Winter Carnival used to be a break for Saranac Lakers from a long, cold, cabin-fever-inducing winter. Now we have to cheer the season along just to have a Winter Carnival - or at least that's how it feels on days like Wednesday.
Happily, snow returned in earnest Thursday, and today our valiant volunteers of Ice Palace Workers Local 101 are throwing everything they have into rebuilding the structure. They had mostly completed it earlier in the week, only to have the thaw force them to rebuild half of it and repair the rest.
The good news is that winter is back: A cold air mass has moved in and is expected to stick around for Carnival week. Unfortunately, the wind that blew that cold front in Thursday caused whiteouts, power outages and car accidents. Proper seasonal weather doesn't come easy.
It must be pretty hard to be a climate change dissenter these days. Indisputably, winters around here have been getting warmer, starting in the 1990s. Lake monitoring records that go back more than a century show annual ice-in dates gradually getting later and ice-out dates getting earlier. Last year, Mirror Lake's ice went out on March 23, breaking the record by four days.
The previous record was from 1946. Yes, there were some warm winters back in the day, too - the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid is an infamous example - and to a certain degree, our impression that recent winters are especially warm is in contrast to the winters of the 1970s and '80s, which were especially cold and snowy. But still, the ice records and anecdotal evidence make it clear that it's regularly warmer these last two decades. It's no longer abnormal to have a thaw every two weeks, or to have no minus-30 nights at all in the course of a winter.
Some Carnivals are still wintry: We remember marching in the 2001 parade when it was 20 below zero, and the 2011 Carnival was loaded with snow. But there are too many exceptions these days. Perhaps the warmest was in 2006, when - appropriately for that year's "Adirondack Aloha" theme - we had nearly Hawaiian weather that broke the 60-degree mark.
Maybe this year's problem is the "Under the Sea" theme. How about next year we pick "Arctic Adventure" or something like that?
Nevertheless, Saranac Lake is still, often, the coldest place in the lower 48 states, a fact it's now starting to play up in tourism promotion materials. The thermometer that makes it so famous is actually in Lake Clear, at the Adirondack Regional Airport (which goes by the code letters SLK). Look for a special report on that cold spot in an upcoming issue of this newspaper.
OK, weather wonkiness aside - let's focus on the party at hand.
This is the best time of the year for Saranac Lakers. Winter Carnival was started in the 1890s by tuberculosis patients for whom the fresh-air cure had succeeded. They had spent winters sitting out on cure porches: bundled up, inactive and severely sick. They were ready to stretch their limbs, celebrate life and feel how different the cold air feels in your lungs when you're out and moving.
Besides, TB was a disease that largely affected young people, so many of these survivors were in their 20s. They wanted to socialize, play sports, eat, drink, flirt, what have you. Those were the good times - they had just beaten a terminal illness - and they wanted to live it up.
That spirit lives on, but so does another spirit - one of community. Winter Carnival was born around the same time as this village was incorporated. It was a new, booming, cosmopolitan community, in its earliest flush of bonding. Carnival's pageantry and grandiosity was ambitious on a level of bigger cities, like the winter fests in Quebec City and St. Paul, Minn., but it was also welcoming to all Adirondackers and Adirondack culture.
Now it is probably less ambitious and more community-oriented, as Saranac Lake is in general now, compared with then. Nevertheless, it is still a big, big deal. Its activities are varied, wacky and fun, the good mood is infectious, and the traditional highlights - the Ice Palace, the Gala Parade, the Coronation, the Rotary Show - still glitter with the magic they always had. If you haven't been here for it in a while, come this year. Bring a friend. Bring two. Welcome to the good times.