Fire & Ice, Cave Lake State Park, 2008
Late in the morning on the second day of our Ely road trip, Ryan and I decided to put off lunch and get out to Cave Lake State Park immediately following our diesel train excursion. We had driven more than 300 miles east across Nevada and were anxious to finally see the sculptures at Ely's Fire & Ice Festival.
A short drive south on U.S. 50, then east on State Route 486, and we were at the lake. After a few minutes adding layers under our jackets – the temperature lingered somewhere in the upper 20s all afternoon – we made our way onto the ice. It took us a little while to get the hang of walking on the frozen lake. I had it easy. Ryan had to negotiate the slick path while carrying a large tripod and expensive video equipment (eventually I helped with the tripod). As luck would have it, neither of us fell despite many bouts of accidental acrobatics.
Cave Lake is not very big, even by Great Basin standards. Just more than a quarter mile long and about a third as wide, the lake occupies a shallow gorge between tree-covered ridges. The small surface. Wind, snow, climbing mercury, even the sculptures' own weight, means many of them won't make it a week. A winding path in the ice meanders around the northwest side of the lake between the dozen or so sculptures, all at various stages approaching completion.
Among the more imaginative of the sculptures was “Shark Bait,” a terrified snowman swimming frantically from the fins of four sharks rapidly gaining on him. “Shark Bait,” by far this year's largest at more than 30 feet from end to end, wound up taking second place, no small feat given the competition. First place went to a sculpture of a miner lighting his pipe called, “The Prospector”. The miner consisted of a six-foot-tall head and cupped hands, his features so detailed I could almost feel his frustration in failing to light his tobacco. Built by a first-time team, the miner was so heavy that he subsided by more than three feet, threatening to disappear completely through the ice. Had there been an award for wishful thinking, it most definitely would have gone to the “Cave Lake Spa,” a steaming snow Jacuzzi filled with dry ice.
Not everything on the ice was sculpted. A two-lane ice bowling alley, single-hole golf course, and designated skating circle provided distraction for those not competing in the sculpture competition. White Pine Brewery had canvas tents set up where they served burgers, hot dogs, chili, and their own uniquely Nevadan brews – made using hops grown locally in White Pine County. A pair of fire pits fitted with skids grew increasingly popular as the sun dipped lower and lower behind the mountains.
Ryan and I were glad to see that the brewery was serving food, and the close confines of the dining tents warmed our numb fingers as we greedily devoured burgers and chili. Even with all of our layers of clothing we had trouble coping with the cold. Every time a breeze picked up off the ice I cursed myself for not wearing a jacket with a hood. Locals told us that it was negative nine degrees last year and called this year's conditions a “heat spell.” Lucky for us it was “warm” this year, or most of our equipment would have been at risk of not working. As it was, the cold had the batteries in the video camera and my digital SLR draining almost twice as fast as normal.
Although the sun didn't set until some time around 5 p.m., it sunk below the canyon walls before 4, and the temperature went from chilly to downright cold. Knowing that we would be out in below-freezing weather for a few hours to come, we decided to head back to the SUV and warm up. With the heater as high as it could go, we sat listening to tunes on Ryan’s iPod and watching families arrive at the lake to stake out seats for the fireworks show.
The fireworks were set to start at 6 p.m., so we left the comfort of the heated SUV and made our way to the earthen dam at the northwest end of the lake where a two-man fire crew from Lund was setting up the fireworks. They were more than happy to talk to us – a continuing trend in and around Ely that I was starting to get used to – and told us about the upcoming fireworks display and the training they had to undergo in order to put on such a show. They said they like to keep the display down to about 15 minutes so people aren't out in the cold for too long. Amazingly, all the fireworks, including the 80 piece grand finale, were lit by hand.
Even before I booked my room at Hotel Nevada, everyone I talked to about Fire & Ice told me how amazing the fireworks sounded in the canyon. They said that the dry, thin air of the Creek Range in winter, combined with the echo off the canyon walls, made for one of the most memorable fireworks displays I would ever witness. Were they ever right.
Growing up and living in Reno I am used to the Fourth of July fireworks displays at Rancho San Rafael Park and South Lake Tahoe at Stateline. They are both excellent displays, but the show at Fire & Ice is in a league all its own. The displays around Reno and Tahoe are fired either from floating barges or hills up to and greater than a mile away from the audience; at Cave Lake they are ignited from the earthen dam, literally a stone's throw from the crowd. Additionally, there is a lot of light pollution in the populated areas around Reno and Lake Tahoe. Cave Lake, miles from anyone, in the middle of the Great Basin, has some of the darkest night skies in the state, making the fireworks brighter and more vibrant than any urbanite could imagine.
And finally we come to the sound. Being so close to the display, the first thing I heard was the boom of the explosives when they first ignited cracking off the canyon walls. The ear-piercing screech as the fireworks blazed into the air was eerily echoed in the icy gorge. When the fireworks exploded overhead they each echoed for what seemed like full minutes, bouncing from ridge to ridge, down to the frozen lake and back again to the ridge tops.