heat people up beforehand was not available.
"We had such a good time last year, we came back to do it again," said Carlson, 29, as she and her friends sipped beer at Woody's.
Carlson and her friends donned their bathing suits anyway and took a brief sunbath on the deck as several bare-chested men dived into the snow.
Why, you ask?
"To say I did it," said Sean Dickson, 53, a Michigan native who has lived here for a decade.
But Mayor Swendsen said while much is made of the cold weather, International Falls is like a lot of small-town America. The population is declining, and there are too few jobs to keep youngsters from leaving to find better opportunity. He's also worried that with the state facing a huge budget gap, funding for local governments will be cut.
Still, he said, the place is a treasure. During the summer, Swendsen lives in a cabin on a small island on Rainy Lake, and temperatures are in the 70s and 80s.
"We have gorgeous springs and summers," he said. "The days up here are endless. You've got to pay your dues, but it's worth it."