The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival concludes this weekend with a parade through the village and fireworks above an ice palace. WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley looks at the importance of annual event to the village and surrounding Adirondack communities.
The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival has been a tradition in the Adirondack village since 1897. The community began building its signature ice palace in 1898. A new design is chosen each year based on the festival’s theme; this year it’s Celtic Carnival. 400-pound blocks of ice are cut out of Lake Flower’s frozen waters to be stacked, carved and slid into position. The weeklong annual event draws thousands to the village of 5,400 for parades, sporting contests, concerts and other events. Mayor Clyde Rabideau says the village is bursting at the seams this year. “The first weekend, which is usually number two to the parade weekend which is coming up this Saturday, was huge! A lot of our businesses told us it was the busiest day they’d ever seen in Saranac Lake.”
Officials estimate that about 20,000 people are crowding into the village to participate in events and view the ice palace. Saranac Lake Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Katy Van Anden says it’s a boost to the mid-winter economy. “Unfortunately no one has ever done a direct economic impact study. I would love to see Clarkson University, or one of our local universities, look at an economic impact study of Winter Carnival. Being able to break down how many heads and beds are actually coming to the area, versus how many locals, how many of those people are going out to dine at local establishments? I think it’s really important for our businesses to get a feeling of how big it actually is.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced funding for a biotech partnership between Saranac Lake’s Trudeau Institute and Clarkson University, and economic redevelopment funding for two hotel development projects in the village. The Chamber’s Van Anden believes part of the surge in winter carnival visitors is due to Governor Cuomo’s focus on the Adirondack village. “The Governor’s interest in Saranac Lake and his help marketing us and the Hotel Saranac and the Lake Flower hotel project really boosted a lot of publicity for Saranac Lake. And I think that we have been doing a much better job of marketing Winter Carnival as a whole. There’s a brand new website this year. We doing tons of press releases. It’s just reenergized this year.”
Annual attendance and the fate of the ice palace is weather dependent. In some recent years, organizers have had to scale back the size of the structure because there was not enough ice, or demolish it early due to warm weather. This year, construction of the ice palace began on January 17th, and Mayor Rabideau says the weather has been perfect for building their centerpiece attraction to draw tourists. “We had really below zero weather for three or four weeks that enabled us to get good ice to build a great ice palace. Then, all of a sudden, the first weekend, upper 20s, low 30s, thousands of people took advantage of the good weather and came out to Saranac Lake.”
Carnival Chair Eric Foster calls this a keystone event put on by community members. “There’s a bay on Lake Flower where the ice gets exceptionally thick and stable. Blocks are cut from there using equipment that’s been used for generations. Then the blocks are put together and stacked and a mortar of snow and water is put between them and that then freezes, creating a solid structure. This year with the additional coverage we’ve been getting and recognition through the state, we’re getting people hearing about it and wanting to see what it’s all about.”
The Winter Carnival buttons based on the annual theme are designed by Doonesbury artist Garry Trudeau, a native of Saranac Lake.