“Camaraderie doesn’t happen by accident; developing a strong sense of trust, accountability, and togetherness around team goals requires intentional effort.” —Don Yaeger



My late Nana was fond of quoting the sage old adage that “many hands make light work,” the sensible idea that large tasks become small when divided among multiple people.

The Eagle River community provided a prime example of the aphorism in action Jan. 7-11 as the 30-member Eagle River Area Fire Department was joined by a cadre of supportive community volunteers in constructing the latest iteration of the Eagle River Ice Castle, a popular local winter tradition dating its start back to King Winter festival in 1933 — or back even further to the 1920s by some accounts.

“It’s a community effort, not just the fire department,” said Capt. Mick Dreger, a 35-year Eagle River volunteer firefighter, as he chainsaw-carved five pallets of ornamental ice sculptures to decorate this year’s ice castle. “Lots of volunteers from all over, including a lot of retired firefighters from other communities that have moved up to Eagle River and just love the camaraderie. Everyone really works well together.”

The core of the crew is comprised of volunteer firefighters from the Eagle River Area Fire Department, stewards of the longstanding tradition since 1987.

“For the department members, they have a sense of duty,” said Fire Chief Michael Anderson. “They know that it’s a huge thing for the community that the fire department does it. It’s all hands on deck. They did an excellent job.”

Beyond continuing the tradition and perpetuating the ice castle’s headlining role as a popular if short-lived tourism magnet for the 1,722-resident city, Anderson said construction of the Eagle River Ice Castle plays an important role in the life of the department.

“I tell the guys this is a training event,” he explained. “We’re training to work and operate together in the cold . . . The guys — the cohesiveness and the camaraderie — work well together.”

An ambitious undertaking, constructing the ice castle takes more than 1,000 man hours, from scoring and cutting nearly 2,500 10x20x13-inch ice blocks on Silver Lake on day No. 1 to the day No. 5 wrap-up with the placement of the final decorative elements

“I’m 100% honest,” said Dreger. “When we’re told we’re gonna build the ice castle, there’s a groan in the room ‘cause it’s a lot of work, a lot of man hours, a lot of volunteer time. But I’m telling you, when it gets done, we love it more than anyone coming to look at it. We are really proud of what we’re doing, carrying on that tradition. It’s a very time-consuming but fun activity. We love doing it for the community. This is a huge camaraderie-building event for us.”

On some days, Dreger said some 60-70 department and community volunteers of all ages may be at work on the project. Anderson noted there’s a “core group” of 10 volunteers that show up daily to work on the ice castle.

“I owe a big thank you to them,” Anderson said of ice castle volunteers as he watched construction come to completion late in the afternoon Jan. 11. “They come together, they work cohesively and they really are what makes this go.”

Dependent on the weather — and global pandemics — Anderson said the 2022 ice castle is the first one built in Eagle River since 2018.

“We’re really happy to be able to do it this year,” Dreger noted. “The ice cooperated, the weather cooperated, our volunteers are here. The community’s supporting us like crazy. We’re real happy to be able to put it up. It’s a very, very, very cool tradition to carry on.”

With its tower and dramatic internal LED lighting, the Eagle River Ice Castle is an impressive sight on the city’s low-rise skyline, particularly for motorists heading south on Highway 45 toward downtown Eagle River.

“It’s a huge tourism draw for the City of Eagle River and the surrounding towns,” said Dreger. “People come from all over.”

And at all hours.

“I used to work for the Vilas County Highway Department plowing snow morning, noon and night,” Dreger recalled. “I’m not kidding. I’d go by at 5 at night and there’s a crowd here taking pictures. I’d go by at 2 in the morning and there’s a crowd here. I’d go by at 4 in the morning, there’s a crowd here. It’s a magnet. It’s a work of art and very unique.”

Among those appreciating the handiwork late last week was Eagle River resident Kathy Findlay, whose husband Jack was a first-time ice castle volunteer, hauling ice blocks from Silver Lake to the ice castle construction site adjacent to the old train depot.

“I’m so excited that this is up again this year,” Findlay said. “I’m happy about it. It’s super. It took a lot of man-hours — and woman-hours — to put it up.”

Also among the new faces involved in ice castle construction this year, Dreger said, were several new fire department members.

“We’re finally drawing the younger crowd so we can pass on the tradition from us old guys to the young guys,” he said.

Among the newbies onboarding as a firefighter is Minocqua resident Raiden Seidler, who plans to move to Eagle River next year.

“It’s been an honor,” Seidler said of helping out with his first ice castle build, noting he enjoyed the “fun physical work,” the esprit de corps among the ice castle volunteers, and being part of a historical, longstanding community tradition. “It’s been really fun. It’s been great getting experience working with more people on the department.”

Seidler encourages North Woods residents to pitch in when the next Eagle River Ice Castle is built.

“Come help,” he said. “You’ll have a blast doing it.”