For the past few weeks, Linda Duffy has checked the Lake George weather forecast for snow.
“Snow and cold actually,” said Duffy, co-chairwoman of the Lake George Winter Carnival, which begins Saturday in Warren County. “Cold first, because we need the lake to freeze. Then, once we get a few inches of ice, then we want snow.”
Big snows have not come regularly, and business owners say there is about 6 inches on the ground in and around the village. January was frequently frigid enough to top the southern basin of the lake with between 10 and 12 inches of ice. That’s enough for skaters, walkers, snowshoe travelers and all-terrain vehicles expected for the carnival’s opening weekend.
The four-weekend winter party has been held each year since 1961. Village Mayor Robert M. Blais and local merchants say the carnival is vital for the economic survival of many businesses.
“Folks who have businesses who struggle through winter depend on this to get through the season,” he said. “If it wasn’t for those four strong weekends in February, I doubt most of them would be open. And there are a lot of folks who just open for the Winter Carnival.”
Merchants who remain open during the winter season, Blais added, depend on carnival earnings to pay their bills for the previous couple of months, “when it’s kind of sparse,” he said.
“It’s a financial transfusion for all the business owners,” said Nancy Nichols, who owns Mario’s Restaurant on Canada Street and is also a carnival co-chairwoman. “January can be very slow; it’s weather-dependent. This brings a lot of money into the area from all over.”
Pat Humphrey, who operates the Prospect Mountain Diner on Route 9, said the carnival reminds people that Lake George can still be a destination when beach blankets and autumn colors are out of season.
“It gets people interested in coming to Lake George,” she said. “They kind of forget about it when the fall ends.”
“There’s not a lot going on in wintertime in Lake George,” added Duffy, who along with her husband Mickey owns Duffy’s Tavern on Canada Street. “This kind of opens up a lot of doors, turns on a lot of lights, brings up a lot of people and helps us get through the winter.”
Saturday’s events include outhouse races, a chili cook-off on the beach in Shepard Park — both at 12:30 p.m. — a carnival parade at 4 p.m., a bonfire on the beach after the parade and fireworks at 6:30 p.m.
Duffy believes that people come to the carnival to experience winter in a festive outdoor setting. A giant snow slide will be available for kids; helicopter rides will be offered; and braver souls can take a polar plunge into the water at Shepard Park, where electronic “bubblers” near piers keep water from freezing. In coming weeks, truck, motorcycle and all-terrain vehicle races will be held on the ice.
“We’ll get 10, sometimes up to 20 people for the polar plunge,” Duffy said. “It varies because of the weather. It’s nothing like New Year’s Day.”
And while Duffy wishes more snow had fallen, she is grateful for the thick ice.
“The southern basin froze Jan. 3, which is early, and it has stayed frozen since then,” she said. “Further up the lake by Pilot Knob and Bolton Landing, they just froze over last week.”
Temperatures were not cold enough to freeze ice sufficiently for motor races on the ice in 2013. Still, Duffy estimated that about 30,000 people visited last February.
Some days are better than others. With the Super Bowl kicking off Sunday evening and people preferring afternoon house parties to afternoon travel, Duffy does not expect big crowds in Lake George on Sunday.
The weekend of Presidents Day, Feb. 15, 16 and 17, is usually a busy weekend. Duffy doesn’t think the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, is going to hurt her numbers. She believes the international games are actually going to help the carnival.
“For me, myself, it kind of brings out the spirit more,” she said. “You’re watching the winter games and you’re out watching a lot of winter activities.”
Kathy Muncil, chief executive officer of the Fort William Henry Hotel and Conference Center, expects large numbers of overnight guests for her 150-room hotel. “It’s busy,” she said of carnival weekends. “People should book early. Right now, I’m sure we’re sold out for the Saturday of the holiday weekend. There are good opportunities for Friday and Sunday.”
Muncil added that people will be checking into her hotel after the festival, too. Large groups — snowmobile clubs and members of family reunions — will stay over during March and April. Her summer season will start just before Memorial Day.
Mayor Blais believes part of the carnival’s appeal is the lake itself. People want to see ice and take a walk on the frozen surface.
“We put a skating rink out there the first weekend, and many said they had never skated on the lake before,” Blais said. “The lake is beautiful year-round — it’s just as beautiful with ice on it. The carnival is just an excuse to come to Lake George; we’ve got to keep giving them an excuse.”