In Minnesota, there’s a harvest like no other. The cold-weather crop so sought after here is ice. Watching the spectacle and scale of it being hewn from the lake with one particular purpose in mind leaves David Edwards at a near-loss for words. Just as well he had his camera on him.
In the land of 10,000 lakes, the 40cm-thick mid-winter ice of Green Lake is freakishly transparent. Walking across its crystalline surface, I freeze mid-step, but not from the cold – my nerve suddenly fails me 200m from the tree-lined shore. Beneath my sturdy snow boots, the wavering tops of tall green reeds seem suddenly all too vivid as they emerge from the dark recesses of the lake’s deep, convoluted bed. No matter how many times the locals have reassured me that the ice here is way too thick to break, or how many ice-fishermen’s trucks I’ve seen driving implausibly across its centre, the experience is as near to walking on water as I can imagine.
The clarity of the water and the lake’s reputation for freezing early in the season are the reason the place is alive with fishermen from all across the state. They’re busy dragging out their fish-houses, equipped with everything it seems from sonar fish-finders and ice drills to heaters, fridges full of beer and flat-screen TVs. They create a scene of constantly shifting villages on the ice.
At this time of year, Green Lake is the location for the annual ice harvest and a micro-industry has descended to spend the next several days cutting 4,000 ice blocks to build a Winter Carnival Ice Palace in the state capital Saint Paul, over 100 miles away. Given the number of lakes between here and there, it’s a real honour.
I’m no expert, but I can see there’s something very special about the ice here. To confirm that for themselves, a team of specialists from the bright-lights big city of Saint Paul has arrived. Year after year, they come to this spot to draw out the very best of the cold stuff by shining lights through it to create the visual effects the Winterfest organisers and artists are after. They even use a score-card to gauge how crystalline it is and measure its degree of blueness.
The temperature has been hovering around -22ºC for days. I go to change my camera card and, despite three pairs of gloves, I find my fingers completely frozen out of action. The crew, meanwhile, are quite happily at work.
“Go warm yourself up in the fish-house,” yells John Lint, a tough-looking man in his seventies and another one perfectly at ease in the Arctic conditions. “There may be some crew members in there for you to talk to.”
Flashing through my mind are the jokes about the Beast from the East travel warnings back in the UK: ‘Owing to severe weather conditions, southerners are advised not to travel unless absolutely necessary. Northerners, you will need your big coat’. Maybe this applies to the US, too. I find an empty but thankfully warm fish-house, complete with a tray of uneaten sandwiches – the crew are obviously too content even to contemplate taking a break.
This hardy approach the locals have to the cold – inherited no doubt from their German, Scandinavian and Irish ancestors – was the inspiration for Saint Paul’s Winter Carnival and the tradition of building gigantic ice palaces. The story goes that, after visiting the city in 1885, a New York reporter wrote that Saint Paul was ‘another Siberia, unfit for human habitation’ in the winter.