Regional Celebratations: Winter

Photo by Mark Kurtz Photography
You can ask anyone who lives in an extreme weather region and they will all invariably attest that it is advisable to embrace the condition and make the most of it.  One way the tiny town of Saranac Lake has been doing this since 1898 is through its Winter Carnival.

The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival began as an integral part of Saranac Lake’s history as a renowned health resort. Back in the late 1800s, the village was a thriving logging community nestled deep in the Adirondack wilderness.  Its pristine setting provided healing and rejuvenation for hundreds of sufferers of tuberculosis from all over North America. In the course of “taking the cure” here, many patients experienced a renewed passion for life, and took every opportunity – in every season – to explore the natural beauty that surrounded them. The long, cold Adirondack winters with snow-covered mountains and ice-encrusted lakes provided the opportunity to enjoy outdoor recreational activities such as skiing, sledding, and skating. In order to break winter’s chill and to promote “outdoor sports and games”, the Pontiac Club was formed in 1896, and a year later, they sponsored the first “Mid-Winter Carnival”. This first Winter Carnival was a two-day affair that featured skating races, a parade and an “ice tower” – features that have been, in one form or another, part of every Carnival since.1

Photo courtesy of facebook.com/downtownsaranaclake
One of the more interesting and most notable aspects of the Carnival is the Ice Palace.  The original was known as an “ice tower” that then evolved into an “Ice Palace.”  The Ice Palace was an outgrowth of the village’s ice industry, which, in the days before electric refrigerators, harvested ice from local lakes for use in ice boxes across the country and around the world. Despite some refinements in machinery, the Ice Palace is still constructed in much the same manner as it was in 1898, the first year it was built.

About six weeks before the Carnival, an ice field is marked off on Lake Flower’s Pontiac Bay. Once the ice reaches a suitable thickness, the ice is partially cut using a saw that was designed and built locally in the 1940’s for the harvesting of refrigeration ice.  It is essentially a huge circular saw blade mounted on a sled and driven by a gasoline engine.  The saw can cut to a depth of approximately eleven inches. Since the ice often reaches depths in excess of 20 inches, the cutting process must be completed with large hand saws that are relics of the traditional ice harvesting process.  The blocks taken from the lake are two feet wide and four feet long, are anywhere from one to two feet thick, and accordingly will weigh between four and eight hundred pounds.1

Photo courtesy of facebook.com/downtownsaranaclake
The blocks are moved onshore via a conveyor belt, and are maneuvered into place with “peaveys” – metal-tipped poles with hinged metal hooks – and ice tongs. The 2’ by 4’ blocks are hoisted onto the structure by cranes and “log loaders” and then cemented to one another with a “mortar” made of slush. As the slush freezes, the block walls become rigid.  While designs vary from year to year and reflect the theme chosen, a small palace requires about 1,000 blocks while a large one requires 3,000 or more. Within each palace is an array of colored lights that transform the Palace into a vivid sculpture of ice and light every evening!  Be sure to look at the ice blocks carefully because they sometimes have water plants, fish or other items captured within them!  The Palace is generally adorned with brightly colored flags and ice carvings reflecting the carnival theme. Fireworks over the palace take place at the opening ceremony and again at the closing of the carnival.1

While early palaces were constructed by private contractors, currently they are built by community volunteers.  As many as 75 people may provide sufficient volunteer hours to achieve a one-year membership in the Ice Palace Workers (IPW) Local #101. The volunteers often work for extended periods in sub-zero cold. Numb fingers and cold feet are warmed by the camaraderie of the workers and the support of those providing hot drinks, sandwiches and good-natured banter. As the palace rises, the workers are encouraged by the growing crowds of admirers happily snapping pictures to send to friends and relatives around the country.1

Once completed, the Ice Palace stands as both centerpiece and symbol for the Winter Carnival: for what distinguishes Saranac Lake’s mid-winter festival is that it is brought about by the efforts of its citizens, volunteering their time, energy, enthusiasm and resources so their children, neighbors and guests can enjoy a Winter Carnival.1

For a more detailed history click here

Works Cited
1 http://www.saranaclakewintercarnival.com/history/

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