The hard-working volunteers that build the ice palace each January are known as the IPW101 (International Palace Workers). They are business owners and teachers, construction workers and elected officials, parents and friends - and they all volunteer their time to stand out in the cold year after year building the temporary ice installment we have grown to know as the ice palace.
The best laid plans and a cocktail napkin
It all starts with a meeting of the minds and a cocktail napkin. Some of the long-standing members of the IPW101 gather at The Belvedere Restaurant, where the initial plans for that year's palace are drawn up (often on nothing more than a cocktail napkin) while old friends reconnect and laughs are shared over past seasons. Stories are told of how they barely got it done during last year's thaw, or of the one year Bill Madden had a new crane so they were able to build a sixty-foot tower! Each year the Winter Carnival theme is considered, as well as additional features like a maze, or ice sculptures. Once those plans have been decided upon, Dean Baker, the head ice palace builder, will draw up an official plan on draft paper, and the whole thing is set in motion.
Division of labor
As with any work crew, the division of labor is broken up into different jobs based on your skill level and the number of years you’ve put in. New volunteers are always welcome, and often help out with ground work like packing the slush. This is still no easy task! Carrying buckets of icy cold water and snow from the lake's edge to the palace, then packing it between large blocks of stacked ice is a chilly and wet job during the bitter cold of January. Dean’s best recommendation for new or potential volunteers is to dress warm and wear rubber gloves (if you do not own any, some can be provided for you while you volunteer). Seasoned volunteers, or those with experienced backgrounds, operate the cranes that stack the ice and assist in the resurrection of the palace walls. Dean told me how over the years he has learned to operate cranes, skidstearers, and other machinery while working at the ice palace. Running around on the tops of stacked ice, moving several-hundred-pound blocks into place, is no job for the timid! Still, every year they see about 100 community volunteers come out to help.
A labor of love
We’ve all heard the term “it takes a village” and for the ice palace that rings true. It is a labor of love that could not be pulled off without the volunteers of this community. Dean has been at it for 40 years! Many other volunteers are close behind, working on the ice palace year after year. The IPW101 has become a close-knit community in and of itself. Each year, there are tried-and-true members that show up and take on familiar roles, but each season newcomers arrive on the scene ready to do their part. At the end of each build, there is a completion party, where members are recognized for their contributions, and newcomers may even be honored as official IPW101 members.
Cold temps, warm community
The planning starts in December and the construction begins in January, and ends at the start of Winter Carnival. The process leans on the volunteers, the weather, and the ice conditions - so there are a lot of variables at stake. First, the ice needs to be thick enough (so we hope for cold nights throughout December). The ice is cleared off and sectioned into blocks that are cut and floated to shore. Then, construction begins (and we continue to hope for cool enough temps where there is no mid-build thaw). Once the ice castle is complete, it will remain standing for as long as the weather permits. Some years it stands well into the end of February (so again, we hope for no thaws).
If it hasn’t become clear, Saranac Lake is one of those places where we embrace the cold and even wish for it to be that way! But you’ve never met a warmer community. Not only do the community members volunteer their time to the palace, but businesses do as well. From soup and sandwich runs at Lakeview Deli and Fusion Market to warm drinks after a hard night of work at Downhill Grill or The Belvedere, the community comes together in these cold months of winter, and really rallies for the palace. It is a great source of pride in Saranac Lake and a truly unique tradition.
The next time you visit the ice palace, take a moment to appreciate each block that has been carefully stacked, or the skill of the local artists that have carved out the statues. Enjoy a warm meal at one of the supportive local restaurants or stop in to one of the small businesses downtown. In all the places around town, you are sure to find your own ice palace stories beating with the pulse of the community!