Ice Palace work to kick off Thursday

SARANAC LAKE – Construction on the annual Winter Carnival Ice Palace is scheduled to begin Thursday morning.

Dean Baker, head of the Ice Palace Committee, said this morning that the ice in Pontiac Bay on Lake Flower is 15 inches thick, which is more than enough to start building. The only issue, he said, is how much water, brought by recent rains, has pooled up on top of the ice.

“We have plenty of ice,” he said. “Unfortunately, we had some water on top of it. With water on top of it, we can’t do anything. That has to harden up. We need some snow and some cold.”

The rain has also washed away all the snow from the site where the palace is built next to the state boat launch.

“As long as the ground is frozen, that’s OK,” Baker said. “If the ground is not frozen, we’re going to make a mess with our equipment. We’d rather have that frozen, too.”

Baker was heading out the door to check Pontiac Bay as he spoke with the Enterprise. The plan to start construction Thursday will hinge on how much water he finds on the ice, Baker said.

The blueprint for this year’s palace has been sketched out. It was designed with a Celtic theme to coincide with this year’s Winter Carnival theme, “Celtic Carnival.”

“Our palace will be a castle,” Baker said simply.

As in years past, there could be additional ice sculptures and structures around the palace, but Baker said that will hinge on what the committee’s design and artistic crew is planning.

The goal is to have the palace built in time for the Jan. 31 opening of Carnival.

Last year, that was a struggle. Construction didn’t begin until less than a week before the Carnival started, as volunteers waited for the ice to reach the necessary 10 to 12 inches in thickness. A thaw that brought temperatures in the mid-50s and rain hit the area several days into the effort, and crews were forced to suspend construction. They had to drape parts of the palace in large tarps to protect the ice from the rain and wind. When work resumed, crews had to rush to finish the palace in time for its lighting on the first Saturday night of Carnival.

The Ice Palace is built by volunteers, organized by a group informally known as the Ice Palace Workers 101. The public is welcome to volunteer. Jobs are assigned based on comfort level, skill and ability. Volunteers often have to deal with very cold temperatures and inclement weather conditions, all while handling ice and snow.

“Despite these harsh conditions, camaraderie is evident and a sense of pride is felt among the volunteers who contribute to continuing the legacy of the Ice Palace,” reads a press release from the Winter Carnival Committee.

Modern equipment, including cranes and loaders, is used for the heavy lifting, but traditional, manual methods are also employed, including antique hand saws and ice tongs. Another manual process which is critical to the construction is making slush, a mixture of water and snow. The slush forms the mortar which holds the Ice Palace together. Volunteers fill countless buckets with water, pound in snow, carry it to the palace walls and apply the slush with rubber-gloved hands.

“The Ice Palace is a crowning achievement and is the most popular attraction at the Winter Carnival,” the Committee said.