MAYVILLE – If there was ever a winter to build an ice castle, this is it.
The ice-cold temperatures have been ideal for the 12-foot-high, 90-foot-wide fortress that since last Friday has been rising from the banks along Chautauqua Lake.
“The biggest challenge is the weather, and this year, it’s cooperated,” said David Douglas, a village resident and the castle’s designer for the annual ICE festival, which takes place Feb. 14 to Feb. 16.
“Three years ago, we had a beautiful castle, 60 degrees, and warm wind and rain, and we had to knock it down on the Friday of the festival because it was unsafe,” he said.
No one’s expecting that to happen this year. Thursday, with a day to go to finish building the castle’s frame – and another week to add decorative elements and lighting – about a dozen volunteers working in 10-degree weather were busy moving blocks of ice from the lake to the ground. That’s where a crane on one side and an excavator working on the other lifted them with cables attached to tongs made by Chautauqua Iron Works.
Some of the work was done the old-fashioned way – the way blocks of ice used to be taken and put into storage – with the added benefit of electricity, diesel and heavy machinery.
About 150 blocks of ice – averaging 40 inches by 20 inches, and weighing 300 to 400 pounds each – were cut from the frozen lake with a chain saw mounted on a sled, about 200 feet from the bank that serves in warmer weather as a boat launch. Volunteers used ice hooks to push the blocks onto a winch-activated trough. From there, the blocks were unloaded and slid along the ice and snow about 20 feet to put them within the crane’s reach.
“They used to do all of it by hand before there was motorized equipment,” said Burl Swanson, a self-described “iceberg herder.”
Some 1,000 blocks of ice were expected to be in place by the end of the day, with another 500 more to be cut and hoisted. The Chautauqua Belle, a replica of the original steam ships on Chautauqua Lake, rested a stone’s throw away from the castle.
Douglas said he thought ice castles were cool ever since he first volunteered in 1987, the festival’s first year. He’s proud that this year’s design is his, which he adopted from photographs of earlier castles.
“I’ve lived here my whole life, and I always watched it be done. I can’t explain why – I might be a little sick in the head – but it’s just fun,” Douglas said.
He would have liked to build higher – pictures revealed ice castles were once allowed to be built 25 to 30 feet high, he said – but village concerns over insurance no longer allow it.
Douglas has designed a courtyard with steps, and he directed the excavator’s placement of ice blocks, a chain saw nearby in case a block needed to be squared off to fit into place.
“It’s like a big Lego set,” Douglas smiled, recalling one of his favorite activities as a kid.
Swanson said he is looking forward to the festival. He serves on the volunteer fire department, and it will be demonstrating an ice water rescue. He chuckled at the thought of the “polar bear dip,” in which people plunge four to seven feet into the frigid lake water, where ice has been removed, to raise money for the local food pantry.
“Some of the kids jumping in the water are so slim it looks like someone threw a slab of bacon on a hot grill. Right back out of the water they come, just like a rocket. It’s awesome. Others get out and make snow angels,” Swanson said, before adding, “Not me.”
There will also be a kids sledding track, chili cookoff, snowmobile rides, horse-drawn sleigh rides, ice skating on the lake and fireworks.
“It’s a family event that we have rain and shine, whether it’s 70 degrees or 70 degrees below,” said Ken Shearer, president of the Mayville-Chautauqua Chamber of Commerce. “The castle is a great place to take a picture of the family.”
For more information on the festival, go to www.chautauquachamber.org.