"Yes, the weather here is wonderful So I guess I'll hang around I could never leave the Adirondacks Cause I'm frozen to the ground." -Unknown
I have had the very great fortune to grow up with the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival. It’s a difficult thing to explain if it’s not something you have experienced. However, it is absolutely something you should experience, so I shall try to explain what a wacky, wonderful thing Winter Carnival is.
The village of Saranac Lake, NY is located nine miles away from Lake Placid, and about a two-hour drive south of Montreal, Quebec. It lies within the Adirondack Mountains, surrounded by lakes and rivers. The population is about 5,000 (though this increases greatly during the summer tourist season).
Saranac Lake is a place of immense natural beauty. Summers are spent paddling or jumping in the nearby lakes and hiking the many trails and mountains. The fall foliage is stunning every year, as the woods are full of maple, beech, and birch trees.
Winters in Saranac Lake, however, are cold…very cold. Like, actually freeze-your-nostrils-together kind of cold.
In fact, Saranac Lake often gets the distinction of being the coldest place in the continental US, with temperatures dropping to -20 degrees F (not including wind chill). It is a distinction we wear as a badge of honor.
“How do people live there?” you may wonder. “Why do people live there?”
Well, with the surrounding mountains, plus being in such close proximity to Lake Placid, many people enjoy a variety of winter sports. But Saranac Lake has a secret weapon for surviving the long, hard winters, and that is Winter Carnival.
Every year, during the first two weeks of February, the village is host to a ten-day-long celebration of winter. We dress up in costumes, we compete in silly competitions, we have a parade, and we build an ice palace…no matter the weather.
It is small-town America at its best, and it never fails to warm my heart each year to see people’s creativity and perseverance. It gives us something to look forward to, brings people together, and gets us through the winter.
Here’s everything you need to know about the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival…
The history of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival dates back to 1897. (It is one of the oldest winter carnivals in the US.)
In the late 1800s the village was thriving thanks to “the cure”. Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau had founded the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium and had discovered that many of those with tuberculosis survived if they spent significant time breathing in the fresh mountain air.
The cure required fresh air at all times, even during the long winters. Many of those who could took to skiing, skating, and sledding. The Pontiac Club was formed to encourage these outdoor activities, and on a winter’s day in 1897, they sponsored a “fancy dress” carnival day.
With gaps throughout the years between the 1920s and 1940s, that one fancy dress day morphed over the years into the celebration it is now. The Saranac Lake Winter Carnival has been held annually since 1947, with the resurrection of the annual ice palace beginning in the 1950s.
Today, Winter Carnival is run by a committee of committed volunteers, and supported by the generous donations of local sponsors. It is a true community effort, from building the Ice Palace to organizing events!
Every spring, a theme for Carnival is picked for the following year. (The community votes via an online poll.)
The theme inspires many things, from what music and outfits are used in the parade, which ice sculptures are carved, and what the Winter Carnival Button looks like (more on that below).
Some of my favorite themes throughout the years have included “Pirates of the Adirondacks”, “The Roaring 20s”, “Myths and Legends”, and “Space Alien Invasion”.
Most known for his Doonesbury comic strips, artist Gary Trudeau designs a collectible Winter Carnival Button each year. A native of Saranac Lake, Gary Trudeau is the great-grandson of Dr. Trudeau mentioned above, and he has created his own legacy.
The Winter Carnival Buttons portray Trudeau’s unique style and Doonesbury characters, with illustrations depicting the theme of that year.
You may see some old-timers who put all of their buttons on one long, winter scarf! (I’m getting to that point myself, where I could easily cover most of a scarf.)
The Ice Palace
The Ice Palace is the crown jewel of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival. It is a spectacular feat of construction and artistry each year, as it stands proudly next to Lake Flower, the lake from which it came.
The first Saranac Lake Ice Palace was built in 1898, with Palaces continuing into the early 1900s until the onset of WW1 and the Great Depression.
Back then, horses pulled “ice plows” across the lake, cutting blocks of ice that men would separate with ice tongs, and then the horses would pull the blocks out of the water. In the 1950s, a chute made out of telephone poles was constructed to slide the blocks of ice to shore.
Today, modern equipment such as a crane and excavator make the building of the Palace a bit easier, in addition to some of the original tools (A single block of ice can weigh over 400 pounds.) However, lots of human power still goes into it!
The Palace is designed by community members and constructed by a group of dedicated volunteers called the “IPW 101” (Ice Palace Workers Union 101). The Ice Palace workers can be found standing atop walls of ice dozens of feet high, sliding blocks into place. Other people mix slush used for the mortar that holds the walls together, while others carve ice thrones and sculptures using chainsaws.
Depending on the temperature that year, and how much ice there is, the Ice Palace sometimes includes a maze, a slide, or a rampart of ice.
The official opening of Carnival is when the “switch” is thrown and the Ice Palace is illuminated by different colors of lights hidden in the walls and towers.
It is completely free to visit the Saranac Lake Ice Palace! It is beautiful both during the day and night. Sometimes Ice Palace “hosts” will be on duty to supervise the safety of visitors from near and far, as well as to answer questions about the Palace or Carnival.
Usually, the Palace will stand even after Winter Carnival is over until the weather becomes warm enough that the structure begins to melt and become dangerous. It is then knocked down with machinery and melts back into the lake, where it will freeze the following year and be built up again.
(Fun fact: Do you know the difference between a castle and a palace? A castle is a fortification, meant to withstand attacks. A palace is a residential building for royalty and heads of state. This here, folks, is an Ice Palace.)
