Fire & Ice: Frozen fine art amid flames and fun

Emil Lippe/NNY Living
Attendees enjoy the fire outside during the 2020 Fire & Ice Celebration at 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel in Clayton.

BY: Marcus Wolf
Artistry in ice solidified in a sculpture gallery alongside blazing bonfires ushers guests to the patio of the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel for a three-night celebration in February: Fire and Ice.

    Hundreds of attendees flock to Clayton every year since 2015 to marvel at a myriad of frozen artwork, such as a monument depicting a muskellunge swimming through seaweed past an anchor, a hockey player guarding a goal, a lighthouse and a soldier saluting the American flag, glowing from multi-colored lighting. They stand against the backdrop of the St. Lawrence River alongside several ice bars adorned with the names of sponsors offering wine and liquor. 

    Some pieces are interactive, including a boat, an Adirondack chair and snowmobile attendees could sit in featuring different years, and corn hole and air hockey table sculptures for play this year. Flames from the blazing bonfires and heaters warm the guests as they enjoy the artwork, cocktails, food and music. 

    “There’s nothing more exciting than to have a thousand people come into your hotel and, you know, just come in and enjoy music, great food, love the sculptures,” said Todd Buchko, general manager for the Clayton Hotel. “It really is one of the best events for us and, I think, for the area.” 

    Ice sculptors spend the day before the event assembling the decorative and interactive pieces and ice bars, all forged from 300-pound ice blocks, and carving out a few finishing touches for some of the artwork. The frozen gallery forms within an eight-hour dash, said the craftsman behind it, Stan Kolonko. Creating each piece, however, requires extensive planning, followed by days of ice making, carving and hauling and rapid assembly. 

2020 Fire & Ice at the 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel

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A finished ice sculpture sits by a fire outside 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel in Clayton during preparation for the Fire & Ice Celebration. Sydney Schaefer/NNY Business

    Mr. Kolonko makes the 16 tons of ice at his East Syracuse business, the Ice Farm, for the pieces he features at Fire and Ice. He said he must filter water with reverse osmosis, then freeze it with a metallic Clinebell ice block make for three days. The water, he said, must keep moving using a circulation pump in the tank, which gives the ice its clear visage. With ice in hand, Mr. Kolonko said he spends about a week carving the pieces for each sculpture and bar at the Ice Farm to join into cohesive art at the hotel. 

    “It’s very labor intensive,” Mr. Kolonko said. “It’s nonstop hustling 300-pound blocks the whole day.” 

    Mr. Kolonko has worked Fire and Ice in Clayton and Ice Bar events at other Harbor Hotels, all owned by Hart Hotels, for about a decade, but he still cannot escape the challenges posed by the weather. 

    Temperatures too warm can cause the ice to melt faster, and temperatures to cold can cause the ice to crack as workers carve it, Mr. Kolonko said. When the temperature rises above freezing, Mr. Kolonko said he wraps the sculptures in blankets and places dry ice underneath them. Assembling the event’s signature ice gallery is not only a battle against weather, but a race against time. 

    Mr. Kolonko, however, is not alone. Two full-time employees plus additional labor hired before the event provide aid, he said. The sculptor takes pride in meeting each deadline and enjoys the fast-paced work environment. 

    “I thrive on it,” he said. “I work best under pressure.” 

    About 1,800 people, most of whom sport fluffy winter hats and coats, attend Fire and Ice each year to enjoy not only frozen artwork, but also a smorgasbord of food and drink. Mr. Buchko said the event offers mashtinis, or mashed potato martinis in cups with cheese and other toppings; chili, clam chowder, hors d’oeuvres, flavored meatballs and more in the ballroom that has been lit up in white and blue. Between 15 to 20 vendors offer food, draft beer, wine and liquor tastings. 

    Attendance for Fire and Ice has climbed each year, Mr. Buchko said. Saturdays sell out, meaning they bring 1,000 people, a leap from the about 400 people who partook in the festivities on the Saturday of the first year of the event. 

    Hosting a celebration that attracts hundreds of people requires hard work, months of preparation and securing sponsors to help fund it, Mr. Buchko said. About 60 to 70 people, including 30 to 40 volunteers, work the event each day for three days. Mr. Buchko said organizing Fire and Ice has grown easier in the past five years, although the planning, setting up and cleaning up each day requires significant energy. 

    “It’s definitely a lot of work,” Mr. Buchko said. 

    The event not only provides additional revenue for the hotel, but also generates donation money for North Country Troopers Assisting Troops, a coalition of active and retired state troopers dedicated to providing entertainment and support to wounded and ill military service members. 

    The organization has provided volunteer manpower for the event since 2016, and each year it walks away with thousands of dollars in donations. The hotel partnered with the Wounded Warrior project during the inaugural year of Fire and Ice, but decided to unite with the local organization the next year and every year onward. North Country Troopers Assisting Troops has receive $75,000 from the hotel, its largest donor, in the past four years. 

    Michael Pastuf, secretary for the group, said the funds have helped finance the tools they need to support military members, such as two vans to transport disabled veterans to the Syracuse VA Medical Center, mobility wheelchairs and an annual fishing trip on the St. Lawrence River. 

    “The hotel saves us a significant donation at the end of this thing every year,” Mr. Pastuf said. “It allows us to spend money on veterans; spend money on active duty soldiers.” 


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Linda Hoey returns the puck while playing a game of ice table hockey during the 2020 Fire & Ice Celebration at 1000 Islands Harbor Hotel in Clayton. Emil Lippe/Watertown Daily Times

    North Country Troopers Assisting Troops gathers dozens of volunteers for each night of the event. The volunteers adorned in shirts and hoodies reading “North Country Troopers Assisting Troops,” help check-in guests, place bracelets on them, control entryways and collect glassware, Mr. Pastuf said. 

    “We’ve done this thing so many times, so many years in a row, we’ve got this down to a science,” he said. 

    Travelers who flock to the hotel for one to three nights of frivolity typically have hours of free time to occupy before the event, which runs from 5 to 9 p.m. As they wait, they stroll along Riverside Drive and other downtown streets, providing an opportunity for local shops and eateries to cater to their needs. 

    More potential customers walk the village streets and patronize businesses than in years before Fire and Ice, said Tricia Bannister, executive director of the 1000 Islands Clayton Chamber of Commerce. Welcoming additional foot traffic in the winter helps provide local entrepreneurs additional revenue at time when the tourism lulls, she said. Ms. Bannister said Fire and Ice presents an opportunity to promote other events throughout the year in an effort to entice eventgoers to return. 

    “Before (Fire and Ice), there weren’t many activities going on in the winter. Since Fire and Ice, people have really stepped up some,” she said. 

    With fanfare and attendance growing each year, Mr. Buchko said he hoped this year Fire and Ice would reach a new milestone by garnering 2,000 attendees. The hotel manager hopes each year people continue visiting the hotel for the festivities of flame and frost to support a nonprofit dedicated to helping active military and veterans. 

    “It’s a thrilling three days, and then you’re ready to just fall over, because its non-stop,” Mr. Buchko said. “It’s exhausting, but its worth it, every penny of it.”