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Eagle River Ice Castle returns for first time since 2018

Cars and snowmobiles slowdown as they take in the sight of the Eagle River Ice Castle.

Sitting in the parking lot of the downtown railroad depot, it’s impossible to miss.

Four icy pillars anchor a wall surrounding a central tower that stands at roughly the height of a two-story building.

On sunny day, the ice appears as glass and mostly blue in color reflecting the sky.

At night, bulbs placed inside during construction, light up the ice castle in blue, white, and purple.

It’s a sight the elicits exclamations from adults and children alike.

The castle always draws in a crowd of people wanting to see it with their own eyes and get their photo taken in front of it.

But before the pictures and even the excited ooh’s, aah’s, and whoa’s, volunteers spend days of hard labor and weeks of planning to build the ice castle.

The building process

On a sunny, but windy and frigid Saturday, dozens of volunteers helped pull 13 inches ice blocks from Silver Lake, just northwest of downtown Eagle River.

Mick Draeger is a captain with Eagle River Volunteer Fire Department. He’s helped build the ice castle for more than 30 years.

“The Thomas family, the Hankey family started way back in the early 1900s. The ice man would bring you ice for your refrigeration before electricity. That was his job all winter harvesting ice,” said Draeger. “His grandson Jack Thomas was a chief on the department for a number of years. He saved all his grandpas tools for harvesting ice. The next we know the lion’s club for someone to take over the ice castle and the fire department volunteered to do it. So we’ve been doing it for over 30 years.”

With all those years comes experience, the fire department has got it down to science.

The goal is to have it done for the World Championships Snowmobile Derby when thousands of people flood the city.

In the weeks leading up to construction, volunteers are checking the ice thickness. At least 12 inches is need for the blocks, a feat that almost didn’t happen this year.

“We pray for some below zero weather. We were stuck at 10 inches a long time, but the last week we got into the subzero, but we grew a couple three inches, now we’re up 13 inches,” said Draeger.

Years without an ice castle are starting to become more common than years with one.

This is only the third time since 2014 there’s been a castle and the first since 2018.

It makes the years with one, that much more exciting.

“The whole community is excited. The firefighters are excited. 100% honest, as soon as the chief says we’ve got 13 inches of ice we all go ‘Ah man’ cause it’s a week of our life where we have to volunteer and it’s a lot of work,” said Draeger.

The first day of the building process starts with cutting a grid on the ice with a large motor saw anchored by a sled with skis to move it across the ice.

Volunteers guide ice blocks onto a conveyer belt to load them into a waiting pickup truck.
Katie Thoresen
Volunteers guide ice blocks onto a conveyer belt to load them into a waiting pickup truck.

The next day all the blocks have to come out of the lake. Each one is broken free with a hand saw and a blade.

Volunteers then use long poles with hooks on the ends to direct each block into a water channel cut into the ice and onto a conveyor belt. The belt moves each block into a waiting pick up truck.

Once the truck bed is loaded, the blocks are driven off to the railroad depot where another set of volunteers off load them onto pallets.

The next three days the blocks are shaved to uniform size while the construction starts on the ice.

It’s days of hard work in unrelenting weather. Most workdays had wind chill advisories in place.

A lot of work, as Draeger puts it, but always worth it.

“I’ll tell you what, when it is done, we enjoy it more than everybody. It is really a work of art,” said Draeger.

It’s obvious the community and visitors feel the same about the Ice Castle as they can’t help but stop by to get a good look and a few pictures before this winter tradition fades away with the season.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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