Volunteers brave cold to continue the tradition of the Saranac Lake Ice Palace
By Tom French
Temperatures near 30 below zero didn’t deter more than two dozen volunteers from showing up to Lake Flower on a frigid January morning. The task: begin building this year’s Ice Palace for Saranac Lake’s annual winter carnival. Though a key volunteer — an excavator prepositioned along the shore needed to pluck the almost 1,000-pound blocks of ice from the frozen lake — refuses to start for over two hours.
Often featured in the national news as the coldest location in the United States, even beating places in Alaska, this crisp morning in Saranac Lake there is not a cloud in the sky. The snow crunches under everyone’s feet, though no one seems to be shivering. People in the Adirondacks are acclimated to this temperature.
Known as the IPW 101 (Ice Palace Workers), the volunteers know their roles without being told, and when the doors to the tool trailer open, people scurry for their tool of choice. The pike poles, used to push ice blocks along a channel to the excavator, are the first to go. Ice spuds are also a favorite. The hearty grab the 5-foot-plus ice saws.
As long chalk lines across Pontiac Bay are snapped, Garrett Foster fires up the homemade, gas-powered ice saw on runners with its circular, 25-inch blade. He lines it up with the excavator and carefully lowers the spinning teeth into the ice – a stream of ice dust arcs toward the shore, sparkling under the blue skies and morning sun.
Foster inherited the task from Don Duso, a long-time volunteer who passed away in 2010. Don began cutting blocks in 1955 using the same power saw, a contraption his father built in 1939. (Don is also remembered for saving Albert Einstein from a capsized sailboat in 1941 when Don was only 10.)
The first task is to create a wide channel from the excavator to the ice field so the ice blocks can be floated in. The depth of the blade is set to leave a couple inches uncut at the bottom of the ice to prevent the grooves from filling and refreezing. He pulls it away from shore toward the corner where the actual field will be harvested.
After Foster cuts a parallel line for the opposite side of the channel, Kyle Tisdale yanks the starter cord of his Stihl chainsaw and lowers the bar into the ice to cut perpendicular grooves between Foster’s two cuts. He’s quickly spewing ice and water. Volunteers waiting for the field to open dodge the stream that arches ten feet into the air and freezes instantly as it spatters jackets and splashes onto the ice.
Within a few minutes, between ice spuds and chainsaw, a beachhead is established. The first block is grappled out of the lake by two individuals with ice tongs. They slide it to a far corner of the field, the first of several “scrap” blocks that will be used to create a rope line to prevent people from accidentally walking into what will soon be open water and after that, thin ice.
Meanwhile, a different crew is working on the excavator. They’ve plugged in the block heater, fired up a kerosene salamander underneath the engine, and covered the engine in thermal blankets and blue tarps. Soon, a GMC SUV will appear with jumper cables strung between the two vehicles. Attempts will be made to start the excavator’s diesel engine, but it’s not warm enough yet.
Occasionally, Tisdale’s cutting chain freezes, and he scrambles up under the blankets to the salamander to thaw it out.
Out on the ice, Foster has cut the first line of the field – over 50 yards across the bay. For the second, parallel line, he uses a runner as a guide, sliding it along his first cut to create the next two feet away. By the time he’s finished seven such lines, another crew has used the Pythagorean theorem to chalk the front side of the field. People take turns with t-shaped ice saws to extend the extraction canal. Blocks are hauled out and dragged away on the ice. One left sitting for just a few seconds freezes firmly to the ice like Flick’s tongue on the flagpole. Several people approach with spuds and pike poles to pry it up.
Eventually, the field opens, but the excavator with its grapple claw still sits frozen. The first usable blocks are dragged twenty-five yards to a shore ramp where a bucket loader waits to haul them up to the construction area.
Dean Baker has been an integral part of palace construction for 40 years, the last 15 as Ice Palace Director. He and his crew have set two spikes almost 70 feet apart in the ground near the road to mark the centers of the two towers planned for the palace. Ice Carvers use a pattern and chainsaws to cut the first blocks into trapezoids which are fitted together to form the foundations of two walls – an inner and outer, creating a “secret” passage within the tower where lights will eventually be installed.
A storied past
The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, one of the oldest in the United States, began in 1897 as an effort to “break winter’s chill” and “promote outdoor sports and games.” The first palace was constructed the following year and mostly every other year until World War I. Although the Carnival was a regular event in the 1920s, it appears a palace was only built in 1924. The whole festival went into hiatus through the Depression (except for 1936) and World War II until 1947 when the Carnival was reestablished as an annual event through today.
The first palaces were significantly larger than today’s. Designed by actual architects including William L. Coulter and William G Distin, both known for a number of Great Camps in the Adirondacks, they featured multiple towers, some as high as sixty feet, ornate with cruciform recessed alcoves and “lacy battlements” lit by candles, electric lights, or both.
Some years, it was built on Slater Hill, over 200 feet above the elevation of the lake and a quarter mile away, utilizing a “horse-driven escalator” to drag the blocks to the top. One of the activities was to “storm the palace.” People ran up the hill with Roman candles while being bombarded with fireworks shot from the fortress at the “invaders.”
Today, it is a community affair that often begins on the back of a napkin at a local watering hole. For decades, prisoners from nearby facilities (originally Camp Adirondack in Ray Brook, then Camp Gabriels, and finally Moriah Shock) assisted as well. In addition, volunteers from as far away as New York City have stepped up to the ice.
I work alongside Marty from Long Island. I also met a gentleman who traveled from Saratoga and several people who moved to the area after retiring. I’m instructed on the best techniques for spudding – hit near the middle of the block. “That way you don’t shatter the corners and make an irrectangular block.”
Using a hand ice saw is especially tricky. I’m told to pump in a circle. “Let gravity do as much work as possible. Throw it down, let gravity take it, and drag it back. Let gravity be your friend.”
And whatever you do, don’t leave the saw out of the water lest the water on it will freeze. If you stop or take a break, leave the saw in the cut, down in the water.
Over the course of two weeks, the palace rises. Crews of “slushers” roam with five-gallon buckets. The mixture of snow and water is stuffed between the blocks like mortar. Brave souls work the high ice – a tower that reaches over forty feet into the sky.
John Pietras, winner of this year’s Don Duso Ice Palace Volunteer Award, has worked on the palace for over 20 years. He used to work the high ice, “but I just haven’t got the agility anymore.” Now he volunteers his bucket loader, skid, and other equipment.
“A lot of times people ask me, ‘Why do you do it?’ It’s lots of camaraderie. I see people I haven’t seen in a while, and it’s just fun.”
When the tradition of the palace first started, the ice was harvested as part of an industry that shipped ice to places as far away as India and the Caribbean. When the carnival was over, the palace was disassembled and the ice recovered for sale.
This year, warm temperatures the week after the carnival forced the Village DPW to knock it down just three days after carnival’s closing fireworks. The blocks are now piled along the shore where they will melt back into Lake Flower over the next several weeks until the Palace is reborn again next year.