How important a role has ice played in the Adirondacks? That is the question I set out to discover as I traveled the Adirondack Park three years prior to publishing my book on that subject, Adirondack Ice, a Cultural and Natural History, 2010. Adventures along the way were stories in themselves, stories beyond the residents’ accounts found in my book. The places and events I visited led me in eye-opening new directions. The result of this research led me to conclude a fact often overlooked: ice has substantially determined the course of history in the Adirondack Park.
How did I get involved in this study? It began in 2007 when I first took part in hefting tons of ice out of Lake Flower, then in laboring for days to shape it into a massive elegant Ice Palace after which it all melted away and drained into the water less than a month later. When I asked my fellow volunteers what brought them to undertake such a challenging but fleeting project, I got a number of different answers. None, however, mentioned one of the important reasons which underlies the success of this project and brings together so many different folks; that is, building the Palace is one recreational activity that has little impact on the environment. No divisive debate separates this construction project from those concerned about environmental degradation. Ice is the ultimate renewable resource. It unites communities, draws tourists and, in earlier days, was a valuable commodity.
The deeper I delved into the Park’s frozen waters, the more this observation was confirmed. Ice, a dependable natural resource, has helped shaped the economy as well as the culture of the Adirondacks. Here are some of the stories behind the stories which led me to this conclusion.
One of my first trips was to visit Minerva historian Shirley McNally. We were to meet at the town hall and senior center building. On entering, I found myself amongst people headed for what I thought was a senior breakfast. “Do they often serve meals here?” I asked Shirley.
Not at all. She explained that these older residents had been invited to stop by and share their memories about the days of ice harvesting and harness racing on Minerva Lake. Ten of us seated ourselves around a large rectangular table with two tape recorders set up in the middle. Under the influence of coffee, munchies and good fellowship, folks began to open up. Bit by bit, fascinating tales of the old days came out. I still remember that morning as one of the highlights of my research. The stories were fun, the atmosphere jovial, and the camaraderie joyous. Though the stories involved the cold, they brought us all together in a flood of warm feelings for one another. I still have fond memories of Minerva.
A different occasion took me to New Bremen where the volunteer fire department holds an annual ice harvest. It was a cold, bright, sunshiny day. The town’s folks came out in droves to watch the operation. It was clearly an event in which the fire department took great pride and the spectators took great pleasure. Everyone was happy to pose for photographs and explain details of harvesting. The stored ice is sold to campers and picnickers during the summer and helps fill the fire department’s coffers. One year, during an extensive power failure, it even provided a much needed “green” alternative to electric refrigeration. A great way for community to come together.
I also attended the Raquette Lake ice harvest, a larger operation than New Bremen’s but similar in process. People of all ages, eager to watch and help, look forward to this annual event. Volunteers and spectators, often strangers to one another, are sociable and friendly. Snowmobilers make scheduled stops to view the action. It is clearly a substantial tourist draw.
One day, curious about frazil ice found in fast moving, frigid turbulent rivers, I asked Evelyn Greene if she would take me to see it. I spent a fascinating several hours with her, snowshoeing along the side of the Hudson River, enjoying the ideal learning experience of observing at the same time as learning from Evelyn who explained the peculiar attributes of this kind of ice. Walking on the frazil revealed its crumbly and crunchy characteristic; watching it flow downstream was a lesson in how it forms; seeing it stacked up showed me the process by which it accumulates. It was a fascinating day which included not only new information but making a friend as well.
Another trip brought me to the Lake George Winter Carnival where a number of ice events take place: things I never knew existed until I saw them there: kite flying, parachuting, outhouse racing and most fascinating of all, a training program in under-ice salvage operations carried out by Rich Morin’s Professional Scuba Centers. I learned about the extreme conditions encountered when attempting to recover vehicles or bodies sunk beneath the ice and the need for trained diving teams to safely carry out this operation, It was another ice-related business of which I had not been aware.
Along the same lines, I once stood out on the ice day after day to observe firsthand the efforts, hardships, expense and time spent by sympathetic volunteers who sacrificed their work hours to help recover a truck that fell through the ice in deep water. It took 30 days!
Then there is a sport which first began in the thirties and now draws serious devotees to the Adirondacks: ice climbing. I attended a couple or workshops on the “how to” of this sport but still could not understand its appeal. There was clearly but one way to find out. Accordingly, I set out with nine adventurous friends, several well beyond our 60th year, to discover the delights of putting life and limb at risk to scale the surface of a slick cliff which could, at any minute, come unstuck! Two instructors courageously took us in tow. Each of us managed to climb up some sixty feet, several terrified the whole time. Unless research â€“ and the lure of ice â€“ had driven me to such extremes, I never would have dared to do it. Now, I’m glad I did. We had a blast but â€“ I still don’t understand the appeal.
Ice First Aid
Another adventure brought home to me the value of ice as a natural remedy for injury. Prior to speaking at the Adirondack Interpretive Center in Newcomb, I went for a hike in the nearby woods. I was met on the trail by an adorable chubby bear cub. Mother bear did not attack but masses of insects did. One gave me a vicious sting on my finger which began to swell. My wedding ring got tighter and tighter, cutting off circulation. Being far from any emergency room, I was on my own. Ice saved the day. I ended up giving my ice talk while demonstrating another use for it. Throughout my slide show, I held my finger aloft while the ice wrapped around it melted down my arm and dripped onto the floor.
Where ice is concerned, activities tend not to damage the environment and, as a result, spark little controversy. Ice has been an important means of improving past economies and uniting communities. It still is today. Ice is an ideal natural resource. Let’s hope we manage to slow climate change and hang on to it for the foreseeable future.
About the author. Caperton Tissot is the author of two books: History between the Lines; Women’ Lives and Saranac Lake Customs, 2007 and Adirondack Ice; a Cultural and Natural History, 2010. A booklet entitled Saranac Lake’s Ice Palace: Winter Carnival’s Crown Jewel will be published this spring and a novel is in the works. Her writing life, preceded by years of work in healthcare, pottery, and environmental advocacy, reflects an abiding interest in small communities and natural history. Publications include newspaper, journal and on-line articles. She and her husband Will live in Saranac Lake where Caperton enjoys balancing an outdoor lifestyle with an indoor writing vocation. For more information, visit Tissot@SnowyOwlPress.com.