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How Does An Iowa Tourist Town Thrive In Winter?

Northwest Iowa’s Great Lakes region is big on summer tourism. And local businesses depend on it. According to the Iowa Tourism Office, visitors spent $286 million in Dickinson County in 2017.

But even when the lakes freeze over in the winter, the area keeps tourists and locals excited with The University of Okoboji Winter Games.

Megan Farris is bartending at the Fish Shack – a boat and bar that cruises around Lake Okoboji in the summer. In the winter, the bar stands still on the ice and business can get slow.

“There are days that sometimes we won’t see anybody,” Farris said. “It’s kind of sad and lonely.”

But for four days in January during the Okoboji Winter Games, Dickinson County grows by about 30,000 people and business really amps up. This year, during the 39th games, hotels were about 90 percent occupied, according to the area chamber of commerce.

“It’s our Fourth of July of the winter,” Farris said. “It really is. It’s what we look forward to and it’s fun and you know, it kind of breaks up the winter a little bit for us.”

Among those extra people here are Courtney Spellman and her family from West Des Moines. On a Friday afternoon they’re warming up with some friends at the shack. They stay in Okoboji every year from mid-June to mid-August, but this is the one weekend they come up for winter.

“Everybody’s so generous,” Spellman said. “My son Walker, he loves to fish. We don’t have an ice auger, but you just hit anyone up over here and they’ll come over and drill a hole for you. It’s pretty cool.”

Walker Spellman, 10, says whether it's the winter or summer, he loves Okoboji.

“Every time I come to Okoboji it feels so different, it feels so happy,” he said.  

"It's our Fourth of July of the winter." -Megan Farris

One of the big traditions of the games is a chili cook-off. Around 1,800 people pack the Dickinson County Expo Building on Friday evening, and everyone buys mugs to try as much chili as they can. There’s over 20 different kinds of chili available, made by vendors and local businesses.

“Pizza chili!” exclaimed a woman who walked by the Godfather's Pizza chili booth. “Everybody loves that!”

“Add some mozzarella to it. You can’t have a pizza without cheese,” said an employee at the booth.

Some people have been coming to this chili cook-off ever since they were kids, like Kiley Zankowski, who now coordinates events for the Iowa Great Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

“It was in a much smaller location and even the crowds were so much smaller,” Zankowski recalled. “It’s crazy to look back and look at the winter games when I was little and how much it's grown into what it is today."

Locals Lisa Duffy and Peggy Rick cheer for Okoboji. The two women were nominated as cheerleaders for this year's games because they were recognized as people who go above and beyond in the community.

Outside of the cook-off, a lot of people love hanging out on the ice. They skate, play sports, or zip across the frozen lake on snowmobiles.

Scott Zenor came from Lawton, a city that’s a little over 100 miles southwest of Okoboji. During the games, his snowmobile is his primary mode of transportation.

“Rather than being on the road, we’re on the ice and [it] kind of adds to the experience,” Zenor said.

Zenor says he and his friends hit up a lot of restaurants and bars, helping the local economy. This year, he brought along Junia Punt from Orange City. It’s her first winter games.

“It’s just awesome, new and different. I’ve never been out on the ice like this before and it’s just fun,” Punt said.

“First time you’ve been on a snowmobile since a teenager,” Zenor said. 

"We definitely see more people in the summer, but every winter we see a few more come to the area." -Rebecca Peters, Okoboji Tourism

Okoboji springs to life during this weekend, but the town isn’t a ghost town for the rest of the off-season. Rebecca Peters, the director of Okoboji Tourism, says fishing tournaments, a board game weekend and snowshoeing all draw people here in winter. But the games are the high point.

“We definitely see more people in the summer, but every winter we see a few more come to the area,” Peters said. “They get here, they see that there’s a lot to do. And they also enjoy that it’s maybe a little bit quieter and a little slower change of pace.”

But in a few months from now, warmer weather will roll in and tourists will be back in even larger numbers. They’ll be shopping, renting kayaks and visiting the local amusement park, taking in summer.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.