A beginner’s guide to the IPW

Six-foot long hand saws are fun to carry around while building the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Ice Palace. (Provided photo — Meachelle Manchester)

The Ice Palace is a staple — THE staple — of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival. The very name imbues wonder and magic into the air. But it doesn’t appear by magic.

It takes a lot of hard work from a lot of volunteers to build the palace on the shore of Lake Flower. These folks go by the name of the Ice Palace Workers 101, a faux union representing the dozens of spudders, slush makers, knuckleboom loader operators, ice carvers and saw wielders who strike out on the ice each morning in late January to cut thousands of pounds of ice from Pontiac Bay and stack it all up into a royal palace.

The Ice Palace is a thing of majesty, but the process is a thing of beauty in and of itself.

This structure is the best and biggest representation of the spirit of Carnival and the spirit of volunteerism in Saranac Lake. People volunteer their time and bodies to build something weird and wild that thrills their neighbors, entices visitors and creates excitement in what can be a dull time of year.

Several times this week, I’ve heard people wonder, “If you added up all the pay for all the people volunteering to do this work, what would it cost?” They do it for free — and it is tough work. It’s cold and wet, physically exhausting and a little dangerous. But there’s a reason people return year after year to do it.

There are IPW members who live hours away but come up just to be part of the Ice Palace build. Some of them don’t even stick around for Carnival. That’s how much they enjoy the process itself.

Ice community

For six years I’ve watched the IPW do their thing — photographed them, admired them, bragged to my friends and family about them. But I never joined them. Doing so is easier than it seems.

This year’s Winter Carnival queen, Liz Murray, is largely responsible for my joining the IPW. We work together at the Enterprise and every January, she’s always raving about the Ice Palace and the IPW. She’s a professional volunteer recruiter, always finding people to rope into helping put on events, kick start organizations or pitch in. That is what the Ice Palace is all about.

And now it’s my job to pass that message on to you, and to tell you joining the IPW 101 is a decision you won’t regret.

Last year, the IPW was in crunch time. Given only a week to build the monument to Carnival before it began, they worked long days and late nights. This time of desperation was what prompted me to join them for an evening build after work.

And I caught the bug.

This year, I pledged, with the support of Enterprise Managing Editor Elizabeth Izzo, to spend much more time at the Ice Palace. And I was greatly rewarded for it with the joy of community, the pride in building something incredible and the … aches and pains.

I’m so impressed with everyone’s ability to do this day after day. I was only working half days and ended up feeling sore after most of them.

After working a full day cutting, spudding and hauling slush last Saturday, I woke up on Sunday morning and I couldn’t move my neck. Spudding worked muscles in my back and shoulders that I never use. These are some of what Joe Plumb calls “Ice Palace muscles” — tissues in the body placed there for one purpose: building the Ice Palace.

Sometimes people say I look like a “mountain man.” But you know who they don’t say that to? Mountain men. When you see a mountain man, you don’t have to say it. It’s plain as day.

Maybe it’s the beard.

A bunch of the regulars at the Ice Palace are local contractors who lend their skills, tools and strength to the construction. Being out there gave me a renewed appreciation for their work. Some people do this for a living. Even then, contractor Darren Dalton said the Ice Palace is the hardest work on his body he does all year.

Sometimes there’s a bit of “hurry up and wait” going on at the Ice Palace. Fortunately, there’s also a lot of skilled conversationalists out there. While waiting around for the work to begin, everyone is chatting — catching up on life, learning about each other, swapping stories, sharing laughs, ribbing each other and having deep conversations.

Murray has always said there’s certain people you only see at the Ice Palace. That is so true. Some of these people I hadn’t seen since last year’s build. That’s partially because some of them are only in town for this special time.

Kyle Tisdale lived in Saranac Lake for 15 years but moved to Vermont after last Carnival. When he moved, he knew he’d come back for the Ice Palace build.

“It was always going to happen,” he said.

So this year, using his vacation time from work, he came back to town to put in hours sweating at the Palace. He said he will always do this.

