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Icy work building the Winter Carnival palace
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Workers building the ice palace in downtown St. Paul. (MPR photo/Dan Olson)
The weather is perfect for building the St. Paul Winter Carnival ice palace. Two shifts of volunteers are sawing huge cakes of ice -- 27,000 in all -- from Lake Phalen. Workers downtown are stacking the 500-pound blocks to build the structure.

St. Paul, Minn. — It never hurts to brush up on the story. The Winter Carnival legend boils down to the good guy, King Boreas, basically promising the winter-ravaged souls of St. Paul a huge party.

The oath from Vulcanus, god of fire, the bad guy and the implacable foe of Boreas, threatens the destructive heat and roar of his forces.

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Image Ice harvesters

That's the basic Winter Carnival legend -- good versus evil, cold is better than hot. Only in Minnesota would a force for heat be the villain.

The legend includes a place for King Boreas to live - an ice palace.

For just a few minutes on the sandy but frozen shoreline of Lake Phalen, it appears the evil god Vulcanus has the upper hand. The chains on the ice cutting saws are broken and momentarily out of commission.

However, ice harvesters Al Schuna and Rick Bieniek aren't alarmed. Spare parts are on the way. When everything's working, the volunteers lift sky blue blocks of ice from Lake Phalen. Schuna says long conveyors grab the pieces as workers guide the cakes out of the frigid water.

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Image Angela Yender

"We're talking about 3 feet by 15 inches. We're stacking six pieces on a pallet, taking them up, loading them on a truck and hoping we don't lose any on the way," Schuna says.

Miniature icicles hang from Schuna and Bieniek's eyebrows and mustache. Bieniek offers a racy hint at the layers of apparel workers wear to ward off the effects of -4 degree weather.

"We start out with our bikini underwear and we build from there," Bieniek says.

Vulcanus does not appear to have the power to muck up the machines downtown, across the street from the Xcel Center on Kellogg Ave., where the palace is going up. Workers there are shaping the blocks with chainsaws.

Others point wand-like flame throwers tethered to a tank of bottled gas at the edges of ice already in place. The puddle of water formed by the heat freezes almost instantly, with a cement-like bond when the next ice block is laid in place.

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Image Winter Carnival button collection

The result, when it's finished, will be the first ice palace since 1941 large enough and safe enough for people to walk in.

"People will be able to walk through and see a fire and ice water fountain," says Winter Carnival spokeswoman Angela Yender. "It will shoot fire, shoot water -- it's going to be just incredible. People will be able to go back out and skate on an NHL hockey rink."

Nearby there's a walking, talking Winter Carnival museum. Greg Ewald has turned his hard hat into a Carnival button display. The volunteer electrician from IBEW Local 110 is assembling an electrical junction box. His red knit ear warmer holds buttons that go way back.

"My dad collected most of them," Ewald says, "And then a couple years ago (I) had a chance to buy the first Winter Carnival button, which was a 1900 pinback button. And me and my brother spent quite a bit of money so we had them all. It was about $400. Button collectors are kind of like that."

Greg Ewald and hundreds of other workers are donating 55,000 hours of labor to create the ice palace and other Winter Carnival attractions.

The Winter Carnival runs for 18 days beginning Jan. 22.

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