When Linda Ray scraped together her first yeti doll for the 2013 Whitefish Winter Carnival, she had no idea how popular her craftsmanship would turn out to be.
“The Winter Carnival asked me to help with decorations, and I got this idea to make a yeti doll,” she told the Pilot. “I had a canvas grocery bag, and I just drew some square lines on it and put it together. I stuffed it with plastic grocery bags, put a little pirate patch on his eye and had a costume that my son wore with a glow-in-the-dark sticker on it, so I stuck that on his chest.”
“It’s just kind of turned into this thing that makes a lot of money for Winter Carnival,” she added.
Since then, Ray has continued making the dolls, approximately 18 inches in height, for the carnival. Each year she makes six main dolls to be auctioned off, as well as several smaller dolls that sell for less, during the Winter Carnival Gala held on the Friday evening of the carnival.
Ray has for decades worked at Whitefish Lake Restaurant.
While in the early years the dolls weren’t auctioned off for huge amounts of money, recently they’ve been hitting four figures regularly.
Last year Ray made a Maggie Voisin doll to celebrate the Whitefish skier’s appearance in the 2018 PyeongChange Winter Olympics. That doll, complete with a miniature ski signed by Voisin, fetched about $3,000, Ray said.
Last Carnival the set of yetis went for $10,000 altogether. The money raised through selling the dolls goes back into the Carnival and helping the carnival royalty travel, Ray said.
Some of her favorite dolls have been inspired by Whitefish and the Winter Carnival’s biggest personalities.
Last year she made an “Eddie the Eagle” doll, based on Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards. Edwards is known for his appearance as a British ski jumper in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, finishing dead last but realizing his dream of becoming his country’s first Olympic jumper. Edwards was the Grand Marshal of last year’s carnival.
She also made a Mike Dowaliby doll, based on the Whitefish resident who spent decades volunteering for the carnival. Dowaliby was Prime Minister in 1985 and King Ullr in 2007. He passed away in 2017.
“That was really a sentimental doll, he just had so much to do with Winter Carnival,” she said.
While the dolls have only been a part of the carnival for a handful of years, Ray said her family has enjoyed the winter festivities since landing in the Flathead decades ago.
“I was always pretty much into Winter Carnival. We used to live in Kalispell when we moved here in 1987, and the year the [Budweiser] Clydesdales were in the parade it took us a couple hours to get here because so many people came,” she recalled.
Ray’s involvement in the carnival also led to her being named Duchess in 2015.
While Ray describes herself as crafty, she said she prefers to work in the realm of paper maches and making decorations.
The dolls have pushed her into territory she didn’t want to enter — sewing.
“The sewing thing — I’m not a sewer at all. So it’s definitely transformed over the years into, ‘OK, I guess I can do this,’” she said. “I think I’ve progressed quite a bit. The first [doll] is pretty rough. It’s literally stuffed with plastic grocery bags, the fur I just found in my basement and the leather I think I cut up one of my husband’s coats for, he’s not very happy about [that].”
It’s been incredible to see how her initial decorative yeti became a hit in the carnival, and Ray says she’s grateful for the community’s support and amazed by the volunteers that have made Winter Carnival happen for decades.
She’s looking forward to seeing how her hippie yetis — based on this year’s “Woodstock Whitefish” theme — will fare this year, but she said there’s always a bit of anxiety leading up to the auctions.
Every year, she says, there’s some pressure to live up to the previous year’s dolls, but Whitefish has always pulled through.
“It’s a lot of pressure to come up with the ideas and think, ‘People spent a whole bunch of money on these last year, are they going to like them this year?’” she said. “It’s cool for me. It just makes you appreciate Whitefish and the enthusiasm they have.”
The Winter Carnival Gala, held at Whitefish Lake Restaurant, is Friday, Feb. 1. The evening begins at 6 p.m. and tickets for $60 are available at National Parks Realty, 601 Spokane Avenue in Whitefish. For more information, visit https://whitefishwintercarnival.com/.