Although it sometimes hardly seems like an event at all, the Ice Shanty Village often punches above its weight. In recent years it's been located on the northwest lobe of the White Bear Lake cloverleaf—the part that's practically dried up. The ice houses are widely spaced and spread out in no particular pattern discernible from the ground, and as you approach on foot from the parking lot in the nearby county park just off Highway 96 there doesn't seem to be much going on. This is, in part, because the huge expanse of ice on which the event is held dwarfs the visitors, but also because lots of people are inside the shanties enjoying the art.
We arrived on a sunny afternoon, made more brilliant by the reflected light of the snow-covered lake. (I have noticed that February light is often grand, maybe because of the medium-low angle and the dry air. You can almost feel the cells of your facial skin waking up.)
Walking out through the playground and over the ice berm, we missed the official entrance entirely—it would have involved a detour—and headed directly out to the village, which was situated a hundred yards and more out on the ice. The heavy bass sounds of a hip-hop track boomed across the lake from the dance shanty at the far end of the conurbation.
We'd timed our visit to coincide with a flamenco performance that was listed on the schedule. Seeing no one that fit that description we inquired in the headquarters shack. "Well, they're supposed to start at 11:30, which is now. See that woman with the furry hat," the woman said, pointing through the window. "She's one of the dancers. I think they're going to meet up out there."
We wondered off to view the various shanties. Among my favorites were the following:
Shanty National Park: Inside this small space a woman was heating up some water on a camp stove. I asked her what she was making. "Nothing. I'm just trying to get some humidity into the room." The interior was decked out like a tropical forest—hence the need for humidity—and if I had taken more time to let my eyes adjust to the low light, I'm sure I would have seen an assortment of plastic animals hiding amid the foliage. I did admire the river (actually a long loop of paper painted with blue water and white rapids) that was flowing by along the side of the woods. In order to keep the water moving, someone had to turn a crank manually outside the building. Once we'd emerged into the sun again, I took a turn at the crank myself, though I didn't last long.
Pod from the Future Shanty: Two young men had evidently arrived on the lake from 600 years in the future in a little plywood pod. The room was equipped with a science fiction library that brought back memories of my teen years—Dune, Childhood's End, The Martian Chronicles. Visitors were invited to sit at the controls of the pod, and also to write down questions about the future on pieces of paper and stuff them into a box positioned nearby.
"Anything? Like, when will Trump be impeached? or What will the Fidelity Star Fund do next year?"
"Sure. Though we need to respect the future and not throw things terribly out of whack." All sci-fi enthusiasts are familiar with the long-term dangers of changing even little things about the past.
I learned later than these two young men drive up from Indiana every Friday night, and head for home again every Sunday afternoon after the village closes down.
Mythology Shanty: The ceiling of this shanty is covered with images of mythological figures, both traditional and modern. It's creator, who was standing inside, was impressed that I recognized Perseus holding the head of Medusa. I was even more impressed that he could recite the names of the three fates silhouetted on the opposite side of the dome: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. (I was hoping he'd ask me to name the three musketeers.)
Arcade Shanty: The interior of this shanty seems to be lit by a blue florescent light. There is an air hockey table against one wall that you can play with any stranger who takes the other end. I found that I'm very bad at this game.
Mood Shanty: In this shanty you're invited to place your hand on a stove, at which point the stove pipe will change colors, indicating your mood.
Chef Shanty: In this shanty people were making potato prints. The proprietor told me that a wide variety of activities have been scheduled for upcoming weeks, some involving food you can actually eat.
Conversation Shanty: Here you sit on a wooden bed and talk to a young woman behind the one-way mirror. The point is to engage in conversation with strangers. I enjoyed it, though it reminded me vaguely of a semi-risque scene from Wim Wenders's film Paris, Texas.
Solar Power Shanty: This dwelling consisted of a pup tent made of clear plastic sheeting. A man was sitting in the door wrapped in a down sleeping bag. He was fiddling with some thick orange-red slabs of plastic that, so he told us, generate electricity, even on cloudy days. Someone at MIT invented the material, but then shelved the project. A single manufacturer in London has a license to sell it. That's where he gets his panels.
Memento Shanty: Weird and commonplace objects hang from the clear plastic ceiling of this shanty. The artist who constructed it told me that he gathered the junk from friends. Each artifact evokes a fond memory for the person who donated it.
"Do you know what the specific memories are?" I asked.
"I haven't the slightest idea," he replied.
Car Wash Shanty: All you have to do is walk through this open-ended shanty the way a car goes through a car wash. I did so, and felt strangely cleansed as I emerged into daylight again on the other side. Sort of like taking communion.
Among the shanties I skipped were the Justice Shanty (I'm tired of politics), the Slumber Party Shanty (clearly meant for young girls), the Dance Shanty (I didn't feel like dancing to hip-hop in a thick down jacket), and the Vehicle of Expression Bus, which seemed to be about self-expression—an activity I try to avoid. (Just kidding.)
As we began to retrace our steps through the village, we noticed that the flamenco group had assembled and was now performing on the roof of the headquarters shanty. We listened for a few minutes. People came and left. A man rode by on a wolf-bicycle. It was fun.
After considering several restaurants in downtown White Bear Lake, we ended up eating lunch at a Taco John's near the Kowalski's on Highway 61. As we were pulling out of the lot, I said, "I think my mom is buried nearby."
"Let's go pay her a visit," Hilary said. We found the cemetery without difficulty—a small quiet site with a few large trees here and there—but we couldn't locate her headstone, which was probably buried under the snow.
She was an artist herself. I think she would have enjoyed the show.