INTO THE TREES: Over the Ice Palace walls

Exploring a decades-long Saranac Lake Winter Carnival tradition

People take photos of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Ice Palace on Saturday, Feb. 3. (News photo — Andy Flynn)

Under a bluebird sky on Monday, Feb. 5, the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Ice Palace stood tall in the midday sun. Families, school children, teachers, visitors and locals gathered inside and around the blue walls to soak up the sights and sun.

“(It’s) pretty amazing,” said Dennis Gamboa of Costa Rica. “It’s like a postcard.”

Gamboa and his family have been in Saranac Lake for about a week at an Airbnb. On Monday, they enjoyed the Ice Palace on one of the best weather days the village has seen in months. While here, they planned to visit Lake Placid and the surrounding mountains.

Gamboa said it was their first time visiting the village and that, for his son and daughter, it was their first time seeing snow.

Walking inside the Ice Palace, through icy blue entryways past a carving of Pennywise the sinister clown (this year’s Winter Carnival theme is “Creepy Carnival”), the inner courtyard was bustling with smiling children and their laughter.

Heidi Dunning’s son and daughter crawl through the mole hole in the Palace wall on Monday, Feb. 5. (News photo — Oliver Reil)

Heidi Dunning, of Colton, watched her kids scurry through the Ice Palace “mole hole,” a small passageway through which children can crawl. She wanted to bring her son and daughter before the structure began to melt, which happened last year before she got the chance. This time, the conditions were right.

“It’s a really perfect day for it,” Dunning said.

The inside of the Ice Palace is otherworldly. Open to the sky, the inner chamber houses the thrones for the carnival king and queen, now besieged by clambering kids.

The ice is a light, opaque and brilliant blue. On the west wall, around and inside the entryway, different species of fish are frozen inside the blocks, a tradition born years ago after Ice Palace Worker 101 volunteer Matt Pafundi flipped an ice block in Lake Flower’s Pontiac Bay — where ice for the Ice Palace is harvested — only to find a belly-up northern pike frozen to it. The workers displayed that pike as if it were frozen in the ice like a mastodon in a glacier. For a while, one lucky local high schooler was picked to catch a pike for the Ice Palace each year, but the tradition eventually faded away. Last year, Pafundi returned to Saranac Lake and caught two himself to reboot the tradition. This year, he turned the Ice Palace pike into a local fishing contest.

The fish grabbed the attention of a passing family. Three generations leaned in close to them, studying their scales and laughing with glee.

Dennis Gamboa and his wife Pamela play in the snow with their daughter Camila outside the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Ice Palace on Monday, Feb. 5. (News photo — Oliver Reil)

Heidi Beverage and Joy Dodd were visiting the Ice Palace with their mother, Nancy Montgomery, and children, Ryleigh Beverage and Arlo and Caleb Dodd. The family moved to Massena in 2002 and have visited the Ice Palace most every year since.

“My favorite is seeing it lit up at night,” Joy said.

Outside the front of the Ice Palace, recent Saranac Lake convert Marissa Chien held her 2-year-old boy Julian on her shoulders, both laughing with glee as they explored the Ice Palace for the first time. It was as if the sun was bringing it out in people.

“It’s actually nice (this year),” she said with a laugh.

Following behind her was Saranac Lake native Colton Clement, who has enjoyed the Ice Palace for his entire life.

Nancy Montgomery laughs with her daughters Joy Dodd, front, and Heidi Beverage, back, as her grandchildren Ryleigh Beverage and Arlo and Caleb Dodd study the fish frozen in the Palace ice on Monday, Feb. 5. (News photo — Oliver Reil)

“I don’t remember not coming to one,” he said.

Sunday, Feb. 11 is the final day of the Winter Carnival, which began on Feb. 2. On Friday, Feb. 9, the Adirondack Bank Innertube Races will take place on Mount Pisgah at 10 a.m. Coakley Home and Hardware will host its Children’s Skating Races from 1:30 to 3 p.m. at the Saranac Lake Civic Center. In the evening, there will be Firefighters’ Broom Ball at 5 p.m. at the Civic Center.

The next day, Can-Am Snow Rugby will take place at 10 a.m. in Elks Field on John Munn Road. The Gala Parade is at 1 p.m., from the firehouse on Broadway to LaPan Highway. Fireworks are scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Ice Palace, with River Street closing at 6:15 p.m.

On Sunday, the Community Bank Adult Cross-Country Ski Races are scheduled for 10 a.m. at Dewey Mountain. The Adirondack Health Youth Cross-Country Ski Races are at noon. The Kiddie Parade will be at 2 p.m. from the Hotel Saranac to the Harrietstown Town Hall. A new event this year, the Hobby Horse Race, will start at 2:45 p.m. at Riverside Park.

Winter Carnival information and event schedule can be found at saranaclakewintercarnival.com.

Petrova students play on ice sculptures in front of the Palace on Monday, Feb. 5. (News photo — Oliver Reil)

A mother and son walk along Lake Flower to examine sun catchers on Monday, Feb. 5 near the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Ice Palace. (News photo — Oliver Reil)

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