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Saranac Lake Winter Carnival – The Ice is Nice

By Persis Granger

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The ice castle built for Saranac Lake Winter Carnival in 1919. Photo courtesy Carnival Committee.

"S'posed to get down below zero tonight."

"'Bout time!"

Exchanges like the above are common in early winter in Saranac Lake, NY, a central Adirondack town. It lies about ten miles from Lake Placid, the village that was home of the 1932 and 1980 winter Olympics. Long periods of cold weather make ice, and ice is big in Saranac Lake, whose frozen lakes, before the days of electrical refrigeration, chilled ice boxes all over the country. And, since 1897, Pontiac Bay also has yielded frigid building blocks for an ice palace that glistens center stage at the annual Saranac Lake Winter Carnival. "That is why we may be one of the few places in the country where people actually hope for cold weather," says Jeff Dickson, carnival organizer.

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Ice palace workers breaking apart the ice blocks to be used in building the ice palace.
� Mark Kurtz Photography

Construction of the ice palace, created from blocks two feet wide, four feet long, and one to two feet thick is the most labor-intensive part of the event. About six weeks before the carnival, weather cooperating, the ice on Pontiac Bay is marked off for sawing. A huge circular saw mounted on a sled slices 11 inches into the ice, and then men with traditional one-handled ice saws finish the cuts. Crews of ice palace workers, who have jokingly dubbed themselves the IPW 101, are on hand to chip apart the blocks—between 1,000 and 2,000 of them—and a tractor rigged for loading logs plucks them from the water.


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Ice palace workers maneuver heavy blocks into place. � Mark Kurtz Photography

Then the volunteer builders work hours and hours in freezing and even subzero temperatures to maneuver the mammoth blocks (up to 800 pounds each) into place with peaveys and ice tongs, and "mortar" them together with slush. Each year they implement a new design created earlier that winter by three or four of the builders, who strive to find the delicate balance between structural and aesthetic concerns. Progress on the castle building is monitored by a Web cam, usually beginning in early to mid-January. The final creation is illuminated with colored lights, and fairly glows on the Saranac snowscape, to become the focal point for two fireworks extravaganzas.

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The Winter Carnival Royalty in the foreground takes in the Guide Boat Realty opening fireworks that immediately followed the lighting of the 2012 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival ice palace. � Mark Kurtz Photography

The 2013 carnival, running February 1st through 10th, is the 116th in this little town. The organizing committee, with lots of input from local elementary school students, voted this year on the theme "Under the Sea." Visitors can expect an avalanche of activities given an aquatic twist by local creativity, all beginning with the first night crowning of carnival royalty.  Ten days of merriment will ensue. Time-honored parades, performances, sporting events and community activities anchor the event in village history. There are annual activities for all ages, like running, skating, skiing, curling, and snowshoeing. Visitors will find craft and book sales, lots of live music, and fine fundraiser food all over town.

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Racers are off on the start of their run in the Adirondack Bank Inner Tube Races at Mt Pisgah. � Mark Kurtz Photography The annual Curling Exhibition on Pontiac Bay on Lake Flower, next to the ice palace.
� Mark Kurtz Photography
Elegance graced the ice at the 25th Annual Meineker Memorial Skating. � Mark Kurtz Photography


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Well-known Saranac Lake native Gary Trudeau created this first
carnival button in 1981, and now has designed a total of 30,
all collectible.

A new carnival tradition was born in 1981, when Saranac Lake native Garry Trudeau designed the first collectible carnival button, and each carnival offers a new one. A recent eBay auction invited bids beginning at $699.99 for a collection of 19 of the 30 buttons Trudeau designed.

But non-traditional activities flurry at each carnival, too. Try extreme Frisbee, a softball game on snowshoes, torchlight skiing, a chocolate festival or snowflake volleyball. And how about that ladies' fry pan toss, when members of the fair sex lob ten-inch cast iron skillets across the park? And see what lengths local folks will go to in order to grow the longest icicle and deliver it to the "Spike of Ice Icicle Contest". Dickson laughs. "It beats me how anyone can get an icicle transported to the judging without breaking it, but that's part of the challenge."

He speaks animatedly about contributions made by local businesses, town organizations and the all-volunteer committee. "The enthusiasm and camaraderie is amazing. Virtually every group in town organizes something. Although we publicize the carnival for visitors, we love it so much we'd probably hold it for ourselves anyhow."

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Queen Kelly winds up for her launch of the frying pan
in the NBT Bank Ladies Fry Pan Toss.
� Mark Kurtz Photography

The fun begins most days at 10 a.m., and often spills over into evening. New details, Dickson says, continually are added to the schedule, so those planning to attend should check updates once or twice a week at And take a minute to find Saranac Lake Winter Carnival on Facebook, "like" it and leave warm wishes for ultra-cold weather—and lots and lots of ice.





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