Despite ice not cooperating, Minnesotans push ahead with winter events

An ice rink on a lake
An aerial view shows ice melting on Lake Harriet in Minneapolis on Wednesday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Thousands of people are expected to take part in several metro-area winter festivals this weekend. There’s a big pond hockey tournament, the Art Shanty project at Lake Harriet and a snow sculpture contest in Stillwater.

But the unusually warm, wet weather over the past week has challenged event organizers. And it's making things tough for folks trying to maintain outdoor ice rinks throughout Minnesota.

Along the St. Croix River in downtown Stillwater, there are 12 huge blocks of snow. A dozen three-member teams from eight countries are here to sculpt the snow. The Afton Alps ski Area lent snowmaking equipment to the contest.

Many volunteers helped pack the pristine snow into large wooden forms to make the massive blocks.

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Crews work to prepare for a snow-sculpting competition
Crews work Tuesday to prepare for the upcoming World Snow Sculpting Championship in Stillwater, Minn.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

“It's brutal backbreaking work, and we love it,” said Daniel Raasch, who was helping coordinate the effort. “Yeah, it's a lot of fun.”

Unlike some other events, the wet snow and slush have not been much of an obstacle for the snow sculpture contest. Stacie Jensen from the Stillwater Area Chamber of Commerce is one of the organizers. She says the heavy wet snow is perfect for sculpting. 

“It's really interesting to come watch their progress. It starts out as a big block of snow and turns into amazing creations,” Jensen said. “Really, on Saturday, you start to see those come together and come to life.”'

A big block of snow under a gray sky.
An Argentinian team had begun sculpting snow in Stillwater on Wednesday. Unlike some events that depend on lake ice, organizers of the snow sculpting contest say the recent warm January weather is good for their event.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

The snow sculpting began Tuesday morning and will continue through early Saturday afternoon when awards will be handed out before a big outdoor block party Saturday evening. 

Jensen says 40,000 people attended the event last year, and she’s expecting even more this year, thanks to the warm weather. 

Crews work to prepare for a snow-sculpting competition
Crews work Tuesday, to prepare for the upcoming World Snow Sculpting Championship in Stillwater, Minn.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

In Minneapolis, The Art Shanty Projects with its quirky outdoor structures has been relocated from the wet ice on Lake Harriet to the stable shoreline because of the warm weather. They’re calling that “Plan Beach.”

At nearby Lake Nokomis, organizers of the U.S Pond Hockey Championships, which bills itself as outdoor hockey “the way nature intended,” say they're on track to host 3,000 pond hockey players and many more thousands of spectators. 

A close-up of a melting ice rink
The U.S Pond Hockey Championships are on track to host 3,000 pond hockey players and many more thousands of spectators on Lake Harriet, pictured here Wednesday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Jody Delorit runs the event, which she said has been plagued by snow then rain and now more snow. The show will go on, Delorit said, thanks to a lot of creativity, extra work and a smaller footprint on Lake Nokomis.

“We were pumping water off the lake, which seems really bizarre,” Delorit said. “I'm going to say bonkers, but so we did do that, and we're full steam ahead. Rinks are being built. The temps look like they're not going to get above freezing now for the rest of the tournament, and we have safe ice in the area we've been maintaining.”

A frozen lake with tire tracks on it
The ice on Lake Nokomis was in rough shape on Wednesday, but organizers of the 2023 U.S Pond Hockey Championships say the event will go on starting this weekend.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Most outdoor events around Minnesota do not draw tens of thousands of people. Still, those charged with keeping up sheets of outdoor ice at municipal rinks all over the state know many people depend on their efforts. 

“It's been a challenge trying to keep them clean and get a lot of floods on them to build the ice sheet,” said Mick Johnson, the Fergus Falls park supervisor who is trying to keep up with two outdoor rinks and one skating pond. 

U.S. Pond Hockey Championships at Lake Nokomis
Teams in the Rink Rat division, during the U.S. Pond Hockey Championships on Lake Nokomis in Minneapolis in 2022. This year, organizers of the pond hockey championships are fighting the warm January weather.
Tim Evans for MPR News 2022

“So far, you know, we've had a decent season,” Johnson said. “We were able to flood early. It's been a struggle kind of in the middle of it here to keep them nice. But the way the weather looks is, we're going into a cold front here in about six to eight days. So that'll really prolong things, I think.”

Tiffany Bushland does the same kind of work in the Twin Cities at Centennial Lakes Park in Edina. 

“Yeah, the weather this winter has been something the last few days,” Bushland said. “Seeing a lot of rain has really made an impact on our ice.”

Bushland had to shut down everything on the popular skating retention pond after all of the runoff from the melt made the ice unsafe.

“The water is coming draining in from underneath the ice so we have kind of quite the sandwich problem with the ice, with water on the top and the bottom,” Bushland said.

The pond hockey championships run through the next two weeks on Lake Nokomis. The Art Shanty Projects will be up for the next four weekends on the shore of Lake Harriet. The snow sculptures coming together along the St. Croix River in Stillwater will be on display through early February – weather permitting.