If anyone should write a book about penguins, it’s Kay Knapton.
For one, she was there when the Winter Carnival’s winged friends were introduced in 1961, and she’s taken on writing on their behalf as “Polly Penguin.” She’s also suited up in penguin costume next to the real penguins in Antarctica.
Knapton recently released the book “The Life and Times of Polly Penguin,” which tells the 60-year history of the Whitefish Winter Carnival penguins. The book also weaves in some actual penguin facts and history, Knapton says.
“It’s a combination of fact and fiction, trying to weave all of this together to tell the story and make it fun and provide some insights for the people who aren’t involved in the Carnival,” she says.
She will also serve as the Grand Marshal of the Winter Carnival parade on Saturday.
The book originated from Knapton’s adventure down to Antarctica in 2017, when she chose to write “Polly Penguin” letters for the Pilot during her absence from the Carnival.
It took some convincing from her friend Bill LaBrie, whose parents Art and Evelyn had helped start the penguin tradition in 1961, but soon enough the costume made its way into her luggage.
“The time you go to Antarctica is during the Winter Carnival,” Knapton says. “We had talked with Bill LaBrie, and he said, ‘Oh, you need to take a picture in the penguin suit, a Whitefish penguin with the real penguins.’ And I laughed and said that’s not going to happen.”
“But then the more I thought about it, the more willing I was to consider that,” she said.
After all that convincing, the suit almost didn’t even make it to Antarctica.
Knapton says the trip between Punta Arenas, Chile and Antarctica requires every passenger to follow a strict weight limit of 35 pounds.
Of course, she and her husband, Jim Beley, had planned on skirting that restriction by donning the bulk of their clothes prior to weigh-in. The guards administering the weigh-in saw that coming, however, and didn’t give them the chance to prepare.
As they went through Knapton’s slightly overweight bag, they pulled out the penguin suit. She explained the costume and why she’d brought it, and the inspectors were so entertained they ignored the extra few pounds and weighed her through.
“They said, ‘What do you mean a penguin suit?’ So I put on the mask,” she says with a laugh. “They loved it and stamped my luggage.”
Knapton’s photo with the penguin ran in the Feb. 15 Pilot in 2017.
Born and raised in Whitefish, Knapton has seen plenty of change in her hometown.
“It was about half the size it is now, a railroad and logging town,” she says about growing up in Whitefish. “Almost everybody I knew, their parents worked for the railroad or in the lumber industry, or had their own little farms. It was very rural. Some of the business people had fantasies of Whitefish becoming what it has, but it wasn’t there at that time.”
She was there to celebrate the very first Whitefish Winter Carnival in 1960, and when year two rolled around Knapton was chosen to be Queen of the Snows II in 1961.
Part of the deal in the early days of Carnival was promoting Whitefish at other winter festivals, she says. In those days, she says, Big Mountain Ski Resort and the Great Northern Railroad were partners in their marketing efforts, and wanted to get the word out about the little town in northwest Montana.
“So they had made arrangements to have the queen go to St. Paul, Minnesota, for their carnival, so the wardrobe I got was intended to make me look gorgeous and represent Whitefish very well,” Knapton says. “One of the outstanding things was that I had a white rabbit parka with a wolverine trim on the hood. It served its purpose, it warranted photos in the St. Paul papers because it was a beautiful parka.”
The early Carnival celebrations were a ruckus, she says, just as they are now, but some things were different.
“They closed down Central Avenue as they do now, but they brought in snow so the only vehicles that could move were nonmotorized — you had your dog sleds and your horses and that sort of stuff,” Knapton recalls. “They had set up an ice skating rink and played ice hockey, and I think the firemen and policemen were on opposite teams. And of course they had a water bucket that was filled with an interesting libation.”
“The players were very thirsty, and it made for a lot of interesting shenanigans.”
After the 1961 Carnival, Knapton left Whitefish to finish college at Washington State University, and she’s lived in the Seattle area since then. For the last 30 or so years she’s been returning to Whitefish, though, either to ski in the winters or to hike in Glacier National Park in the warmer months.
While she’s been away, she still calls Whitefish her home, and she still feels the honor and weight of serving as Queen of the Snows, she says.
“It was like one big party. It was fun, but I had a sense of responsibility. We visited the school to talk to kids because I have always felt that education is very important, and we tried to let the kids in school know they should continue to study hard and go to school. Then there was a feeling that I was proud to be representing Whitefish, and I tried to do a good job to put a good face on Whitefish,” she says.
“I still do that. I’ve been responsible for bringing people to come ski and then to hike in the summer. It’s sort of like the job of being ambassador has continued forever.”
The book is available for sale at the Stumptown Historical Society. All proceeds will be donated to the Whitefish Winter Carnival.