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Ice carvers begin work in downtown Niles

NILES – Niles has frozen over. The ice has arrived.

As beloved community events have been canceled or altered throughout the pandemic, the wintertime 17th annual Hunter Ice Festival was no exception. This year, the festival will be trimmed down to include ice carvings without the usual gathering for demonstrations and carving shows.

“They can expect ice,” said Lisa Croteau, director of marketing and administration for the Niles Downtown Development Authority. “[The event] won’t have all of the extra festival things. There won’t be ‘ice fights.’ There won’t be ‘fire and ice.’ There won’t be an ice cream booth. There will be beautiful ice.”

The Hunter Ice Festival has become a staple each winter in downtown Niles, traditionally bringing thousands of people to the city in January. Hosting a scaled back version of the event was Croteau’s goal.

“This has become an important piece of what we do in Niles,” Croteau said. “It’s a piece of normal. I think people need even a little piece of normal, as opposed to no normal at all.”

The ice carvers anticipate more than 20 ice sculptures to be completed and displayed around downtown Niles on Saturday.

“We usually do some big sculptures, but this year instead of having four or five bigger sculptures, we will have 10 or 15 bigger sculptures,” said Aaric Kendall, an ice carver from Argenta, Illinois.

The ice arrived quietly on Monday, as the Niles City Council voted unanimously to approve the festival. Organizers worked with the Berrien County Health Department to ensure the event was put together in a way mindful of COVID-19 precautions.

“We are asking people to keep socially distant and to wear masks, even though they are outside,” Croteau said.

The event is usually funded by donations by businesses, organizations and residents. This year, the festival sought community support, as businesses have seen reduced traffic due to COVID-19 precautions and restrictions. The Chili Walk and Hunter Ice Cream booth will not be hosted at this year’s event. Croteau said Smokin’ Jim’s Café, at 220 E. Main St., will have Hunter Ice Cream available.

The carvers are hard at work carving ice at the parking lot at W. Main and Front streets. The telltale trailers have arrived and the area is taped off with caution tape to allow the sculptors to interact with each other with minimal exposure to the public.

“You can be outside, wear the mask, do the distance and enjoy the beauty of nature and these guys’ craft,” Kendall said. “They’ve worked hard to create these sculptures and we worked hard to meet the parameters to still be able to provide some of Michigan’s beauty to the public.”

Sculptors said they were happy to take part in this year’s event, even if it will look different than in year’s past.

“Everyone has been affected by the world in which we live in now,” Kendall said. “We are a determined bunch. We carve ice in 80-degree weather and -50-degree weather. We aren’t going to let any type of situation inhibit us from doing what we love to do.”

Kendall is excited to be able to share their craft and art with the public, even if the live demonstrations and competitions will not be a part of this year’s downtown attraction.

“The overall layout of the festival will be different,” Kendall said. “We usually do some big sculptures, but this year instead of having four or five big sculptures, we will have 10 to 15 bigger sculptures and other larger pieces intermixed.”

Danny Bloss, an ice sculptor from Niles, was sculpting a tiki and beach themed piece Wednesday morning.

“We’re doing more ‘scenes,’” Bloss said.

His tiki piece will be a part of a scene with Dean DeMarais, who was seen carving multiple pieces at the same time on Wednesday morning in the parking lot at the corner of W. Main and Front streets.

“We aren’t doing our normal large, live carvings,” Bloss said. “This is our bubble right here. We’re not going to be carving on Saturday on the [sidewalk] corners like we usually do. It’s all going to happen right here.”

The blocks of ice arrive to the carvers and require being smoothed out and resized to be uniform before they are stacked to become a larger piece of ice. The pieces are cut to b e40 inches long, and many come around 46 inches long. The inches come from each side to ensure it is flat enough to stack.

Bloss said many of the larger pieces end up being about three and a half blocks of ice tall, with a half of a block of ice at the bottom to stabilize it.

“Normally we incorporate a lot of games and interactive stuff,” Kendall said. “We’ve pulled from that ice and put it into more sculpted ice.”

The carvers, who have come from Buchanan, Niles, Dallas, Texas, and Illinois, are all said to be happy to be working on a festival this year, as many events they would normally have attended have been canceled.

“We’re just excited the event is still happening and to get people outside,” Bloss said.

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