Green Lake jewels to be used in St. Paul ice castle
SPICER — Wearing ice-covered boots and wiping away icicles from beards and noses, a crew of about 40 people were busy Wednesday harvesting massive ice blocks from Green Lake.
Prized for the crystal-clear ice that reflects a blue hue as the sun filters through the bitter cold air, the 573-pound blocks of Green Lake ice will be the jewels used to build a 70-foot-tall ice castle in St. Paul for the Winter Carnival.
St. Paul's annual winter celebration will be extended an extra week this year — from Jan. 25 to Feb. 10 — to coincide with Super Bowl festivities in Minneapolis.
Knowing that the ice castle will likely draw nationwide attention with the Super Bowl next month, the crew of local and metro workers on Green Lake are putting their heart and soul into a very cold job.
"It's going great. The people around town have been awesome," said Mike Gutknecht, from Park Construction, the general contractor for the project.
"The people have been great to work with and the spirit of the crew is they want to do this," he said. They want to be part of this."
Maneuvering around a gaping hole of open water that starts to freeze once activity stops, the job of harvesting the ice from the lake is done by the Wee Kut Ice Company, owned by Mike Lint, Bruce Nelson and Gideon Doty — three friends from the New London and Spicer communities.
The trio has been harvesting ice for festivals and cutting holes in lakes for polar plunge events since 1991.
"Work is a little slow in the summertime," quipped Nelson.
Wee Kut had originally been contacted to provide about 35,000 blocks of ice for the St. Paul castle, but when funds fell short and the plan was scrapped, the company took on other commitments to make an ice castle in Spicer and Detroit Lakes.
When last-minute funding came through for a smaller St. Paul ice castle requiring about 4,000 blocks, Wee Kut debated whether or not they had time to get the job done.
Being part of a once-in-a lifetime Super Bowl event that would put their home community on the map convinced them to do it.
On Monday, they cleared snow away from about a two-acre section of Green Lake at the public boat access on North Shore Drive near Spicer.
On Tuesday they moved out the equipment and began test runs of the process before putting in a full day Wednesday.
It's a process that hasn't changed much from a time when Green Lake ice was used to keep food cold in ice boxes a century ago.
After an immense spinning blade sliced through the 16-inch-thick ice in straight lines, the blocks were pried away from the ice bed and men wielding heavy, wet, cold poles herded blocks down a narrow channel of open water to a conveyor built.
At the other end workers loaded the blocks — which were 22 inches wide and 44 inches long — onto pallets.
Gutknecht said Green Lake was chosen because of the thickness and the clarity.
"The clarity is above all," he said. "The blocks are blue. They are very pretty."
Working from sunup to sundown, the crew has three days to get the blocks harvested.
Lint said they really could have used five or six days "but we don't have five or six days to give them."
On Friday, the pallets of blocks will be loaded onto semis and trucked to Rice Park in St. Paul.
Gutknecht estimates it will take 60 semi loads to get all the blocks there.
After digging a foundation Saturday and pouring concrete Monday to create a base for the 2 million-pound ice castle, crews will begin laying blocks Tuesday.
It will be open to the public on Jan. 25.
As for Wee Kut, they will move their equipment to the other side of Green Lake this weekend and begin cutting ice for the ice castle for the Spicer Winter Fest and then head to Detroit Lakes to cut ice for a castle there.