Warm temps, warmer memories
No two Winter Carnivals are ever the same. There’s always a new theme, new king, queen and court, new folks in town, and the list goes on. But two things almost always happen, from year to year, decade to decade.
One happens when Carnival’s over, the dust has settled, and the last endorphin has vanished without a trace. It’s something we always say to each other, usually Sunday night, after the fireworks and before the last Carnival libation has been sipped. It is: “This was the best Carnival, ever!”
Of course it’s as cliche as it gets, but only to an outsider. To us longtime hardcore Carnivlaians it’s just the simple truth.
The second thing happens at the start of Carnival’s second week, and it’s meteorologically-driven. The cursed mid-winter thaw hits and as the castle starts melting down, so do the rest of us. Almost every conversation in town begins with some thing to the effect of, “I wonder if the castle’s gonna hold up?”
And let’s face it, when you have one of the only ice palaces in the entire world, worrying about it when the temps rise is as logical as marveling over it is when the temps are Jack Londonesque.
The February thaw seems to be more typical of Carnival than not. I can remember as a wee tyke, back in those old Adirondack winters – those frigid-fests that’d freeze the balls off a brass pawnbroker’s sign – we still had a thaw. And it almost always happened either when the castle was nearing completion or after it’d been built.
But for all the threat of those thaws, I remember only one time the thaw won.
If memory serves me right, it was the Carnival of ’83.
First the freeze …
December and January of that year had been brutal. It was one of those winters when the days’ temps stayed in single digits and the nights plunged far-below-zero. And it resulted in the usual trials and tribulations — cars that didn’t start, furnaces that broke down, iced-up windows, frozen wells, frozen nose, frozen toes, and Lord knows that’s the way it goes.
But because it was so cold, the days were sunny and beautiful, with bright blue skies. And the nights — also with clear skies – seemed to show every one of the billions and billions of stars noted by Carl Sagan.
Not wanting to be housebound by the weather, I spent a lot of time that winter snowshoeing, much of it wandering all over Lower Saranac. I dressed for it, so I was comfortable all the time, except when a wind came howling down the lake, turning me into a slow-moving Dopesicle.
Of course, with those temps, when work started on the palace, they had thick ice aplenty. And they put it to good use: When finished, that castle was the biggest one any of us had seen, except for those in the pictures of early 20th century Carnivals.
It was so huge and temperatures were so low, it seemed impossible any thaw could damage it.
And then the impossible happened.
… then the fry
About 10 days before the coronation (back then, by the way, Carnival was only four days, starting with the coronation on Thursday night) the thaw started. As I said, we’d always had thaws, but never one like this. It was the Mother, Father, and Adoptive Parent of All Thaws. It wasn’t just warm — it was frappin’ tropical. As I recall, the temps hit the ’50s and stayed there — day and night.
Within a few days, huge amounts of snow had melted. It left the town looking less like the idyllic winter resort we love to brag about, than the cigarette-butt-and-dog-crap capital of the Northeast.
Then the the streets and parking lots turned into flooded skating rinks.
Next, water poured off the hills and ran into the dales.
After that, Lake Flower opened up completely.
But still the palace stood. And we stood firm in the belief the thaw would end and everything would be just ducky. Or at least we tried to. The sad truth was both the palace and us were losing our cool — literally and figuratively.
It stayed up, but the ice between the blocks (the mortar, if you will) was rapidly disappearing, giving the castle a sad, gap-toothed look.
The IPW (Ice Palace Workers) struggled mightily and managed to keep the castle shored up. It was an uphill battle, and by parade day (temperature around 53, as I recall) it was apparent the castle was doomed.
By Sunday’s fireworks, it was still standing – though roped off.
On Monday, what was left of it was knocked down.
So for the four days of Carnival we had ridiculously-warm temperatures; a gloppy, sloppy landscape, grey skies, mud and dog-poop-covered streets — everything Carnival was not supposed to be.
Yet, after Sunday’s fireworks, as I stood on the Waterhole porch, having my final beer, I kept hearing one thing, over and over.
It was, of course: “This was the best Carnival, ever!”