Lighting the way in a lackluster winter

  • Updated: February 18, 2012 - 6:43 PM
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Jennifer Shea Hedberg

If you were a sneaky sort of person, you would have taken a newcomer down to Lake Calhoun last week and walked him along the estuary that connects the lake to the creek. When you came across dozens of glowing ice balls, the newcomer would have been astonished: Where did all this magical beauty come from?

That's when you'd say, Oh, those? Natural phenomenon. Sort of like St. Elmo's Fire and Ball Lightning, mixed up. Norse legends say they were tears of the gods.

Until nature comes up with something as nifty as flaming ice spheres, though, you'll have to talk to Jennifer Shea Hedberg. She runs an ice-lantern company called Wintercraft with her husband, Tom, and for four years they've been helping people make lanterns.

You might think: Where else but Minnesota?

Hah! It took native Californians to prod Minnesotans into getting creative with ice.

"I was born in California," Jennifer says, "and spent my first eight years swimming with the seals. Then we moved to Massachusetts, and all three of us girls fell into immediate depression. My amazing mother read in some magazine about making some ice lanterns out of milk cartons, and we made our first ice lanterns."

A transfer brought her family here, and she was happy to stay. "When you're thrown in from a warm temp, you either die or leave. Face it head-on or go on the couch and turn into a toad."

Toadishness is tempting, but once you see these ice lanterns, you want some. But you don't see too many. Shouldn't this be our natural pastime?

"Any cold climate has ice lanterns," Jennifer says. "China has huge ones. Iceland is hooked on making ice candles. They have all sorts of traditions about it, but not so much here in the Twin Cities. When I go on the road up to Duluth you find kindred spirits, but then there's other people whose eyes glaze over."

Well, maybe that's just tears of joy, freezing.

So why did she fill the estuary with lanterns for free?

"This has been a terrible year for what we do. I was hired to light up the Linden Hill business district for Christmas. They were lit up for three days, and it all melted. We've been making a lot of ice lanterns waiting for cold weather so I could reintroduce them to Linden Hills. We'd stockpiled all these pedestals and things, and when we saw we were going to get into warm weather again -- well, I always wanted to do something like this at the creek and thought, 'Let's just go for it. They'll all die a horrible death by sun anyway.'"

What was the reaction? "It's been such fun. ... Most people don't know it's there, they're out for their walk, and they stumble on this magic land."

So how does a winter lover cope with unexpected warmth?

"We've had little windows of opportunity -- I love the walks in the woods, listening to the ice chimes when the little pieces of ice get thrown up the beach at 5 a.m. by the wind and no one hears it -- there's such beauty. "

You can find instructions on making your own arctic beauty at wintercraft.com. Order ahead! This year you know it's going to be 10 above come April.

JAMES LILEKS

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