As the mercury has plummeted the past few weeks, folks are reminded of two things. Yes. This is Wisconsin. And, two, all the fun that accompanies Lake Geneva Winterfest is just around the corner. The cold weather is a critical partner for one of Lake Geneva’s premier annual events, all the better for 15 incredible snow-sculpting teams to work their magic by the lakefront. This year’s Winterfest is scheduled to take place Feb. 2-6 in Riviera Plaza and Flat Iron Park. Even better, there’s no admission charge.
Those of us lucky enough to live and work around here are familiar with Winterfest, but for newcomers here are a few fast facts:
- Visit Lake Geneva and the City of Lake Geneva are joined by numerous area partners and sponsors who make the event financially feasible and see to the details.
- It’s the only U.S. National Snow Sculpting Championship, with all the prestige for competitors that implies.
- Visitors can watch the sculptures take shape beginning at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Feb.2. Winners will be announced at 5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 5.
Winterfest is a lot of fun, but it’s also a lot of work and much of that effort goes on behind the scenes managing the logistics. The skills of the sculptors create the art. The commitment of a small army of supporters enables the artists.
Let’s start with the snow. Weather can be a fickle element, but Winterfest sculpting is not dependent on natural snow. The good folks at the Grand Geneva tap snow-making capabilities at the resort’s Mountain Top Ski and Adventure Center. We spoke with Chad Hart, director of ski operations the past eight years. He told us the resort – at no charge to Winterfest – runs more than 1.2 million gallons of water through its snow-makers to create a massive pile of snow. How much snow? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million pounds, he said. Let’s all just be glad we don’t have to shovel it. The Mountain Top team is always eager to help with Winterfest. “It’s part of being a partner in the community,” Chad said. “We look forward to it, and we’re happy to do it.”
Of course, once that big pile of snow has been created the next challenge is making it ready and useful for the sculpting teams. That job belongs to the crew at the Lake Geneva Department of Public Works. We spoke with Tom Earle, DPW Director, and with his colleague Neil Waswo, DPW Superintendent. Tom is the planner; Neil is the go-to guy on scene. Both men have long experience making Winterfest an annual success. Neil has worked the event for 14 years, Tom for 8.
Moving the snow from the Grand Geneva resort is a big job. DPW positions loaders and trucks to haul the snow, then runs it all through a big snow blower to chop chunks into powder. Then the snow goes into forms – set up in Riviera Plaza and Flat Iron Park – to create 10-foot cylinder blocks for the sculpting. Mind you, it’s not enough just to dump snow into the forms. It’s layered in, and folks working with the competition firm Winter Fun USA go inside the forms to stomp it solid. The finished product leaves a giant block perfect for making art.
For the Public Works folks, that’s just the beginning. Set-up for traffic control means lower Wrigley Drive is shut down for the event. The crew stays at the site 24 hours a day during sculpting, providing assistance as needed along with security. They staff the Riviera all weekend, keep the bathrooms clean and open, pick up the garbage and generally police the grounds. Keeping up with the work takes a crew of 9-10 people.
When Winterfest ends the process reverses, opening traffic and returning to normal. The sculptures remain on display as long as Mother Nature cooperates with cool-enough temperatures. Even then, DPW monitors the site and if melting occurs creating potential hazards like sharp edges or loose chunks, the crew takes sculptures safely down. It’s a lot of work. In 2021, DPW devoted 587 hours to Winterfest chores. Tom and Neil both said the folks at DPW enjoy serving the community and visitors. “We’re happy to do it,“ Tom said. “We like doing it. We like the outcome.”
As for you, dear readers, no work is required. All you have to do is to come out and enjoy the fun. This year looks like a winner already. The sculpting competition is incredible, with skilled teams creating finely-detailed unique works of art. Teams come from some predictable places – Wisconsin, of course, along with New York, Michigan and Illinois. Some travel far – New Hampshire, North Dakota, even Alaska. And then there’s Florida. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Sculpting sand and sculpting snow is not the same, but it’s close enough to be competitive.
Meanwhile, Downtown Lake Geneva will be festooned with beautiful ice sculptures for browsing and viewing. There will be igloos to explore and bonfires on the beach. Winter doesn’t have to be cabin fever and sad faces. At least not in Lake Geneva during Winterfest. Reward not only the sculpting teams but also the hard-working folks behind the scenes who make all this come together. Join us and enjoy the show.