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Visitors flock to Cave Lake despite frigid temperatures

Sculpted of snow and ice, imaginative shapes emerge at Cave Lake State Park during the annual White Pine Fire and Ice Festival slated for Jan. 14-16. Vying for prize money, teams of sculptors let their imaginations loose to produce creations that range from single fantastic figures to groups of shapes, some elegantly beautiful, others drawing smiles. The event culminates with a fireworks show at 6 p.m. Jan. 16, after judging is complete.

Sponsored by White Pine County’s Tourism and Recreation Board, the event is unique among activities in Nevada’s state parks. Participants and spectators brave frigid outdoor temperatures. Spectators watch the sculptors at work and enjoy associated activities such as entertainment, games, food and the camaraderie found around crackling bonfires.

Cave Lake State Park lies just 14 miles from Ely, ideally located for the event at 7,300 feet elevation. With the lofty Schell Creek Range in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in the background, the park usually gets several feet of snow by mid-January, perfect for the snow sculpturing festival.

Open all year, Cave Lake State Park lies 282 miles from Las Vegas, using U.S. 93. Drive north from Las Vegas on Interstate 15 to the U.S. 93 exit. Follow this highway north through Alamo and Caliente and past Pioche to junction with U.S. 650. Turn left toward Ely and drive 19 miles to the turnoff to the state park on the Success Summit Road, a scenic loop route open during the summer and fall. The park lies at the end of the paved portion of this road several miles up a canyon.

The popular park draws winter sports enthusiasts for camping, ice skating, ice fishing, sledding, snowshoeing, cross country skiing and staging of snowmobiles. Although snowmobiling is prohibited inside the park, riders use parking areas at the park to unload and access roads and trails within the adjacent national forest. Ice skating is allowed near the boat launch area. Ice fishermen angling for trout holes in the ice must have valid Nevada licenses. Be prepared to cut ice often 2 feet thick.

Park visitors pay a $7 entrance fee at Cave Lake, discounted to $5 for Nevada residents. One of the park’s two campgrounds remains open for winter camping, available on a first-come basis for a $17 fee, less $2 for Nevadans. Plan to bring water and firewood for camp use and to pack your refuse home for proper disposal. Group campsites are available for a fee of $15 per vehicle.

Ice sculptors competing in the Fire and Ice Festival should register with the event organizers. Download a registration form from the White Pine Fire and Ice Festival website and send it to Ely with a $25 registration fee. Teams that place in the judging take home $1,000 for first, $500 for second and $250 for third.

Rules are simple and nonrestrictive to encourage creativity. Participants must bring sculpting tools from home, but sculpting must be done on-site. They use snow either from the site or imported and water from home or from Cave Lake, available only through holes in the ice. No dyes or other colorants may be used. Although wood or metal may be used to corral heaps of snow, no structural elements may be used in the sculpture itself. Sculptures must be a minimum of 6 feet high and wide, but no more than 12 feet.

Experienced ice sculptors often arrive that Friday or earlier to find their assigned spot and begin stockpiling their snow. Usually working from drawings, they add layers of an icy slurry of snow thinned by enough water to bond with the growing shape. Finishing late in the day ensures that the sculpture has all night to harden before work resumes the next day. Sculptures must be finished and ready for judging by 3 p.m. that Sunday.

The White Pine Fire and Ice Festival began in 2003 when an ice fisherman carved a whale of a fish from the snow at Cave Lake. The sculpture drew unexpected crowds, giving impetus to the idea of a competition. The first organized event took place two years later, gaining interest and national notice.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.

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