If you go to the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, wear a warm jacket and sturdy boots. Whether you’re ogling the majestic Ice Palace, smacking a baseball with snowshoes on your feet or watching curlers slide their stones across a frozen lake, it’s all about having fun in the bracing Adirondack air.
“Even events that could be held indoors are held outdoors,” said carnival chairman Jeff Dickson.
For the 115th year, Saranac Lake is lighting up winter’s darkness with its annual Winter Carnival. The longest-running winter festival in the eastern United States, the 10-day event not only brings together just about everybody in the village, it attracts visitors from 50 states and Canada.
They all come to see the Ice Palace, a frosty fortress 60 to 90 feet long and 30 feet high that is created with gigantic blocks of ice cut from Lake Flower.
Saranac Lake Winter Carnival
WHEN: Friday to Sunday, Feb. 12; lighting of Ice Palace and fireworks, 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Village of Saranac Lake
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: www.saranaclakewintercarnival.com for the 10-day schedule and the history of the Ice Palace
On Saturday night, the palace will dazzle the crowd, as the lights embedded in its walls are switched on and colorful fireworks crackle in the sky above.
While there are indoor activities, like bowling, a book sale and the serving of chocolate, chili and spaghetti, the outdoor list is longer and gets longer every year. This year, there are two parades, a four-mile run, downhill ski races, a kids’ ski race, volleyball, softball, curling, hockey, a Frisbee competition and inner tube races.
Dickson remembers one February when some high-powered athletes showed up to compete in the volleyball event and the court was covered with 3 feet of snow.
“It was nothing like they expected,” he said with a laugh. They couldn’t believe that it wasn’t going to be plowed off, that the idea was to play in the snow wearing your boots, not sneakers.
“Anybody can compete,” he said. “But serious athletes will be underwhelmed. If you are there to be serious, you are probably in the wrong place.”
The most popular event? Why, the Ladies Frying Pan Toss, of course.
“Hundreds of women show up for it and throw a 10-inch cast-iron frying pan out over the snow,” he said.
The most unusual event is probably “Spike of Ice.”
“It’s the biggest icicle that you can harvest from your roof. Last year, the two biggest icicles were well over 10 feet long,” Dickson said. “And the prize is a free energy audit of your house.”
Admission is free, although a few organizations might charge a dollar or two for their event.
“There’s no admission to go into the Ice Palace, and you can do that 24 hours a day,” Dickson said.
Dickson and his committee set up the locations but all events are proposed and organized by groups and individuals. “It’s a bottom-up effort, not a top-down effort,” he said.
The carnival is supported with a budget of $55,000 and thousands of volunteer hours.
“Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau designed this year’s carnival button. The theme is Space Alien Invasion.
Carnival buttons, which cost $3, calendars, $13, and posters, $15, are the main fundraisers and will be for sale during the event in the carnival headquarters across the street from the Ice Palace.
Garry Trudeau, the “Doonesbury” cartoonist, designs the button, and this year, for the first time, he also did a poster.
“He grew up here. He has been doing the button since 1981,” said Dickson.
Trudeau is the great grandson of Edward Livingston Trudeau, the doctor who pioneered tuberculosis treatment in the Adirondacks.
Because this year’s theme is Space Alien Invasion, the button and poster depict Zonker Harris, the “Doonesbury” hippie character, as a spaced-out astronaut.
Saranac Lake photographer Mark Kurtz shot the photos in the calendar, including the cover image of last year’s Ice Palace, bathed in shimmering colored light from the fireworks, which appeared on National Geographic's website last September as a “Photo of the Day.”
Each year, the design for the Ice Palace is kept secret until the first day of construction, 10 to 12 days before the carnival.
At the end of December, six weeks before the event, a field of ice is marked on Lake Flower, and it’s kept plowed so the cold air will make the ice thicker.
“We need about 12 inches of ice,” said Dickson. “Snow is not a problem. I wish I could say the same for ice. There were a couple of years back in the ’80s when there was a snow palace instead of an ice palace. We are completely dependent on Mother Nature for this.”
During construction, volunteers use power saws and cranes as well as antique tools like hand saws, tongs and ice shavers, which look like combs with long handles, to cut the ice out of the lake and hoist and arrange the blocks.
Each 400-pound block is 2 feet wide, 4 feet long and 1 to 2 feet thick, depending on the year’s ice, and it takes from 1,000 to 3,000 blocks to create the castle-like structure.
The electric lights are specially made for use in low temperatures.
“All the lighting is actually buried in the walls of the Palace,” Dickson said.
And sometimes, if you look closely, you can also see tiny fish or plants embedded in the ice.
Tunnels, mazes and ice furniture, including thrones for the carnival king and queen, are also created.
After the event
And what happens to the Ice Palace after Feb. 12?
In the olden days, the Palace was dismantled and the blocks of ice were stored until the summer so they could cool the cocktails of well-heeled ladies and gents who traveled north from New York City.
These days, the Ice Palace hangs around for a few weeks, but as soon as temperatures rise above freezing, it is taken down for safety reasons, and the ice is returned to the lake.
Other Carnivals, Winterfests
-- The Lake George Winter Carnival, to be held weekends from Feb. 4 to 26, features the polar bear plunge, ice golf, fireworks, a giant snow slide and ice castle. Take a ride in a hot air balloon and view the “moon glow” and “fly off,” where hot air balloons will rise into the wintry sky.
-- WinterXCape Winterfest in Lowville is slated for Saturday. Enjoy horse-drawn sleigh rides, dogsled rides, a petting zoo, geo-caching, cross-country skiing, a snowman contest, refreshments and more.
-- WinterFest in Indian Lake, slated for Feb. 17-19, features ski and snowboarding races, a craft fair, the annual snowmobile poker run and organized snowshoe outings.
-- The Raquette Lake Winter Carnival kicks off Feb. 18-19. Winter sports events, a bonfire and fireworks are highlights in this idyllic Adirondack village event.
-- The Mayfield Community Winter Carnival will be held this Saturday and Sunday on the Mayfield Lake, just off School Street in the village. Saturday events include a polar dip, motorized ice racing and ice skating. A vintage snowmobile show is also planned. Sunday’s events include a youth ice fishing contest, a frying pan toss contest, a sno-box derby for kids and outhouse races for all ages. A Christmas tree bonfire at 5 p.m on Sunday will close the event.
-- Inlet’s Frozen Fire & Light on Feb. 25 offers a full day of family fun with free sledding, ice skating, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Fireworks, a bonfire and complimentary refreshments are featured.
-- The Tri-Town Winterfest in the St. Lawrence River Valley kicks off Feb. 11 and lasts all week long. Outdoor concerts and theatrical shows, scrapbooking demos and workshops, a chili cook-off and the polar bear golf tournament are scheduled.