Winter Joy at the Alton Mill Fire and Ice Festival

Posted : January 31, 2019

Our blog is chock full of great ideas for fun things to see and do in York Durham and Headwaters. We are always adding new content and updating old posts, but sometimes you might stumble upon something from our vault. If this article has inspired you to hit the road, be sure to double-check that the featured stops in this post are still welcoming visitors.

This past weekend, January 19th and 20th, was the tenth annual Fire and Ice Festival at the Alton Mill Arts Centre in Caledon. Deemed an “authentic winter experience” by Jeremy Grant, event co-founder and co-owner of the mill, the festival gives attendees young and old the perfect opportunity to get outside and enjoy the season that is such a prominent and celebrated part of our Canadian True North identity.

Alton Mills Festival

This year my partner and I found ourselves with a rare, kid-free weekend. We’re a sports family in our everyday life, you see. If Peter and I are not freezing at the hockey rink or sweating on the sidelines of the soccer field, we’re in transit as we rush from one to the next. So, with the junior members of our clan otherwise engaged for a whole weekend, it was the perfect chance for us to get away and enjoy some much-needed “just-we-two” time.

On-site at the festival

I had the opportunity to speak to festival organizer Jeremy Grant last month in a pre-event post. He told me, “Since the beginning of winter, I’ve been watching for the snow and the ice and the cold, which everyone grumbles about. But that’s exactly the kind of weather that makes this event so spectacular. It’s quite ironic.”

Flash forward to the day-of, and we’re starting down an extreme cold weather alert with predictions of up to ten centimetres of snow. Despite this (or maybe because of it) the Alton Mill Arts Centre was bustling with happy festival-goers. The ice carvers embraced the weather as they sculpted their masterpieces with chisels and chainsaws. The blacksmith’s forge was stoked high and the sounds of hammer and anvil rang over the tranquil setting. The gentlemen manning the Fireball Whiskey station, bundled to the brows, laughed and joked with their patrons as they handed out cinnamon whiskey hot chocolate.

Ice Sculpture

As Jeremy mentioned to me previously, the festival needed a cold snap for the annual Mill Pond Hockey Classic to go ahead, as well as the curling and the nighttime skate. Well, the hockey deities smiled in Caledon that day, for the pond was frozen solid. We stopped to watch a period, and I tell you: there is nothing like the boyish glee that lights up a grown man’s face as he gazes out onto a game of pond hockey (…though Peter insists stubbornly that he made no such face and I must have imagined it).


Yes, Jeremy Grant spoke true: the festival was indeed an authentic winter experience. For a few blissful hours I forgot that I was a grownup. I stopped thinking about the laundry, and the bills, and the driveway that needed to be shoveled when we got home. This weekend I was ten years old again, tromping through the snow with my hood zipped to my nose. I was breathing the crisp, cold air tinged with the scent of woodsmoke, and the laughter of men, women and children abandoning their cares along with me was infectious.

For one glorious day we were all ten years old together, in thrall with the wonder of snow.

Showcasing the artists of Alton Mill

Of course, being at a location like the Alton Mill Arts Centre, which is a beautifully restored heritage mill, there have to be both indoor and outdoor activities. One simply cannot come to the Alton Mill and not see inside the Alton Mill. If you’ve never been, it’s an impressive building where the works of local artists are showcased, and the non-linear layout encourages visitors to wander as they dream.

On the day of the festival, most of the studio doors were open, and many artists happily welcomed visitors to their little piece of paradise. For example, there was Janet Simmons Sweet, an impressionistic painter who was eager to talk to Peter and I as we perused her studio. Enthusiasm and passion infused every word she spoke as she talked about her style and what inspired her. But more than that, she talked about the mill itself, showing an equal passion and enthusiasm for what this place represents and what it means for the artists who reside here.


“We all love it here,” she told us. “This isn’t a nine-to-five job for us. We’re not standing around, looking at our watches, waiting to clock out. We’re here because we want to be here, and when you get one of us, you’re getting someone who genuinely loves what they do.”

The fire sculpture

Every year, one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the event—and possibly the inspiration for the name of the festival itself—is the fire sculpture. Created by Erin native Brian Oates, the sculpture is a closely guarded secret until the big reveal at dusk. Having been somewhat prepared for what was to come (I had, after all, Googled past sculptures ahead of time), Peter and I watched with the crowd as floodlights cast a fire-like glow onto a huge, covered… well, a covered something.

Alton Mill Fire Ice Festival

“All I’m going to say is that it is a mythical creature,” Brian Oates explained into a microphone. Clearly a man of few words, Mr. Oates then lit the pyre at the base of the covered something, which combusted almost immediately and burned against booming ambient drum-and-vocal music.

As we waited, wondering with everyone else what we were going to have the pleasure of witnessing, Peter leaned close and asked with a measure of skepticism, “Are we supposed to imagine this creature? Like, the flames represent something and we’re meant to picture it for ourselves?”

“Hush,” I said. “Just wait.” He chuckled as the fabric cover burned away. And then, his question was answered as the head of an enormous metal dragon, set ablaze, lifted into the night sky like it was rearing up to devour the group of onlookers at its feet. The mouth of the creature sparked green and blue, and the hollow eyes blazed with the light of the flames.

fire sculpture
fire sculpture
fire sculpture

“Okay, this is pretty cool,” Peter admitted laughingly as we snuggled closer, in awe of the spectacle brought to life on this snowy winter night.

The festival in retrospect

When we set out for Caledon, I was expecting winter fun. That one was a given. The festival has been going for ten years now and attendance has grown significantly, so obviously the folks at the Alton Mill are doing something right. Winter fun was what we got. Lots of it.

Women having Drinks

What I didn’t expect, however, was that I would find myself connecting with my partner a little bit more.

I mentioned at the outset of this post that our schedules are typically packed tight with sports-related obligations. When we do have time for family activities, our typical go-to is the movies. Going to a festival or an art gallery—or a festival at an art gallery—is not something we tend to think of, and to be honest… I have no idea why that is. I used to do this kind of thing all the time as a kid with my own parents. A few years ago I even took my then-six-year-old son to the Alton Mill and he absolutely loved it (read the post on Visit YDH here).

I think the reason we don’t do stuff like this is because we’ve fallen into a routine. A rut. Coming out to the Fire and Ice Festival gave us the opportunity to learn something about each other that we wouldn’t otherwise have had occasion to know. I had no idea that Peter enjoyed listening to artists speak with passion about what they love to do. I didn’t realize he appreciated things like blacksmithing, or wood turning, or ice carving—or spending time outdoors in winter for the simple joy of having something to do outdoors (y’know, other than scraping the snow off the car windshield before rushing off to wherever we have to be).

Alton Mill Fire Ice Festival

It’s a testament to trying something different, something you don’t normally think to do. It was an experience I want to replicate. Soon. To that end, I encourage everyone to take a little bit of time and find events and festivals they normally wouldn’t attend.

It may just surprise you what you’ll end up learning—about your community, about your loved ones, and even about yourself.

Written by: Katherine Ryalen

More Art Lovers Articles

York Durham Headwaters Go to Home Page