The tundra swans have already flown south after a brief winter appearance on Chautauqua Lake, but winter enthusiasts are flocking to this idyllic southwestern corner of New York for skiing, ice fishing, sleigh rides and festivals.
Though the 781-acre Chautauqua Institution on the shores of Chautauqua Lake is essentially a summer community, the institution welcomes guests year-round. The 127-year-old facility is a national historic district known for its artsy, intellectual summers.
The institution was founded in 1874 as a summer study and conference center for liberal arts and religious instruction. It was an instant hit, attracting the era's most influential thinkers, including Thomas Edison, who lectured there in 1876 on a little project he called the electric light.
Within a few years, Chautauqua Institution was firmly rooted in the town's culture, and has since grown to draw thousands during the summer months with its educational-vacation atmosphere.
But when the summer concerts, theater, classes and lectures end, the institution's gates don't close. In the winter, the community resembles an old-fashioned Christmas card. There's a quiet, contemplative ambience to Chautauqua during the off-season, when the summer population of 7,500 drops to about 400.
The area benefits from bountiful lake-effect snowstorms fueled by winds off nearby Lake Erie. Cross-country skiing is popular on the institution's grounds, golf course and frozen lake. Every weekend in January and February, horse-drawn sleigh rides are available around Chautauqua in the afternoons. And if the snow gods don't cooperate, there are hay-wagon rides.
The highlight of the winter season is the Currier & Ives Sleigh Rally sponsored by the Chautauqua Country Horseman's Association. This year, the free, daylong event -- the 22nd -- will be held Feb. 4.
"We look forward to it all year long," explains Julie Minor, co-chairman of the rally. Her family has a dairy farm in Chautauqua County, and she has been competing in the rally with her one-horse open sleigh for the past five years.
"There are actually very few places in the country with just the right conditions for a sleigh rally like ours," Minor says, "and nowhere else is there such an old-fashioned location, which is right in keeping with our antique sleighs."
The rally features competition in various classes, and the crowd favorite is a parade of horse-drawn sleighs. There are dappled gray horses, giant Clydesdale and Belgian draft horses, even a couple of miniature horses pulling miniature sleighs. The melodic sound of sleigh bells punctuates the air.
Last year there were more than 50 sleighs in the rally, and at least as many are expected this year. Drivers and their riders dress in period costumes.
"We have had visitors who became so excited about the horses and sleighs that they went on to get their own," Minor says. "A couple of sleighs will be in the rally this year because the drivers first got their inspiration here at our rally."
After the competition, visitors line up for sleigh rides around the grounds. It's not unusual to see three generations of a family together on a wagon, crisscrossing the grounds of the institution.
Ice Castle Festival
Three miles north of Chautauqua Institution is the village of Mayville, where residents pray for cold to ensure the success of the annual Ice Castle Festival, which this year will be Feb. 16-18.
The festival began in 1987, and there have been only a couple of winters when ice conditions were tenuous (in 1993 the lake never froze). This winter, the prospects for the ice castle are promising.
A typical castle is 20 feet high and 120 feet long, with turrets at each end. In the past, the castles have consisted of 1,150 blocks of ice, and each block weighs 400 pounds. It takes 20 to 25 volunteers nearly 1,300 hours during eight days to construct the castle. Area architects are invited to design the structure, and the winner's big prize is flipping the switch to light the castle on opening night.
"It's a great way to beat cabin fever -- coming out to celebrate winter and seeing the castle," says Ann Weidman, a past chairman of the festival. "When the lights go on in the castle, it is a magical moment."
Other festival activities include horse-drawn sleigh rides, pony and snowmobile rides, a broomball tournament, music and food. There's a giant snow slide for kids, and if you don't bring your sleds, that's OK -- there are sleds there you can use for free.
There's also a snow-sculpture contest, and on Saturday evening, there is a snowmobile flare parade followed by a fireworks display over the lake. A snowball dance takes place after the fireworks.
The late Donald Hogan, then-director of what is now the Chautauqua County Visitors Association, came up with the ice castle festival, borrowing from the experience of ice-castle builders in Minneapolis and Saranac Lake near Lake Placid, N.Y.