Lighting the Loppet

Volunteers braved the elements to illuminate the Luminary Loppet course

Click here for an audio slide show of "Lighting the Loppet."

Tightly bundled skiers oohed and ahhed through scarves and ski masks as they glided onto Lake of the Isles just after 6:30 p.m. Feb. 3, the snow creaking beneath them.

Subzero temperatures weren’t enough to keep them off the lake, aglow with more than 600 ice luminaries.

“It’s a winter wonderland,” said skier Janet DuBois, of Kenny, who was braving the cold with friend Mike Nilles from Eden Prairie. “I just love it, to be out skiing at night.”

More than 400 people registered to participate in the Luminary Loppet, a non-competitive evening event that takes place the night before the 35-kilometer City of Lakes Loppet cross-country ski race. The Luminary Loppet course is marked with hundreds of luminaries, which are hollow ice blocks illuminated with candles. This year, 640 luminaries were spread around Lake of the Isles for the event.

Creating and lighting hundreds of ice blocks is no simple task. A group of about 25 volunteers under the instruction of Kenwood resident Hal Galvin, husband of Loppet volunteer coordinator Peggy Galvin, makes it happen.

This year’s Luminary Loppet was the second in Minneapolis.

Loppet volunteer Brian Gryniewski, of Burnsville, proposed adding the event a few years ago after seeing a luminary race in Ashland, Wis.

“It looked fantastic,” he said. “So, I said, ‘Hey, let’s bring more people down and have a candlelight ski using the ice luminaries.’ The problem was how to do it.”

For the technical stuff, Loppet coordinators turned to Hal, who has already created a pretty efficient process for luminary construction. A minimum of 500 luminaries is required for the event, he said. He intended to make 600 this year, but ended up going for 700. He runs a tight operation and takes the task seriously.

“I’m just that way,” Hal said. “I’m an organizing personŠ if you don’t have a plan, you’re not going to get 600 luminaries built.”

This year, volunteers convened on Lake of the Isles on the Tuesday evening before the Luminary Loppet. A grumbling generator pumped water from the lake into several large barrels. Volunteers used the water to fill 700 two-and-a-half-gallon plastic buckets, which were then stacked in rows on long planks of wood, where they were left to freeze overnight.

It was wet, dark and cold, but no one complained.

Volunteer JimYoung, from Seward, said he was actually pretty hot from all the work. An avid skier, Young was glad to be a part of making the Luminary Loppet happen. “The best thing about the Loppet is the Luminary Loppet,” he said.

Kenwood resident Lori Mittag said last year’s Loppet inspired her to pitch in.

“I came out on the night of the Luminary Loppet and saw all of these luminaries lining the lake, and I felt like I was walking out from a story book,” she said.

The filled buckets were left overnight to freeze, but they weren’t allowed to freeze all the way. Luminaries need to remain unfrozen in the center, so water can be drained to create a hollow space for a candle. When the luminaries are ready, they are removed from the buckets, drilled with a large hole-saw bit and drained.

Hal calls this process “harvesting.”

The timeline for harvesting is largely dependent on the weather. Last year, volunteers had to harvest luminaries at 3 a.m., more than 24 hours after the buckets were filled. This year’s cold temperatures caused the water to freeze much faster. Volunteers were scrambling to harvest all the ice blocks at noon the day after the process started.

It was an equally cold day, but volunteers didn’t seem to mind that their coats were covered in frozen water.

Darcy Berglund, of Kenwood, didn’t hesitate to lend a hand after receiving a call from the Galvins on harvesting day.

“We said, ‘Great, we’ll be there,’” she said. “And it’s fun Š I know most of the people here; they’re neighbors. And I remember seeing the luminaries last year and thinking it looked beautiful, so I’m so happy to help make that happen again.”

On the day of the event, volunteers on snowmobiles placed the 640 luminaries that didn’t break during harvesting and installed the candles. Teams armed with matches set out to light the candles a couple hours before the race. The wind proved to be a challenge.

Volunteer John Dietrich of Lowry Hill East was on his hands and knees in the snow, hundreds of matches tucked in his winter boots, lighting luminaries before the event. He has skied in the Loppet each year and calls it an “awesome experience.” He said he volunteers to make the race possible.

“You’ve got to participate to make things happen,” he said.”

As the sun went down Feb. 3, the lake came to life with light and sound. Hundreds of skiers, a couple snowshoers and a few people in boots wrapped their way around the glowing course.

Many of the volunteers were among them, including Hal, who skied the course with his daughter, Claire.

“It’s an amazing group of people, and I really feel privileged to have them on my team,” Hal said. “Because I couldn’t do this without them. It’s a great thing.”


Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected].