It’s that time of year, when I gather with some friends in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and we freeze our tails off for a week while carving snow at the National Snow Carving Championships. This year was extremely mild compared to some years, but it was perfectly cold for snow carving. If memory serves, the temperature was around 30-32 during the day and 15-20 or so at night. 32 (and sunny) is pushing it, but the snow was able to re-freeze during the nights, so all was well. In fact, for pure carving, the temp made the snow soft and easy to get through, for the most part. Snow is very temperature dependent, so the colder it gets, the harder the snow is to carve. Conversely, the harder the snow, the easier it is to finish and sand, so this year presented a good mix of the two.
My team was able to go this year and represent New York State in the contest, though my usual teammates were not able to attend (they went out and got jobs or something…). Undeterred, I loaded up the car with two new teammates (Alyssa and Hannah) and headed out west. We had to leave a day early because of an impending snow storm, and none to soon. Luckily for us, the drive out was a fairly uneventful 13 hours. While one teammate was pumping breast milk (8 month old baby) the other was homeworking via computer in the back, I drove on—making them listen to rough comedy and super sad indie rock the whole way.
It was actually pretty relaxing to get in a day early because there was time to go see more of the town and get to know my team. Lake Geneva is a small town in the winter but it probably triples its size in the summer. I have yet to go there in the warmer months, but I hope to sometime. My grandfather apparently spent a great deal of time there as a respite from the hot Chicago summers, so it’s cool to think about a connection between us, albeit, at different times and for different purposes. For Winterfest, the weekend of the snow carving event, the town blooms into a bustling and festive place. Thousands of people come for the weekend and view the sculptures, eat at the various restaurants, and partake of the general winter carnival fun. It’s a pretty cool experience for us because we are treated so well by the town and by the locals. Everyone we met was warm and friendly, making the experience so positive and fun that you forget you are there to do some serious work.
The first night of the event is always a meet and greet with each team, the organizers, and the stompers. Stomper is the term for the people that make the snow blocks each year, and in this case, it is two dreadlocked, massively bearded, and guitar wielding brothers. Actually, I think one of them is a drummer, but certain facts tend to escape after the first night of snow camp.
Meeting each team is a great way see old friends that have competed before, as well as new potential friends that you haven’t met yet. Some teams are gregarious, while others are much more reserved, but it is still a good opportunity to see who your competition will be and to talk with like minded people. Vermont, New Hampshire, and Colorado were all new (to me) this year, so it was cool to see some new blood (speaking of blood, I’ll get to the Alaska story later). Vermont was a mother/daughter team and New Hampshire was a father/daughter team, so there was definitely a family vibe to the event. Actually, Nebraska has a father/son combo on the team, too. Illinois seems to have the same thing, but they will neither confirm nor deny one and the same.
I gave my new team relatively little primmer about the event, so the first night was fun for me to watch through their eyes. I told them there would be a man dressed as a bear (Man-bear Von Helsingvanberowitz) but they didn’t believe me until they saw his furry head. I told them there would be a team all in kilts and with weasel alter egos (the Kilted Snow Weasels), but again, they were skeptical until they saw some hairy kilted legs. The team dressed as Vikings were believable to them, but the others were out of the comfort zone for sure. There seems to be a gathering force of costumery and shenanigans that make the competition hilarious and bizarre.
Of course, not everyone is insane and weird, there are mostly normal people that compete in the event (if you can call wanting to hang out in the freezing cold for 4 days and chip away at a snow block normal). In fact, many of the people that carve snow are not even professional artists, they tend to come from all types of professions and educational backgrounds. This is one aspect that makes the competition so interesting, that everyone is very different but they have a common cause for one week.
The first day of competition is always a test of will and human compassion. Half of the contestants are severely hungover and the other half both sympathize and revel in the foolishness of mankind. This year was no different, as I saw some bleary eyes at the morning breakfast. Most people tend to perk up as the bracing cold hits, but then the all-team meeting puts people right back into their trances.
The team meeting is where Don, the organizer, goes over the rules and answers questions and such. This year, Michelle (assistant organizer and former Kilted Snow Weasel) put a timer on the speaking, which was loudly cheered by many. Seriously though, it is a necessary meeting so everyone is there and really does have a great time getting the event off to a great start.
At the team meeting, it was discovered that team Alaska was down a man. Apparently, in the middle of the night, one of the teammates got up to use the restroom and tripped while in the bathroom. Unfortunately, he tripped and stepped right in the team tool bag. To make matters worse, he then proceeded to fall into the bag itself (think of a very large duffle bag with extremely sharp chisels and other tools inside). 27 stitches later, he was convalescing back in the hotel room for two days. There were other minor injuries as usual, but nothing this serious thank goodness. It made me think of several years ago when one of the Weasels (Randy) slipped on some icy stairs the night before the competition began and was also out for the duration. Actually, Alaska set up a table and chair for their injured teammate on the last two days of the event so he could participate and tell the crowd what had happened. I bet he told the same story 100 times in those two days. Luckily, he should be ok though.
