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Construction of Saranac Lake Ice Palace in high gear in advance of winter festival

Construction begins on the 2023 Saranac Lake Ice Palace
Pat Bradley
Construction begins on the 2023 Saranac Lake Ice Palace

The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival begins this weekend. The Ice Palace is the showcase of the event and construction of the structure usually begins in mid-January. But due to warm temperatures this year work didn’t start until Sunday, only five days ahead of the annual festival. WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley was in Saranac Lake Monday and talked with some of the people building the palace.

poling to excavator.mp4

The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival attracts thousands of people to the village in the central Adirondacks for an annual mid-winter festival that includes a parade, fireworks and an Ice Palace. Now that cold weather has arrived volunteers are working overtime to build the palace. Winter Carnival Committee Vice Chair Rob Russell helps direct heavy equipment rolling past carrying the ice blocks that will be used on the palace.

"It’s a whole lot of traffic, that’s what happening. Oh my gosh. We’re starting at least a week late so we’re trying to cram this all in and we hope to have it all done by Friday."

Russell says they are scrambling to make up time.

“We normally would have started this at least a week ago but we just did not have the weather this year and we can’t do anything about weather. So we are going to work on doing double shifts and we’re going to get it done by Friday afternoon at the latest so it’ll be all set to go for Saturday morning for everybody. It’s just a wonderful group of volunteer individuals and we pull off amazing things every year.”

While he wouldn’t disclose the exact design of the Ice Palace, Russell did describe how much ice will be needed.

“This year we’re working on a 70-foot diameter of the palace and we did not scale it back due to these small blocks. We’re working with blocks that are only half the thickness that we were last year. So it takes quite a few more blocks. As you can see the ice field out there is plowed off. We’re going to try to get 2,400 blocks out of it to complete the palace.”

The blocks are cut from adjacent Lake Flower. Marilyn Corson is one of the volunteers maneuvering the ice into a channel where an excavator picks up the individual blocks from the water. She notes that the area is actually a river with a current that moves the ice so they have to continually account for that.

“This is called poling the blocks. They’ve been cut with the ice saw and hand saws and they’re floating in the lake and now we’re using poles to pull them down to take them out of the water and put up on the walls. You burn a few calories here. These are only about nine or ten inches thick so maybe 350 to 400 pounds. I’m not sure. The thicker ones are up to 600 pounds each. But they float real easy in the water.”

“So what do you have to watch for,” asks Pat Bradley, “when you’re poling the ice?”

“Not to fall in.” quips Corson.

Corson has been volunteering on the Ice Castle construction crew since 1985.

“We didn’t have all this equipment. When the ice came out of the water on an old-fashioned conveyor belt you used the tongs and you pulled it over to the boat launch and built the palace. And some of those towers were 50 feet tall. And I worked on those towers. And we had a crane that we used back then. So when you got done up there you’d stand on the tongs and get lowered to the ground. Those were the good old days.”

She says she keeps volunteering because of people’s reaction to the Ice Palace.

“Our special moment is when we’re here, the palace is lit up and the thousands of people are oohing and aahing. It’s like I did that. I helped to do that.”

Saranac Lake’s tradition of building an Ice Palace began in 1897 and is constructed entirely by volunteers.

A similar attraction in Lake George has been delayed for weeks by the warm January.