The latest battle in a cold war waged in Minnesota, Maine, Finland and Estonia was fought this week in Little Falls, Minn.
At stake: bragging rights for who can create the world’s biggest ice carousel.
Ice carousels are floating circles cut by chainsaws into frozen lakes and propelled into a leisurely rotation by a motor inserted in a hole in the ice.
In recent years, these giant lazy Susans — big enough to hold people and small structures — have been popping up on Minnesota lakes from Ely to Maple Grove as a way to have a little frozen midwinter fun.
But now extreme ice carousel builders across the world are one-upping one another in a challenge to create the biggest and best.
The latest attempt: An ice carousel in Little Falls that is about 500 feet in diameter, as wide as the Foshay Tower is tall, is spinning away on Green Prairie Fish Lake.
The feat involves sawing through 16 inches of ice for more than a half-mile, then coaxing an 8,000-ton platter of frozen water into motion. It’s a cold, wet job, and lots of things can go wrong. If an ice carousel isn’t perfectly round, it will get stuck. Saws can freeze up. Or a skid loader could plunge through the ice.
Those obstacles haven’t stopped Chuck Zwilling, a 55-year-old Little Falls real estate agent and the organizer of the great Little Falls ice carousel.
Zwilling has 12 brothers and sisters. Their late father, Sunny Zwilling, was in the logging and sawmill business, so his kids grew up learning teamwork and knowing which end of a chainsaw to hold.
Two winters ago, Chuck suggested that the family make an ice carousel for their “adult Christmas,” a gathering in early January without the kids. Zwilling got the idea from a 2017 viral video of an ice carousel made by Finnish inventor Janne Käpylehto.
The family’s first carousel (55 feet in diameter) was “amazing,” Zwilling said.
His sister, Kari Hartsock, was more circumspect. “It was a lot of work,” she said. “We had no clue of what we were doing.”
Still, she and rest of the Zwillings were game to try it again. But this time, Chuck persuaded them to attempt a world record. Guinness doesn’t track titanic ice carousels. But Käpylehto founded the World Ice Carousel Association to do just that.
Ambition on ice
Ice carousels have been made in Finland as far back as a hundred years ago, said Käpylehto. Recently, however, they’ve seen a surge in popularity in northern climes from Japan to Latvia.
“Ice carousels are all about having fun and connecting people,” said Käpylehto.
Finland and Estonia traded claims for the biggest ice carousel until Zwilling and his family stepped in last winter. The Zwillings’ 120-yard-wide ice carousel nabbed the world record, but only for a month or so.
Then, Käpylehto made an even bigger one, which was soon topped by some guys in northern Maine who made one more than 140 yards wide.
Zwilling was there to see them all. In this friendly — albeit rare — competition, he flew to Finland, then Maine to help others go for the biggest title.
Then he started planning to reclaim that title.
“It has consumed me, to say the least,” Zwilling said.
He created a nonprofit and recruited dozens of sponsors and partners to organize the Sunny Zwilling Memorial Ice Carousel Extravaganza. The event, this Saturday and Sunday, will include an ice-skating rink, a curling sheet and a speedskating track — on the massive ice carousel. There will also be four 40-foot carousels spinning within the larger carousel.
In addition to the carousels within the carousel, there will be igloos, a hot-air balloon, fat tire bikes, cross-country skiing and free chili.
Zwilling had hoped to have the ice carousel moving earlier in the week. But the chainsaws used to cut the ice circles froze and the machine invented by son-in-law Mike Ruegemer, which combined a chainsaw with a track-driven snowblower, broke down.
On Thursday evening, just as the sun was setting, Zwilling and one of three Finns who had flown over to help were hunched over the ice, taking turns with a single chainsaw to cut the ice. It was backbreaking work that covered both men with icy water.
At 5:15 p.m., the final cut was made. Four trolling motors stuck into holes in the ice at the edge of the carousel were turned on and … nothing.
Suddenly, there was a shout: “We’re moving! It’s moving!”
Millions of pounds of ice, people, tools and ATVs floating on Green Prairie Fish Lake slowly started to rotate.
“Unbelievable,” Zwilling said.
Richard Chin • 612-673-1775
Ice Carousel Extravaganza
When: The Sunny Zwilling Memorial Ice Carousel Extravaganza runs from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday and from 10 a.m. -6 p.m. Sunday on Green Prairie Fish Lake.
What: In addition to the world’s biggest ice carousel, there will be curling, speed skating, figure skating, a mini hockey tournament, cross-country skiing, fat tire bike riding, igloo building, chili and hot chocolate. The event is free, but donations to a food program for elementary school kids are encouraged.
Where: There will be onsite parking at 12636 Forest Road, Little Falls, and a free shuttle with parking at Main Gate Bar and Grill, 15041 Minnesota 115, Little Falls.
For more information: MnIceFest.com.