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From ‘staches to the full voyageur, beard growers vying for grizzly glory at Festival du Voyageur

Competitors in last year's Beard Growing Contest are pictured at the Marion Hotel on Feb. 25, 2023. (Festival du Voyageur) Competitors in last year's Beard Growing Contest are pictured at the Marion Hotel on Feb. 25, 2023. (Festival du Voyageur)
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Facial hair in its many follicle forms will be on display once again at this year’s Festival du Voyageur, with ZZ Top and Santa Claus look-a-likes vying for strand supremacy.

The barrage of breathtaking bristles is in honour of the 41st edition of Festival’s Beard Growing Contest coming up on Saturday at the Marion Hotel.

The event, a favourite in the winter festival’s storied and illustrious history, calls on participants to compete in three different categories.

For the clean-shaven division, entrees start from scratch on Dec. 20 and grow their beards until contest day.

There’s also the voyageur beard category, where growers try to produce the biggest natural beards, reminiscent of the impressive facial hair modelled by the hefty voyageur of yore.

The third category, dubbed open/innovation, aims to be more inclusive. Entrants of all genders are tasked with making their own beards from materials hairy or otherwise, or display a stylish, well-groomed beard or moustache of their own.

“You get like horsehair, you get beads. One year, we saw Christmas lights. It’s a fun, fun category,” says Julien Desaulniers, Festival du Voyageur’s artistic director.

Competitors in the open/innovation category at last year's Beard Growing Contest are shown on Feb. 25, 2023 at the Marion Hotel modelling an array of creative facial hair. (Festival du Voyageur)

An array of cash prizes are up for grabs with proceeds from the contest going to support CMV Canada, a national charity dedicated to preventing congenital cytomegalovirus infections.

Steve McRitchie first stumbled upon the contest in 2020 while back in his hometown from Montreal to visit family. Between the Sugar Shack and the toboggan run at Fort Gibraltar, a bearded McRitchie found himself enrolling day-of to compete in the voyageur beard category.

To his surprise, he won third place, taking home $50.

“I really enjoyed the experience and was super surprised,” he said.

Today while living in Ottawa, he’s arranged a trip back to Winnipeg to compete once again, this time in the clean-shaven division. He submitted a picture of his naked face at the end of December as evidence, and has been growing ever since.

A freshly shaven Steve McRitchie is pictured (left) on Dec. 20, 2023 on day one of his growing journey to compete at this year's contest. Believe it or not, the photo on the right is also McRitchie, taken at the Beard Growing Contest in 2020. (Steve McRitchie)

“The hardest part is just getting through the stubble stage. So the last like two months, not as bad, but just the part where it's kind of like prickling through your skin was a bit tough,” he told CTV News Winnipeg by phone.

He’ll have some competition from Albert Kirby, who’s making his second appearance in the clean-shaven category after coming in second last year.

He thinks he knows what stood between him and first place in 2023.

“Last year, I brushed it a certain way, and I made it kind of fluffy and fuzzy,” he recalled.

“I’m not going to do that this year. I’m going to sleek it out - maybe a little bit of beard balm. It needs to look shiny and kept.”

He too found the early stages of growing a bit itchy and cumbersome. Kirby’s wife, however, is a big fan of his new follicles and wants him to keep it past competition day.

Still, she’s booked him a grooming day post-contest complete with hot towels and a straight razor shave. It’s a far cry from last year, when Kirby let his six-year-old daughter do the shaving honours with a pair of clippers.

But before he can bid adieu to the barbe, Kirby’s happy to cosplay as a voyageur as a fun way to promote the festival of joie de vivre.

“My wife is in the Francophone community. My daughter goes to a full Francophone school, and we like supporting the community, and just having a beard really helps pass on what Festival is all about.”

Oh what a difference two months can make. Albert Kirby is shown in December 2023 (left) and in February 2024 (right). (Albert Kirby)

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