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32nd annual University of Okoboji Winter Games is next weekend

People practice playing broomball on a cleared off section of Big Spirit Lake during a previous Okoboji Winter Games celebration.(Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

OKOBOJI, Iowa -- Guns and Hoses Boot Hockey, Polish Horse Shoe and Farkle tournaments are among the new activities to debut at the 32nd annual University of Iowa Winter Games next weekend, Jan. 27-29, in Okoboji, Arnolds Park and Spirit Lake.

The three-day event that centers around the Iowa Great Lakes typically draws 35,000 to 40,000 people to town -- a big boost to an economy that relies heavily on the summer tourist season.

Erin Roe, who co-chairs this year's Winter Games with Jeff Thee, said the new events are aimed to get even more people involved in the fun that is the Winter Games.

The Guns and Hoses Boot Hockey tournament, which begins at 9 a.m. Saturday and at 10 a.m. Sunday in Smith's Bay, centers around firefighters and police officers -- those individuals who volunteer their time to make the communities better, Roe said. Police officers and firefighters are being recruited to participate in the game, which requires they wear boots instead of ice skates for a game of ice hockey.

The Polish Horse Shoe tournament, slated for 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday on U.S. 71 at the entrance to Emerald Meadows, has teams of two people working against each other to knock a bottle off of a pedestal made of PVC pipe by throwing a Frisbee.

"That's a come-as-you-go event," said Roe, adding that prizes will be awarded.

Most of the Winter Games activities do not require a pre-registration, although it is helpful for an event like the adult team and family bowling tournaments on Saturday. The family tournament is from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., with the adult team tournament from 3 to 7 p.m. The tournaments are another new addition to the Winter Games, and will be hosted by Corner Lanes Bowling Alley in Spirit Lake. To pre-register for the bowling tournament (712-336-4418), people are urged to call Corner Lanes or the Iowa Great Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce (1-800-8399987).

Events that require advanced team registration include the flag football, softball and broomball tournaments, which all begin Saturday morning on Smith's Bay. Roe said those team competitions are bracketed and always fill up fast.

Not all of the Winter Games activities have people soaking up the sunshine and cold temperatures outdoors. The latest indoor activity is a Farkle tournament, which begins at 2 p.m. Saturday at Annabelle's Tea Room on U.S. 71. Other indoor events include an indoor golf tournament, pinochle and 500 card game tournaments, a wine tasting, dodge ball tournament, talent show and numerous opportunities for eating and enjoying musical entertainment.

With the recent blast of winter weather in the area, Roe said the outdoor activities will go on as planned -- there just may be some venue changes.

"We have about 15 inches of really good ice in Smith's Bay, and we're really hopeful to have as many events on the lake as possible," she said. "We are constantly working with the DNR to make sure the ice is safe."

At this point, Roe said there may be some changes to the snowmobile races because of the ice situation, and parking is also going to be a bit different this year. In recent years, the lake has provided the space for many people to park their vehicles.

"We're thinking there would be a possibility of parking on the ice on East Lake Okoboji," said Roe, adding that on-street parking is quite limited. "We hope that people would park correctly on the streets and obey street signs. If ice conditions aren't great for the outer parts of Smith's Bay, then we can utilize the East Bay for parking."

One of the largest draws to the University of Okoboji Winter Games is the annual Polar Bear Plunge, in which participants pay $20 to take a jump into the frigid waters. A hole will be cut in the ice near the East Railroad Trestle Bridge at the bay. Proceeds from the plunge are divided between the local fire and rescue departments and the Winter Games. Two years ago, Roe said a new boat for water rescue was purchased. Approximately 200 people are expected to take the Polar Bear Plunge.

The University of Okoboji Winter Games began in 1981, the brainchild of four or five local residents who were looking to create an activity to break up the long winter season.

"It started with broomball and it's grown ever since," Roe said. About five years into the event, the games began to have official cheerleaders -- people from the community nominated for their enthusiasm and passion for promoting the Iowa Great Lakes area.

There are eight cheerleaders this year, all of whom will be recognizable with their special sweatshirts, pompoms and pennants. The group includes Brad and Teresa Beck, Shawn Arneson, Mary Freiborg, Curt Peterson and John Senn, all of Spirit Lake; and Molly Sorensen and Mary Treanor, both of Arnold's Park. The group has developed its own cheer, which they will perform during Friday night's chili cook-off and Saturday night's Winter Games Extravaganza. The extravaganza begins at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on Preservation Plaza. In addition to recognizing the cheerleaders, there will be a Burning of the Greens (lighting the recycled Christmas trees for a bonfire), and a large fireworks display.

For a complete list of Winter Games activities, visit