LAKE GENEVA — The expectations were grand when Jesse Stone and his crew of two dozen workers began making ice on Riviera Beach.
It was early November and the temperatures were ideal for creating a 30,000-square-foot castle of ice with hopes of drawing thousands of visitors to the shore of Geneva Lake. Using a series of 80 sprinklers and a proprietary process that uses plastic tubes and chillers that can create more than 6,000 icicles a day, the crew of locally hired workers — many of whom work in landscaping jobs on private estates and area golf courses during the warmer months — made serious progress, and there were hopes of opening the attraction by New Year’s.
But Stone’s optimism turned to frustration as repeated rainstorms combined with unseasonable temperatures destroyed much of the work not once or twice but three times.
“This is my eighth castle and it’s been my hardest, by far,” said Stone, the project’s manager. “It has far exceeded any obstacle or challenge I have ever faced.”
Stone’s emotions, along with those of local tourism officials, are on the upswing.
Lake Geneva’s nine-day Winterfest begins Saturday and includes a wide range of events that include hovercraft competitions and rides, a chili cook-off, hot cocoa crawl, human “dogsled” races, magic shows and live music on the second floor of the historic Riviera Ballroom. The festival culminates with the three-day U.S. Snow Sculpting Championship, which begins Jan. 30 and features 15 teams from around the country that will use snow stockpiled at a local ski resort and shipped in large tubes to the city’s downtown.
The ice castle will likely open this week and a forecast of single-digit temperatures and a prolonged polar vortex has the potential to preserve the castle well into March.
“For me, I’m like a kid in a candy store,” said Stone. “I can’t wait. I’ve got my thermals out, finally. This is going to be great. I’m really pumped. We’re finally really able to create.”
Stone works for Ice Castles, a Utah-based company that builds ice castle attractions. He assisted on the 2017 build of an ice castle in Wisconsin Dells and has also built castles in Minnesota and New Zealand. This winter his company is building castles in Dillon, Colorado; Edmonton, Alberta; Excelsior, Minnesota; Midway, Utah; and Lincoln, New Hampshire.
The Lake Geneva castle, which is illuminated at night with colorful lights and includes a water fountain and a 50-foot slide, is expected to draw nearly 6,000 visitors a day. Officials recommend buying timed tickets online that range in price for children from $10.95 on weekdays and $15.95 on weekends and for adults for $15.95 on weekdays and $18.95 on weekends.
“We’ve learned that Mother Nature is going to give you something different every year,” said Joe Tominaro, director of marketing and development for Visit Lake Geneva. “But in our case, there are other things for people to enjoy. The snow sculpting championship has to happen so the teams know that whatever nature gives them, that’s what they have to sculpt with.”
Elsewhere in state
Lake Geneva officials haven’t been alone with their frustrations and concerns and renewed optimism with the arrival of snow and cold.
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Snowmobile trails throughout much of the state have been closed, ice fishing in southern Wisconsin has been limited, and snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and other snow-dependent events have been scratched at many state parks.
The past few days of plunging temperatures and snow in southern Wisconsin will undoubtedly help salvage what has been otherwise a brown and bleak season, but for the Marshall Lion’s Club it might still mean a loss of $10,000. The organization, with 90 members, on Saturday hosted its 18th annual Ice Fisheree. The event typically raises about $30,000, which goes toward scholarships and other community programs and organizations. But with little ice on the Marshall Millpond, the fishing and skating events were scrubbed. In past years more than 250 people have showed up to try to catch a tagged crappie that rewards a $1,000 cash prize.
The two-day event that began Friday night included indoor activities like euchre and Texas Hold’em tournaments in addition to bean bag and flag football tournaments, disc golf, hammerschlagen, a keg toss and giant Jenga. There was also food and music, which helped with the fundraiser not being solely dependent on cooperative weather.
“It’s a one-two punch,” Lee Hellenbrand, one of the festival’s organizers, said last week of the lack of snow and ice. “I know we’ll take a little bit of a hit, but people in Marshall have been really supportive and they tend to show up.”
In Delavan last week, thousands of ice-fishing jigs hung in packages on racks at Lakeside Bait & Tackle. The shop, owned by the father-and-son team of John and Brett Mikrut, opened in 2011 and is a destination for anglers looking to stock up with bait and tackle or purchase some of the newfangled lithium battery-powered ice augers. Trophy walleye and crappie hung on the wall. But the three ice shacks the shop rents and that are normally on Delavan Lake by now remained in the shop’s parking lot since most of the lake had yet to make fishable ice with the exception of a few shallow bays.
Last year at this time, Delavan Lake had more than 12 inches of ice. Hard-water fishing sales can account for between 20 and 30 percent of sales for the Mikruts, but Brett Mikrut estimates he may hit only 15 percent this season.
“It’s going to drop,” Mikrut said Thursday of his revenue. “But we have some extreme cold coming in so that should make some ice out there. It’s a slow start so far.”
The state Department of Natural Resources postponed its ice-fishing event at Devil’s Lake State Park that had been scheduled for Saturday, while on Lake Mendota in Madison, anglers this weekend began cautiously moving out into the main lake basin after being limited to small bays and harbors. The 9,781-acre lake, the largest and deepest in the Yahara River chain, has officially frozen twice between warm spells and freezing a third time in a season would be a first in the lake’s recorded history, according to the Center for Limnology at UW-Madison.
In northern Wisconsin, where snowmobile crowds fill bars, restaurants and hotels, the season is off to a slower start than usual. There’s plenty of snow on the track for the World Championship Snowmobile Derby this weekend in Eagle River, but trails for recreational snow machines are open in only far northern Wisconsin, although more snow is needed to sustain traffic, according to the Snow Report from Travel Wisconsin.
One casualty to the mild December is the ice castle in Eagle River. The castle, first built in 1933, has been constructed since the mid-1980s by volunteers with the Eagle River Area Volunteer Fire Department. Crews cut from Silver Lake about 2,300 blocks of ice weighing 60 to 70 pounds. The ice blocks are then trucked into town and the castle assembled. Admission is free, and the castle has become one of the most popular winter tourist spots in the North Woods. But this year, ice on the lake was too thin to safely harvest so visitors will have to wait until next winter.
That means other activities such as fishing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, wine tastings, cooking classes and shopping will help keep visitors busy.
“It’s very important that we have tourism here during our winter months,” said Kim Emerson, executive director of the Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce. “This cold will help.”