What is a palace without a king or queen? Every year the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival has a complete royal court to “reign” over Carnival.
On the first evening of Winter Carnival, a coronation is held, during which the King and Queen of the previous year pass their crowns off to the next King and Queen. It is a great honor to be nominated as King or Queen, as they are usually individuals who have long been of service to the community, whether through volunteering, organizations, or education.
In addition to the King and Queen, the Winter Carnival Royal Court includes:
- The Pages: Two third-graders from each local elementary school are nominated by their teachers. They perform a song-and-dance number at the coronation.
- The Court Members: Twelve seniors from Saranac Lake High School are nominated by their peers to be on Winter Carnival Court. They, too, perform a dance number at coronation.
- The Prince and Princess: One person is selected from each of the local colleges, North Country Community College and Paul Smith’s College, to be prince or princess. They are nominated by college faculty/staff and are active within the college community. (Fun fact: My younger sister was Princess this year! We were all very proud.)
- Archbishop and Chamberlain: Two adults from within the Saranac Lake school system are nominated by the high school court members to act as Archbishop and Chamberlain, who faciliate and narrate the coronation.
- The Grand Marshal(s): Nominated by the Winter Carnival Committee, the Grand Marshals lead the Gala Parade and act as host for several events.
The Winter Carnival Royal Family members attend, and take part in, as many of the Carnival events as they can. They visit the local schools, ride on their own float during the parade, and act as judges during several contests and competitions.
You can spot the Royal Family adults in their bright-colored capes and crowns, Carnival Court in their traditional fur coats, and the pages in their custom-made fleece hats!
After Coronation and the lighting of the Ice Palace, the celebrations begin! True to its origins, Winter Carnival events include many snow-related sports.
There are, of course, traditional events, such as cross-country and downhill ski races, snow-shoe races, and children’s skating races. Those brave enough to run in the cold can compete in the Ice Palace Fun Run (but be prepared for your eyelashes, eyebrows, and/or beard to ice over!)
There is also a curling exhibition on the lake and intertube races down one of the local mountains.
Then there are the more creative sporting events, including Arctic Golf, Snowflake Volley Ball, and Ultimate Frisbee in the snow.
My favorite event, though, is the Ladies’ Fry Pan Toss…which is exactly what it sounds like. Ladies of all ages may compete within their age division by throwing a frying pan as far as they can, winning with the furthest distance.
Other events during the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival include a variety of fun, unique things (some of which are free to attend).
Many of the bars and restaurants have live music during the evenings. The art galleries have special art shows according to the year’s Carnival theme where they feature local artists.
Each year, the local chapter of Rotary International puts on a variety show. This fundraising event is a fun mix of performance acts, from music to comedy. Once it even included a presentation of bird calls! The grand finale of the Rotary Show always includes the infamous Rotary Dancers. (Note: Book your tickets in advance, as this event sells out.)
Those looking for a fancier occasion can attend the newly-revived “Snow Ball” and dance the night away.
The Woodsmen’s Exhibition is always a popular event, with students from Paul Smith’s College (many of which are forestry majors) displaying feats of strength and skill with saws, axes, and logs.
On the evening of Torchlight Skiing, folks of all ages gather at the top of the local ski mountain, Mount Pisgah, and ski down in formation, each carrying an electric torch, creating a beautiful light display.
There is even an icicle contest, to see who has the largest icicle hanging off their house!
One of the biggest events of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival is the Gala Parade. Held on the second-to-last day of Carnival, it is the most well-attended event.
Entries in the Winter Carnival Parade include marching units, bands, floats, animals, clowns, puppets, and floats. All are dressed and designed to keep with the year’s theme, with music to match.
However, when I say “marching units”, this just means any group performing on foot…and people get creative. Popular marching groups include The Canoodlers, who perform a marching/dance routine carrying canoe paddles, and the Adirondack Lawn Chair Ladies, who perform with (you guessed it) lawnchairs. Another favorite is Soma Beats, a dance and drumming troupe.
Bands vary greatly in variety, from the local high school marching band to a bagpipe and drum band that comes down from Canada each year. There are drums made out of garbage cans, and there is a brass band dressed like the Blues Brothers.
Floats vary as well. Many are on trailers pulled by pick-up trucks, but all are made with care, imagination, and a bit of humor.
There’s also a lot of candy and confetti. Who doesn’t love a parade?!
Traditionally, at the end of the parade, everyone gathers in the town hall for a “battle of the bands” and winners of the different parade entry categories are announced, and trophies are presented.
Many towns in America will have fireworks on the 4th of July, sometimes even on New Year’s Eve as well. But that’s not enough for Saranac Lake! Winter Carnival calls for more fireworks.
Fireworks both open and close Winter Carnival (with a smaller display in the middle of Carnival at the Torchlight Skiing).
On the final night of Carnival, there is a slideshow displayed on a large screen at the Ice Palace, featuring photos from all of the events held during the past ten days. After the slideshow, the “storming” of the Ice Palace includes one last round of fireworks, shot off over the frozen lake, lighting up the winter sky once more until the next year.
To me, Winter Carnival is one of the best things about living in Saranac Lake. No matter where Saranac Lakers go, Winter Carnival is the one thing for which the prodigal children of this small, mountain town will return.
I hope that if you have experienced the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, you enjoyed yourself and return! (Like my college roommate has done since our first year of school.)
If you haven’t been to Winter Carnival, I hope this post encourages you to do so, with a new appreciation and understanding of this wonderful winter tradition.
For more information visit the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival website.
Pin this post for your future trip to Saranac Lake Winter Carnival!