Building on Spec

For 110 years, the people of Saranac Lake, NY have taken part in a winter ritual that I absolutely love.

They build a palace out of ice.

The tradition dates back to 1898, when the community held its first winter carnival to raise the spirits of tuberculosis patients who had come to Saranac Lake seeking the fresh air cure in its sanitariums and cure cottages.

We took a drive through the mountains last weekend to check out this year’s creation, and it’s spectacular, as always.  Here I am, grinning like a fool, getting snowed on while I smile at its spectacular-ness.

One thing I love about the winter carnival is how people treat it like any other outdoor festival, despite the fact that it’s often below zero here in the winter time.  Last Sunday, amidst blowing snow and rapidly dropping temperatures, there was a guy selling fried dough and cotton candy out of a little booth right next to the palace.

Here’s another thing I love about this tradition. Ice is never a sure thing.  It’s slippery, you know?  Some years, workers start building the palace only to have a big thaw before they finish.  Sometimes, they wait until the very last minute to start because the ice on Lake Flower isn’t thick enough yet.  And the whole time they’re building, they never quite know if it’s going to work out or not. 

It’s a lot like writing.  You have an idea and some building blocks for a story, so you start stacking them together.  But then one slides off.  And another one melts.  And some kid comes by and pushes another one off the pile and it lands on your toe, and you start to think the whole thing might have been a big mistake.  But usually, you keep on stacking and putting things back, and trying new blocks and new spots for the old blocks until things fit.  And eventually, you stand back and see that it really is looking like a story after all.

I admire the guys who build the ice palace.  It’s never a sure thing.  But they plow forward on faith.  And usually, when all the heavy lifting is done, it’s downright stunning.

18 Replies on “Building on Spec

  1. Were you there for the women’s iron frying pan throwing contest? That one makes me chuckle. I always wonder if you’re supposed to be in training all year, prepping for the big moment.

  2. “Ice Palace”

    Dear Kate:

    Since you’re interested in the winter carnival at Saranac lake and the ice palace that they build every year, I thought I’d tell you about my picture book, “Ice Palace,” (Clarion Books/2003) that was based on my fascination with the building of the palace each year too. I hope you’ll take a look at it. It’s available on as well as Barnes&Noble.
    Deborah Blumenthal
    visit me on the web at: