Originally posted Jan 11, 2009
If I took the long way home from school—out the front entrance of St. Bernard’s elementary instead of cutting through the church parking lot—I could see them working.
Volunteers from the village and inmates from a nearby minimum-security prison worked side-by-side each day for weeks, lifting 2-by-4-foot blocks of ice from Pontiac Bay with giant tongs and then sliding them onto a large conveyor belt. Depending on how deeply cold the winter had been so far, the bricks could be up to three feet thick.
I tried not to look too often, maybe twice a week. I didn’t want to spoil the effect—the surprise at the appearance of yet another layer of slushy mortar and crystal bricks; the recognition as the architecture began to make sense and the random bricks became towers or castle walls; the thrill of counting down the days with each brick that the crews sawed, pulled and jiggled, dripping, out of the dark water.
Before my eyes, it rose.
Slowly, methodically, majestically. Until one afternoon near the beginning of February, I would step out of school, walk down the street just a bit and realize that it was done. The crews had slipped the last block of ice into place and the ice castle was complete, somehow even more awesome and more spectacular than the year before.
It is during this time of the year that I get homesick, when I know that the ice castle is under construction and that Winter Carnival is only a few weeks away in my hometown of Saranac Lake, N.Y.
The ice castle is the icon, the foundation, the symbol of the weeklong celebration deep in the Adirondack Mountains. It is a week of sled races and cross-country ski races; a week when prominent grown-ups rule as king and queen, college students reign as prince and princess and the popular clique in high school is elected as the royal court.
It is a week of snow sculptures on front lawns and in the park; of parades and fireworks; of snowmobiles storming the ice castle; and, in the old days, of ice skaters competing to see who could jump the greatest number of barrels.
And a week of alcohol, of course.
Nothing is celebrated in my hometown without lots of alcohol.
I miss my hometown in the spring when the sight of concrete through the hard-packed snow where the sidewalk had been the previous October could send a thrill through me. I miss the gulch in the summer and the natural water slide and Champagne Falls. I miss the smell of wet leaves in the fall and the long hikes free of mosquitoes and tiny biting black flies.
But those are memories I have to myself or with small groups of people. Winter Carnival is different. Winter Carnival pulls everyone in from all income levels, age groups, professions. It brings people back, even those who believed they had torn up their roots and vowed never to return.
It is the truest sort of community celebration, the likes of which I have never experienced anywhere else. Locals even get along with the tourists for a bit: no giving false directions; no selling pine cones for $5 a piece as souvenirs; no lying about the names of the peaks when they assume you know all that stuff just because because your mom gave birth to you there.
Heck, what other community enlists prisoners to help build its ice castle? So I’ll be missing Saranac Lake Feb. 6 when the king and queen are crowned, kicking off the festivities. But don’t worry. I will be back someday with four kids and a husband in tow.
And, maybe, with a little peppermint schnapps in my purse.