Artistry on ice: castles, sculptures, windswept lakeshore caves

Jim Bonson photo.
Jim Bonson photo.

Single-digit temps. Double-digit winds. Looks like our January thaw is history, but the frosty season which remains is a beauty, thanks in no small part to ice.


The glaze that makes roads and sidewalks perilous adds a warm sparkle to Wisconsin during this time of year. The state is a shimmering showcase of frozen artistry.

Consider the windswept ice caves at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, near Bayfield. How close you get depends on Lake Superior’s mood. Walk the challenging Lakeshore Trail (it starts where Meyers Road ends) for clifftop views of the sea caves, but consult the National Park Service’s ice line – 715-779-3398, extension 3 – before venturing onto the frozen water.

When conditions are right, people hike, snowshoe or use cross-country skis on lake ice to reach the mainland sea caves, but the two-mile, round-trip trek can be treacherous. Wind and waves can break even thick ice. Terrain is uneven and sometimes slick.

In Eagle River, volunteers in 1933 began building big castles of ice, complete with thrones for perching and picture taking. Eighty years later, most volunteers are firefighters who use the now-antique equipment to score and cut thousands of ice blocks; each weighs 80-85 pounds.

“Ice harvesting used to be big business for our area,” notes Jim Bonson, deputy fire chief. That first castle likely was made out of boredom, with leftover ice.

This year’s ice castle is 25 feet high, lit at night and probably will stay put until the end of February, predicts the Eagle River native who is 63 and began building the icy houses in 1978.

“It’s labor intensive” and hard on the back, he says, even though forklifts and cranes assist. Like snowflakes, no two castles have been identical.

“We’ve had ’em taller and wider,” Jim says, and the present location – between a parking lot and snowmobile trail – restricts size.

The palace emerges every year, usually by mid January, unless the weather is too warm. To lend a hand next year, check in before Christmas with the local tourism office., 800-359-6315

Farther south, Max and Jeanne Zuleta make a living from ice-carving projects. Art Below Zero, Franksville, opened in 2003 after Max established himself as an international player in the business, winning awards from Belgium to Venezuela.

Designs often begin with a computerized numerical control machine that ensures precision. Ice blocks are made with filtered water, resulting in “gemlike clarity” and “slower than average melt time,” the Zuletas say online.

Now their Ice Beat Factory offers originally composed “world music” as sculptures are created. Shows last five to 55 minutes, depending upon what the customer wants.

Jeanne says the company “has created pieces that are between 25 tons – maybe bigger – and 6-ounce ice spheres.” Think clinking curtains of ice, 23-foot-tall ice bars, precise centerpieces. The art requires chain saws to little chisels and die grinders.

Price per project depends upon “the amount of ice, precision required, level of customization and location.”, 414-779-7000

Art Below Zero will use 60 blocks of ice to create 11 sculptures for Kenosha’s first Snow Daze, noon to 3 p.m. Feb. 8 at Library Park. Each block weighs 280 pounds.

Work will include an 8-foot-long and 5-foot-tall graffiti wall; Jeanne says visitors can use a battery-operated, carving/engraving tool to leave their mark on this panel of ice.

The free, family-friendly Snow Daze is a way to break up winter hibernation. That means painting on snow, interacting with working ice carvers and making ice angels (bring a camera and stand in front of wings made of ice)., 262-654-7307

Art Below Zero again is creating an outdoor ice bar for Baker House, Lake Geneva. It opens Jan. 31 and will be a main attraction at the restaurant and inn for two weekends, through Feb. 8. Expect ice-carving demos with music, too., 262-248-4700

The project coincides with Winterfest in Lake Geneva, Jan. 29 to Feb. 2. The U.S. National Snow Sculpting Competition anchors this downtown lakefront event. Teams carve 9-foot-tall blocks of snow as visitors watch and help judge., 262-248-4416

Ice sculpting is a key part of Fire and Ice, a Feb. 14-16 festival in Sturgeon Bay. Amateur and professional carvers from Wisconsin will create 18 sculptures from ice (and six from snow). Cash prizes for winning entries are $25-125.

Where’s the fire? That may refer to the spark of romance at Stone Harbor Resort, which hosts the festival’s Feb. 15 evening dinner, dance and silent auction. Tickets are $75 ($67.50, if bought before Feb. 1), and formal attire is required., 920-743-6246

Clueless about carving anything beyond the Thanksgiving turkey? Chef Larry Bushner of Vanishing Art, Milwaukee, conducts private classes at his studio and by appointment. He prefers no more than three students per class, true beginners to veteran chippers, and customizes instruction., 414-510-6118