In the Land of Nine-Foot Snow Sculptures
You can say I don’t like cold. You’d be right.
I like it about as much as I like eating liver. I was 12 years old the last time I ate liver. My father forced me to eat it. It came back up a lot faster than it went down. He never forced me to eat liver again.
Growing up, Darling Daughter was taught that ‘snow’ is a four-letter word never to be uttered within the confines of our home.
Put me outside on a 90-degree day and I will be perfectly happy.
So why would someone in their right mind, though I know that alone is a questionable statement when referencing myself, want to venture to Wisconsin to spend much of a winter weekend outside, by a lake?
The US National Snow Sculpting Championships of course.
Thirty years ago, give or take a couple years, I was working with a group trying to start a winter festival in the town where I then lived. I know, I just said I don’t like cold weather and here I am working on a winter festival but there was a reason behind it, and that’s a story for another time.
As part of that, I made a trip to Rockford, IL., to meet with the organizers behind their annual snow sculpting competition. These are not your normal everyday front yard snowmen. These are huge artistic pieces rising nine feet above the ground.
Organizers of the contest built wooden crates, filled them with snow at the airport, loaded them onto trucks with forklifts and hauled them into a local park for the competitors.
I was fascinated by the whole thing and have been ever since. The pieces these people created from those blocks of snow are beautiful. Unfortunately, time seems to slip away, even 30 years of time, and I never made it back.
Thinking it was time for a return trip, a couple of months back I began searching for information about the Rockford contest, seeing when it was to be held, or even if it still existed. To my surprise I learned it was not only still going on but is a qualifying event for the US National Snow Sculpting Championship.
And that is how I ended up in Lake Geneva, WI, on the first weekend in February.
I’m really not making all this ‘cold’ talk up. The competition is held directly beside the lake. The lake is frozen solid. People had their huts up, ice fishing during the day.
There was a company there giving hovercraft rides! For a fee, groups of three or four could climb in one of these contraptions and go flying out across the middle of the lake.
For the heck of it I even joined many other visitors walking out onto it.
Morning was actually the warmest part of the day when it was around 10 or 11 degrees. Yes, the temperature did rise into the upper teens later in the day, but there was no wind during the morning hours. By noon all bets were off.
Friday night wasn’t too bad with somewhat mild winds and an unexpected snowfall coming in during the late afternoon and evening.
Saturday was a different story. The term bitter windchills comes to mind. Windchills were easily below zero along that lake and seemed to get worse as the day and night wore on.
Enough about all that cold. I think I have it out of my system for the moment.
Fifteen teams from 11 different states competed. They came from as far away as Alaska and, believe it or not, one from sunny, warm, palm tree Florida.
You think I’m crazy driving from cold weather Iowa to even colder Wisconsin, how in the heck do people from Florida get here? What, do they practice for the competition by building sand castles?
Eighty truckloads of snow is hauled in from The Grand Geneva Resort, pulverized down so it’s a fine consistency, molded into an 8 x 9-foot cylinder mold, and finally stomped down by workers who jump into the mold to make sure it’s good and firmly packed.
The teams can have up to 10 members but it seemed most were made up of three people, maybe four.
The sculpting kicks off at 11 a.m. Wednesday morning and teams work through until 1 p.m. on Saturday. Teams will literally work around the clock. My hotel was less than a block from the competition area. Walking back around 9 p.m. Friday night, most of the teams were still hard at it.
Reportedly, the teams will drink 30 mugs of coffee and hot cocoa to keep warm. No reports on how many bottles of whisky they have in their back pockets.
Competitors use ice choppers, snow saws, chisels and machetes to sculpt their creations. This isn’t a chainsaw carving competition.
First through third place is awarded in both judged and people’s choice categories. That team from Florida, by the way, placed in both categories. A team from Wisconsin was declared the overall winner and one from New York was the people’s choice.
Oh, and by the way, there’s also a competition for the local grade schools. There were some really fun creations they made located right behind the main competition area.
The competition is just part of the weekend experience and is part of a full Winterfest of activities. In fact, the competition is only one of two sculpting exhibitions.
Wandering around Lake Geneva you’ll find more than 30 ice sculptures located outside the town’s many businesses. These are highly detailed pieces. Some, but not all, represent the type of business in front of which they are located.
When darkness falls, you can warm yourself around a huge bonfire out on the beach with live entertainment, hot chocolate and smores from 5 – 9 p.m., both Friday and Saturday.
If you’re looking for a more adult beverage outside, the Baker House located along the river just down from where the competition is held has an outside ice bar. Yes, the bar is made from ice. They don’t even have to refrigerate the beers, they just pull them directly out of their boxes.
Geneva Lake is a great little, 7,900 population, lake resort area. There’s a lot of shopping and many different places to eat. Topsy Turvy brewery, located in an old church building, has a wide selection of beers.
I was especially excited about the Shore Path that would be more fun to explore when the weather is considerably warmer. The path circles the lake and is literally a marathon race in distance, 26 miles. But, there are several spots where you can jump onto the path so you can easily do it in sections rather than trying to get it all done in a day.
The unique thing about the path is that it combines both public and private properties. Much of the hike takes you through people’s backyards.
The path has been preserved by early settlers who decreed the twenty feet leading to the shoreline be preserved as public domain. Property owners were responsible then, and still, for maintaining the path through each of their properties.
I walked just a couple of miles of the path and witnessed countless beautiful homes tucked into the hills rising from the lake. That included the largest estate, a mansion known as Stone Manor.
After the Chicago fire of 1871, you know about that, the one caused by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, several wealthy Chicagoans built summer homes in the Lake Geneva area including a man by the name of Otto Young.
Sidenote, another estate along the lake has a pretty well know name, Wrigley. Yep, the chewing gum people who also once owned the Chicago Cubs.
By the time Young completed Stone Manor in 1901 the cost had grown to $15 million. That would be around a half a billion dollars, that’s with a ‘b’ not an ‘m’, today.
There are seven levels including two sub-basements, four main levels and a rooftop terrace. It’s gone through several changes over the years and today is divided into six luxury condominiums.
Another sidenote, the home owners pull their docks in off the lake during the winter months, section by section. There are large stacks of the dock sections piled along the path. I can’t imagine the work involved in putting those in each spring and back out again come winter.
I was told by one local that there are three contractors who have the total market on the dock installation and removal, with homeowners signed to annual contracts with one or the other of the three.
All in all I’m very happy I took the time to spend the weekend at the lake and see the snow sculpting competition.
I may even go back to Lake Geneva again to spend more time on the Shore Path, in July, when it’s like 80 degrees out, or at least the 70s, and I can feel my nose, and fingers, and toes.
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