The event itself has the usual trials of working outside in the cold: sweating, taking off layers, getting cold, putting layers back on, etc. It seems like one is either freezing from wet clothes or burning up, with not much in the middle. This year, with the temperature as it was, it was very hot. A few swings of the chisel and layers were coming off, especially because it was nice and sunny as well. It is always funny to me to be out in the freezing cold in a t-shirt and hear the exclamations and feel the general consternation of frozen passers-by.
Speaking of frozen, my two teammates were extremely excited about the movie Frozen and insisted that I watch it with them. Even though it was a short movie, we finally made it to the end after 3 nights of watching (sleep is hard to come by at snow camp, so I opted for that when I could). For a movie with so much singing, it seemed like a case study in group passive aggressiveness. If I’m honest though, it was a pretty cute movie with some clever songs. It was also a great team-building moment for us. There always seems to be an event or situation during Nationals that is a bonding moment, and I think this was it for us. It was either that, or the seemingly constant sound of the breast pumping machine coming from the bathroom…
The first day of carving is pretty temperature dependent. Some teams that have a ton of snow to move usually like to tackle the project early (actually, the blocks are about 12 tons worth of snow) so when it is warm on the first day they tend to get moving. Other teams tend to wait a day or so to get the major carving done because they don’t want the heat and sublimation to shrink the block too much. Every team has their own strategy based on what they are carving and what the weather forecast calls for (or how late they stayed out the night before). We started right away because our design called for a lot of snow removal and then some delicate finishing work. The earlier we could get the major snow out of the way, the more time we would have for the surfaces to freeze up before we sanded them down. Overall, this was a good choice for us because the weather cooperated just as we had hoped it would.
Each year, on the first night of carving, there is a sponsors dinner. This is a night of fun and food where each major sponsor of the event gets paired with a team for dinner and general fun. The cool thing about the night is that each sponsor usually brings gifts for the teams depending on what their company is about. For example, restaurants sometimes provide free food to their team, or clothing manufactures provide hats or gloves. This year, our team was sponsored by the Lake Geneva Business District (a group of business in Lake Geneva). They brought us a great give basket with all kinds of products from local businesses. Of course, it isn’t necessary to get something from the sponsor, but it really does make each team feel welcome and important. It’s a great tradition where a little goes a long way.
Each team usually brings a small gift for the sponsors as well as the other teams, too. Sometimes these gifts are funny, sometimes they are useful, but again, it is nice just to be thought of and to exchange things with people from different cultures (relatively different). Usually, teams bring a pin or a button or something like that. Teams that have been many times have collections of these items from over the years, and usually display them on hats or some other clothing at some point during the event. Ambitious teams bring some pretty cool items like Iowa that had blacksmithed some decorative swans for each team member, or Nebraska who usually brings homemade beer for everyone. This year the team from Wisconsin went all out with some original t-shirts that summed up the experience of snow carving quite nicely.
Alyssa and Hannah, though both sculptors, were new to snow carving so they didn’t know quite what to expect. After a couple days of hesitation, they both really got into the spirit and started to knock some snow off the ol’ block. I think initially they were afraid to do something wrong or take the wrong piece off (it’s hard to put pieces back on once they are gone) but after a while, they gave in to curiosity and no fear.
This sort of unafraid spirit is exactly what one has to have when carving snow because if you are too hesitant, the block will look clunky and under-carved. They did a solid job realizing the piece in the end, especially since I only told them what they were making the night before the competition started. Seriously, I showed them a terrible drawing and they made a pretty cool sculpture.
Judging at this competition is done by the artists themselves, not outside judges. This method is quite rare in any competition that I know of, but it does make sense in a lot of ways. The idea is: who better to judge the artists going through a week of freezing cold art making than the same people that were there and witnessed the whole thing. There are flaws, but overall everyone has high character and is very honest about the best piece. It is unique to the sport and in any sport in general, and it gives Nationals its own mystique.
We had plenty of adventures throughout the week including one local woman’s quest to see if the Weasels had anything on under their kilts, Colorado’s persistent snow carving groupie, seeing old friends at Harry’s pub, leading the group Omm, and other hijinks. Hopefully, next year we will be back and compete while seeing our old friends and meeting new ones.
Our 1000 mile drive back was brutal because we had to leave right after judging to avoid yet another snow storm. We did, thank goodness, but other teams had to stay an extra night or stop somewhere on the way. We drove all night and made it back to NY at 5:30am—just in time to get in the car and head to Quebec City for Internationals…