Lighting up a winter night

Hundreds of volunteers prep and set up for the annual Luminary Loppet on Lake of the Isles. Why do they do it? Jim Young shares his story.


How do you put together a luminary event attended by over 10,000 people?
With lots of volunteers.
Loppet Luminary Committee Chair Jim Young helps coordinate the team of people who shape ice from lake water and set it in place for the annual event on Lake of the Isles. They put in thousands of hours.
“Over the years, the Luminary Loppet has grown to become one of the signature events for the Twin Cities area, and also is a substantial fundraiser for the Loppet Foundation. To be part of the team that has grown this event is both humbling and very gratifying. It has also been a lot of fun,” said Young.
Dave Bryan manages Ice-Cropolis and luminary distribution. Mary Hoffman handles candle ordering and Sonotube preparation. Hal Galvin is in charge of specialized equipment including the Water Cow and Pantoozelator. Willie Anderson pulls together Icehenge. Bill Dossett directs Luminary Lane, Luminary Hall and special equipment for making balloon luminaries. Glenn Olson and Linda Simon guide the Enchanted Forest. Cees Duijndam leads luminary bunker construction and paper bag luminaries. Carla Pardue organizes the party. Among the others who take charge of various aspects are Bob Amis, Carlyn Unger, Emme Corbeil, Laura Morrill, Charlie Henke and Jeff Evans. And Loppet staff Lindsey Johnson is in charge of Luminary operations.
Young started off making paper bag luminaries and then lighting them. “After finishing that, I looked out at all the candlelit ice luminaries laid out on Lake of the Isles, and thought that working to make that happen again the next year seemed a whole lot more interesting than any random volunteer position I’d been assigned to before,” he recalled. So, he started doing more.
“For each event we need a certain number of people, equipment and materials, a place, date and time,” he explained. “Generally we need to have the event publicized on the volunteer sign-up website. I make sure that all these parts are in place for each event.”
Planning begins each fall, and the group of volunteers discusses whether they will add any new features. They set up a tentative schedule and start ordering supplies. “For new features, we may need to do some prototyping and planning for how the process for making the luminaries will work and what equipment will be needed. We plan to have most of the luminaries finished and stored by mid-January, a couple of weeks before the Luminary Loppet is scheduled to happen. This gives us a bit of time to finish up if (when) something goes wrong,” said Young.
Early on, the Loppet Foundation was mostly oriented towards putting on cross country ski racing events. “After a few years, they were looking for ways to expand their focus beyond just ski racing events, and someone suggested a nighttime luminary event similar to the Book Across the Bay event that is put on in Ashland, Wis. We started small (our lake isn’t quite as big as the one near Ashland) and grew from there,” recalled Young. “Over time we added specialized equipment for filling luminaries and laying out the course, and we learned a lot more than you’d ever want to know about freezing and storing ice outside.”
At the first Luminary Loppet in 2006, three years after the first City of Lakes Loppet ski race, about 150 participants enjoyed a candle-lit ski around Lake of the Isles. Two years later, the Luminary Loppet attracted over 1,300 participants, and added an ice pyramid, fire dancers, and the first appearance of the Ice-Cropolis. It grew to over 1,500 candle-lit luminaries and over 5,000 participants in 2013.
The event was modified due to COVID-19 in 2021, and held over five nights at at Theodore Wirth Park. Individuals and families learned from luminarians in the weeks before the event how to make the ice luminaries at home, where they stored them safely until dropping them off at The Trailhead before the event. Two days were shifted due to extremely cold weather. The event returned to Lake of the Isles in 2022. Due to poor ice conditions (caused by heavy snow with slush underneath), the 2023 event was moved to land and held two weeks later on Saturday, Feb. 18. This year’s new feature was Luminary Hall.
Volunteer shifts started at 10 a.m. on Saturday. They stripped large wood molds from the slabs of ice used for Ice Henge, and removed the forms from the Ice-Cropolis feature. They distributed ice luminaries around the lake using snowmobiles and tubs, and then placed and lit candles in the suspended ice forms. Those in the Enchanted Forest used bamboo poles of various lengths to place candle lanterns in the tree branches on the small peninsula. During the two days before the event, volunteers set up snow fencing, hung banners, and rigged lighting.
Along the way, Young has learned that if you set a bucket of water out to freeze and make a luminary, the top, bottom and sides of the luminary all freeze at a different rate. “The top will be the thickest, the bottom the thinnest and the sides are somewhere in between,” he pointed out. “If you want your luminary to be mostly very clear ice, freeze it slowly. You can do this by freezing it at mild temperatures (e.g. 25ºF) or by wrapping it in insulation.”
What has surprised him? “If you set 1,000 buckets of water out to freeze overnight and you walk near them early the next morning, you can hear little cracking sounds as the ice expands in the buckets.
“There are a lot of other people who also think messing around with ice and water outside in winter in Minnesota is fun!”
To learn more, view the volunteer page on the Loppet website.


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