Changing of the Ice Palace guard

Dean Baker retires after 18 years leading Ice Palace build

Joe Plumb, left, and Dean Baker, right, stand by the rubble left over from the 2023 Creepy Winter Carnival Ice Palace on Wednesday. (Enterprise photo —Aaron Marbone)

SARANAC LAKE — After 18 years as the director of the Ice Palace Workers 101, Dean Baker is retiring from the position and passing the mantle on to Joe Plumb, who has been working with the IPW for the past decade.

Last week, as the IPW met among the melting husk of the Ice Palace to celebrate their hard work, Baker made the announcement. It was a bit hard, looking back on his years in the role, and he said he got a bit choked up.

He’s spent countless hours pulling off the Ice Palace build with the community. He even met his wife, Marilyn, while out on the ice building the palace.

But he’s confident in Plumb’s ability to lead the IPW into the future.

Plumb was the first to know of Baker’s plans to retire — even before Marilyn. It was actually just moments after Baker made the decision in his own head. Baker had always thought he’d go for 20 years, but he was up on the ice wall with Plumb one day during the build last month and he said, “that’s enough for me.”

ABOVE LEFT: Joe Plumb creates buckets of slush to seal in ice blocks at the Ice Palace on Jan. 22. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

“My wife, my daughter, my age. It was time,” Baker said.

He said Plumb will make a good replacement. He’s got the experience and the exuberance for the job. Baker’s been planning to hand the reins to Plumb for years.

Plumb joined the IPW in 2014. Baker said he quickly recognized Plumb’s appetite for the work. He started giving Plumb more duties and Plumb accepted each one eagerly.

“This guy’s got the spirit, the drive and the dedication,” Baker said.

He said the IPW will be in good hands. Plumb said carrying the tradition on is a big responsibility, but not a weight to him — it’s an honor. His eyes light up when he talks about the Palace.

Fireworks explode above the Winter Carnival Ice Palace on Saturday, Feb. 3 after a long, full day of Carnival events. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

Plumb has been in charge of lighting and been part of the Palace design team for years. He said the designers love designing new things and trying something that hasn’t been done before. It’s not a task — it’s a puzzle or an adventure.

“It’s stacking blocks, but there’s a lot more to it than that,” Plumb said.

He said they typically start planning the design in the summer.

“It’s pretty much year-round. Not every day, but (still),” Baker said.

There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes, he said. Baker has written up a list of things that need to be done and a list of contacts for Plumb. The director is in charge of gathering volunteers, tools, machinery and sustenance; talking care of the tools and the people; overseeing the design and construction of the palace; corralling people; making decisions; answering questions; and most importantly, ensuring the safety of all in the IPW.

Plumb wants to keep the traditions of the Ice Palace, to honor the past generations and what they’ve done for the community.

“Why change what’s not broken?” he asked.

Baker plans to work with the IPW for the next few years.

“I’m just not going to answer as many questions,” he said, adding that his response will be to “ask Joe.”

Baker said it was important to him to have a successor for the IPW. In years past, some of the older IPW members feared the Ice Palace tradition would die out because there weren’t many young people involved.

“And then Joe showed up,” Baker said. “And he brought a bunch of people with him, younger people. Since then, I don’t know if its his good looks or what, they keep showing up. … I’m not the least but worried about it now.”

There’s now a “cadre of young people” who know what to do. Plumb said he plans to bring the ice carvers to do more work at the palace.

Getting in

Baker was listening to the local radio station in 1983 when he heard IPW member Bill Madden come on the air and say they needed help to finish the build. He went down and Madden told him, “follow me up the ladder.”

“We got up on top of the ice and he said ‘You’re not afraid of heights are ya?'” Baker said. “I said, ‘I guess not.'”

Baker said he kept coming back because the Palace build is such a unique experience. He doesn’t know of anywhere else that does something like this annually, with all volunteer and donations.

Baker had been working with the IPW for around a decade when then-director Ed Scharmer asked him to take some time off of work and be his “lieutenant.” When Scharmer retired from the position in 2007, Baker was the only one in the core group who had retired from his career by then, and he became the director. He was a sergeant in the Army and had worked for the state.

“I was used to giving people orders,” Baker said.

Plumb grew up watching the Palace build. When he was young, his dad brought him down to slush. When he grew up, he wanted to get involved.

“It was always something I was interested in, but never really knew … kind of that typical thing you hear … never really knew how to begin or how to get started,” he said.

One day, after a Carnival, he was ice fishing with his friend Greg Weller, whose father Mark Weller had been building the Palace since the 1980s. Plumb harassed Greg, asking, “when are you going to let the new guys come on down and figure things out?”

“Just come and show up!” he was told.

The next year, driving past the Palace site with his father, they saw the blocks going up. So they pulled over and Plumb shadowed Mark the rest of the year, learning the ropes.

Plumb’s primary interest is in building. He owns Adirondack White Pine Cabins, where they build tiny homes at his shop on state Route 3. But he said it’s the excitement and people that keep him coming back.

He also said they keep coming back to find new ridiculous answers to all the questions they always get. They find these questions humorous — such as, “What do you do with the ice when you’re done?” or the infamous, “Where do you get the ice?”

Past and future

Baker said the basic Ice Palace-building tools are all the same as they were when he started. This was in the days when inmates from Moriah Shock Correctional Facility would cut blocks during the day and volunteers would build at night.

The hardest part has always been getting the ice blocks out of the lake. When he started, they were taken out of the water with a chain driven conveyor belt, but half the blocks would slide back into the lake. At the time, they were building the palace further down the shoreline, where the parking lot is now, so they would use snowmobiles to drag the blocks over.

After that, they used a slide to get the blocks out of the water, guiding the several-hundred-pound blocks with tongs.

“A lot of us have bad backs because of that,” Baker said.

Finally, Scharmer made two important changes — he got his neighbor Cliff Cochran to bring his excavator, which really sped things up, and he built a retaining wall on the shore where the blocks come out specifically for the IPW. Baker said the Adirondack Park Agency told Scharmer anything over 100 square feet needed a permit, so Scharmer built it at 99 square feet.

Now, they use tractors, skid steers and knuckleboom loaders.

Most of Baker’s memories include falling in, falling down or falling off. The time he stuck his foot between two 6-foot blocks of ice. The time a tractor hooked a block he was sitting on, pitching him off. He broke bones in his hand but went back up and worked. Or the time he drove an ATV straight into the open water when the ice edge was concealed in snow.

It’s dangerous work, so one of his priorities has always been keeping people safe.

Plumb said, more and more, the hardest part of the Ice Palace build in recent years has been getting the weather to cooperate and grow ice.

“Whatever ice we get we’ll do something with,” he said.

Baker said some people ask him if this is caused by climate change. He’s not a scientist, so he said he can’t comment on that. But what he does know is that some winters are good, some are bad. A few years ago, they had great ice and actually had to delay build times until the temperature warmed to an acceptable sub-zero number. But he also remembers that when he started, they would build for six weeks.

At first, Baker it was hard for him to grapple with seeing the Palace melt after Carnival. He was proud of their work. But now, he’s accepted it is a temporary thing.

“It just goes back in the lake. We take it out next year,” he said.

For Plumb, it’s always been the joy of building, the time spent with friends and seeing people’s reactions to the build that he loves most. He admits, once it’s done, it does not matter much to him how long it stands — at that point, he’s exhausted.

“You better have been here during Carnival to enjoy it,” Plumb said.

Plumb recalled something Baker said at the IPW meeting last week. He told everyone to look to their left and their right and said those people are the reason the Ice Palace was a success.

It’s never just one person, he said.


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