If you’ve ever been to Saranac Lake, especially in winter, you’ve probably heard of Winter Carnival. It’s the longest-running event of its kind in the U.S., and it’s also one of the quirkiest. Let me explain. Every year, volunteers pull large blocks of ice from Lake Flower to build the ice palace, a stunning blue structure that people can walk through after the 10-day Carnival starts. There’s live music every night, and events like the Ladies Frying Pan Toss abound. Visitors are welcomed with open, puffy-jacket covered arms to join in the revelry, good will, and crazy spirit of it all.
Winter Carnival Parade, a spectacle that draws shoulder-to-shoulder spectators, most of them dressed according to that year’s theme, caps the whole event. Recent past themes have included Under The Sea, Superheroes and Villains, and Mardi Gras. This year’s theme is Adirondack Festival.
The first time Joe Dockery saw the parade was shortly after he and his wife moved to Saranac Lake. As anyone with a taste for creativity can attest, there’s something refreshingly alluring about the whole thing, and Joe was pulled in.
Then came the Canoodlers, a group of canoe-paddle-wielding men and women who have been a staple of the parade since they first marched in 2012. They were dressed as Coneheads in the spirit of the Alien Invasion theme.
“I saw them and I knew we were moving to a cool community,” Joe said with a grin.
This year, Joe joined the ensemble and will march for the first time.
“I never really wanted to be in the parade because it’s so cool to watch,” Joe said. “ But I always knew if I were ever going to be in the parade, it would be with that group. They just look like they’re having so much fun.”
Lawn chairs: they’re not just for sitting anymore
The Canoodlers aren’t the only game in town. There are a number of entertaining acts that return every year, including Bucket Ruckus, an awesome and energetic bucket drum group, and Soma Beats, an equally awesome and energetic dance troupe.
And then there’s the Lawn Chair Ladies, a collection of lawn chair clapping women that began a whopping 23 years ago.
“When they first asked me, I thought we’d be sitting in the lawn chairs on a float. I had no idea,” said original Lawn Chair Lady Karen Smalley. “There were 12 of us that year. The commands were done with a whistle, and we followed along with the people in front.”
The group has grown to about 30 people, and it’s marched — well, danced and grooved is more appropriate — in every Carnival Parade since it started. This year’s performance is a secret, down to the song and the lawn chair décor, but at a recent rehearsal it became clear this is a labor of love.
Two choreographers, Mary and Sherry, plot the routine using a combination of the group’s extensive list of established moves sprinkled with variations on those same moves, things like chair slams, diamonds, windmills, and the ever-so-popular crowd attack.
“If you make a mistake you get your own solo and find your way back in,” Karen said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
What’s so fun about dancing with a lawn chair, anyway?
The Lawn Chair Ladies have become local celebrities in Saranac Lake, so much there’s a waiting list to join them. Kristin Parker remembers seeing them for the first time when she moved here as a student at nearby Paul Smith’s College in 2001.
“I had dreams of being a Lawn Chair Lady,” Kristin said with a laugh. “After seeing my first Carnival Parade, I saw the Lawn Chair Ladies as the grand finale, and I thought ‘I’m going to be a Lawn Chair Lady.'”
Kristin was told there was a waiting list to join, and last year, 15 years later, she finally got the call. She joined them in a couple of smaller parades in 2017, but this is her first Carnival.
Brandy Clark, another new member, told a similar story. After a long wait she was brought into the fold, and now they’d be hard-pressed to get rid of her.
“I’m definitely a lifer as long as they’ll have me,” Brandy said. “I’m bringing up a new generation, too. My oldest daughter is here, and she sits and studies the moves. She knows them better than I do, and we go over them at home.”
The whole thing admittedly sounded odd, then the music started. Serious or expressionless faces changed as smiles emerged. Heads tilted back and swayed to the beat. Something was happening, and it cleared up any question regarding why people do this. It’s wild, it’s physical, and most of all it’s a lot of fun.
“I have two daughters who watched me last year, and they were watching and clapping as I walked by,” Kristin said. “I thought ‘Yay! I’m living my dream!’”
A canoodler is one who hugs and kisses amorously. It’s also someone who dances to their own beat, specifically in a Winter Carnival Parade.
“We figured we could wear life vests and be canoe people,” Chief Canoodler Susan Waters said. “We really would not exist if it wasn’t for the Lawn Chair Ladies. They were definitely the inspiration for this.”
Much like the Lawn Chair Ladies, the nature of their performance is top secret — I was threatened with death by canoe paddle if I revealed it — but I can say there are a couple of major differences between the groups. One is obvious, Canoodlers use canoe paddles, not lawn chairs. The other is there are male Canoodlers, like Joe, among the 25 members they average each year.
One thing they have in common is both groups participate in other events, including last year’s World Snowshoe Fest (they became Snowshoedlers) and various holiday parades.
“So many of the acts that come into Winter Carnival are from other areas,” Canoodler Gail Brill said. “The wonderful thing about groups like ours and the Lawn Chair Ladies is we’re all local acts. Saranac Lake proud.”
The highlight of the year, Winter Carnival Parade, is when it all comes together. Regardless of the weather — finger-numbing cold or a sloppy, rainy mess — they march on, spinning, weaving, and celebrating winter in the Adirondacks the way only Saranac Lake can.
“It’s a moving party,” Gail said. “It’s literally a river of fun.”