“It’s always the happiest time of the year,” Tisdale said. “I get to hang out with a bunch of buddies and have a bunch of fun.”

The IPW cure

I started work on the second day of the build, Tuesday, Jan. 23. Driving in that morning from my home in Bloomingdale, listening to the news on the radio and it was all war and politics. Ugly business. It’s important stuff to know about, especially in my profession, but I felt sad for the world. A hopeless sadness. It feels like there’s not much that can be done about it sometimes.

My life is comfortable, but for much of the world, it is not. The Ice Palace was a chance for me to make myself uncomfortable to bring more joy into the world.

That’s part of the spirit of Carnival. All these people giving of their time — sacrificing something — to bring people happiness. The beautiful thing about that is it does not take much sacrifice to produce joy many times more great than what was put into it. And the work is fun.

Even while hard at work, everyone has a grin. They’re working for a higher calling — not a paycheck. Many people seemed to be there with someone in mind — someone who they were building the palace for — a child, a family member, a friend. Maybe someone who is not here anymore. The Ice Palace is a gift in the truest sense of the word in that it takes sacrifice and has love put behind it.

I could go on about the metaphysical impacts of the Ice Palace as a force for good in the world, but, really, you should go see for yourself.

Bored? Join the IPW. Lonely? Join the IPW. Trying to be active? Join the IPW. Feeling a lack of pride in the human race? Join the IPW.

The beautiful thing about volunteering is it grows exponentially. There are so many people who support the work of the IPW, too. From Paul Smith’s College loaning them its knuckleboom loader to put blocks on the high towers, to the numerous local restaurants that donate soup and pastries, to the Women’s Civic Chamber, who bring coffee, hot cocoa, homemade energy bars and breakfast goodies to keep everyone warm and fed.

Building the Ice Palace also makes one feel tapped into an ancient tradition. Not only of Ice Palace building, but of the great human tradition of constructing monuments. This is as close as you can get to feeling like an ancient people building some monument for a reason that will be unclear a millennium in the future. It’s like you’re working on the Moai Easter Island heads.

But it isn’t building a monument to a god or a king. It’s a celebration of the community as a whole. And there is a pervasive sense of working as part of a collective.

Join the union

The IPW is always open to new members and they are especially looking for young people to join. Not only do they want their muscles, they need someone to pass all the ice harvesting and Palace construction knowledge they have down to, so the Ice Palace can continue to be a Saranac Lake tradition for generations to come.

It can seem intimidating to get into.

But there’s no corporate structure. The organization of the build is decentralized. There are of course leaders, but there’s not a bureaucracy weighing it down. If you ask, someone will give you something to do.

The process of building the Ice Palace is a great clockwork machine, and every part needs to be there for it to work as efficiently as possible.

For example, slushing is not a glamorous job. It’s wet — actually, the wettest. It doesn’t have the cool tools. And it doesn’t happen up high or on a frozen lake. But it is essential — essential — to the success of the palace. If the palace is not safe, it cannot be enjoyed to the fullest extent. Slush, and thereby slushers, are literally the glue that holds the palace together.

And of course, the slush makers! Slush doesn’t grow on trees.

When I first arrived, I looked for what I should do and someone handed me a six-foot long saw with teeth the size of a megalodon’s. Matt Webster taught me the proper technique to saw with — using the arms, not the back — in a sort of circular motion. This is what I imagine operating a railroad handcar is like.

After the first couple strokes, I felt like I could do it forever. After 10 blocks, my head started to swim. Muscles I haven’t used in a while started to ache. But words of encouragement kept me going. When Carnival Chairman Rob Russell came over and said, “Hey, you’re pretty good at that,” I kept pumping away, but I’m sure he could see me beaming through the back of my head.

If you want to join the IPW next year, show up and bring multiple layers of clothes, microspikes and an open mind to learning.

Former Carnival Committee Chair Jeff Branch said if I did well this year, they’ll double my salary next year.

— — —

Aaron Marbone is a staff writer for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise covering the Saranac Lake area and politics.


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