Issue 8: Kites on Ice

From the start, the concept was twisted, warped, and yet deceptively simple. Let’s get a bunch of flyers together for three days, play with kites, teach some schoolkids, greet the public, and have a good time. We do that sort of thing all the time. But this was going to be on a frozen lake in February.

As kite festivals go, Kites On Ice promised more shrinkage than usual.

But there we were, two days before Valentine’s, driving past Wisconsin’s capitol, catching cabs from the airport, wondering when O’Hare was going to cough up our kite bags. We were out on Lake Monona with electric drills, putting field markers into the ice and listening to ominous cracking sounds. We were wishing it was still 60 degrees like it had been all week, instead of the –6 degree wind chill that mocked the layers of fleece and Gore-tex. And then the buses started arriving.

Somewhere that first day I lost count of how many thousands of kids got off those yellow buses. I was too busy laughing at Roger Chewning, who complained that it took him ten minutes to get dressed to go outside. Or maybe I was marveling at the beautifully-backlit display of Scott Skinner’s kites hanging overhead in the Monona Terrace Convention Center. Perhaps I was simply amazed by the flocks of kiteskiers tailing Lee and Sue Sedgwick and Brian Vander Slice at 40 mph across the ice. The kids seemed pretty dazzled too. They were upset that they weren’t allowed onto questionable ice (“The ice isn’t safe for the kids, but don’t worry, Mr. Gomberg, you can take all those big kite bags right out onto the lake and start setting up!”) to fly their own kites, but the hordes of 7th grade girls swooning over Torrey Lindemann got over the disappointment fast enough.

There was a scary moment on Day 1, when the Sheriff’s Rescue Team – three guys wearing SCUBA gear riding an amphibious ATV – raced onto the ice to search for a kiteskier who a passing motorist had seen fall through the ice. False alarm: the skier had put his foot through a hole in the ice, and the panicked motorist grabbed a cell phone and called 911. With order restored, kites by Skinner, Trepanier, Peters, Gomberg, Gibian, Dolphin, Leffler, and giant Harris inflatables continued to play on the 15-25 mph winds, while the Decorators did Rev ballet downwind.

Friday night was carbo-loading time at an Italian restaurant. With tables loaded with pasta and beer, everyone caught up with winter happenings and who had done what since the AKA Convention. Saturday morning came too soon.

But when Madison Festivals boss Linda Underwood says there’s going to be a mass ascension at 11 a.m., dammit, there’s gonna be a mass ascension, so get out on the ice. Semi-cooperative Mother Nature had provided more solid ice overnight, but taken away the winds. Kiters struggled to keep anything aloft, especially as the winds came over the onshore buildings. Still, thanks to a PR blitz (Friday night there was more TV coverage of the kite festival than of the presidential impeachment, which is as it should be), spectators showed up in droves. About 20,000 people came out just to see kites. Remember, this isn’t like Wildwood or Ocean City, where people are coming out to the beach or the boardwalk and there happens to be a kite festival. The people of Madison were there for kites, period.

The indoor display didn’t disappoint. On the main floor, Lindemann, Bruce Jarvie, and Nelson Borelli demonstrated indoor flying with fighters and stunt kites. All around them were exhibits of kites by Skinner, Gibian, Dolphin, Trepanier, Eric Wolff, Janene Evard, Roger Maddy, and a Smithsonian collection hosted by Bevan and Margo Brown. Charlie Sotich and a corps of volunteers made kites out of napkins with an endless stream of visitors; the Green Bay Packers napkins seemed to fly better than the Chicago Bears or Minnesota Vikings napkins. A display of kite aerial photographs by Craig Wilson and others drew amazed looks, and several purchase offers.

Back on the ice, the flyers gamely lifted arches, circoflexes, and inflatables into the sky. Ray Bethell, Chicago Fire, Montreal’s S.T.A.F.F., and the Decorators flew light-wind demonstrations. And when the spectators tired of flying, they wandered into the concession tents for a slice of hot pizza and a little Kite Tail Ale, specially brewed for the event. At the nearby AKA booth, Alan Sparling and Richard Dermer preached the gospel of kiting and fixed busted spars for the spectators.

At 4 p.m., the ice cleared, and set-up began for the Night Fly and Laser Show. The Madison Symphony Orchestra took their places inside Monona Terrace, spectators paying $15 for seats lined the windows, spectators willing to brave the cold lined the bike path outside, and at 6 p.m. spotlights, lasers, and smoke machines kicked into action. Problem was, there was even less wind than earlier in the day. Anne Harris’ gigantic new Merlin the Magician, powered by a blower fan, towered over the spectators, while other flyers lofted trains of holographic diamonds and ran as fast as their ice spikes would let them. George Peters entertained everyone by pulling various birds, Kat Man, and playsails directly in front of the viewing areas. And the Decorators managed to be even more amazing than they were in the daylight by letting the green lasers dance on their Revs.

Afterwards, there was a $100/plate fundraising dinner. While the governor’s wife and other high-society guests arrived in evening gowns and formal wear, the kiters ducked into bathrooms to look for matching socks and clean t-shirts. In our world, “semi-formal” can mean anything from a suit (Roger Chewning) to a silk kimono (Scott Skinner) to the shirt and jeans you wore all day (the Decs). And as long as everyone knows you’re a kiter, you can get away with it.

Sunday dawned with 20 mph winds and sunny skies. The ice at the foot of the spectator bridge had cracked on Saturday afternoon, but the cold weather had frozen the shoreline solid. And once again, the flyers launched an aerial art gallery. The inflatables proved most popular, with puffer fish and basking shark sweeping back and forth, occasionally wrapping themselves around unsuspecting spectators. Chewning sent up a giant American flag flowform with 300’ tails, while George Peter created a wind garden of banners, birds, and huge Kat and Bird Man kites.

With military precision, the stunt kite teams did demo after demo. The Fire had a spectacular mid-air crash and leading edge blow-up, and a team of volunteers had to hold Ray Bethell in place, but the crowds ate it all up. Lee Sedgewick zoomed over to center stage for some skiing demos, jumping over sandbags and doing mid-air tricks (and cutting Bethell’s lines in the process! Oops!).

As the sun sank over the Capitol Building, the surface of the ice was slushy from the friction of thousands of feet. Kites got soaked as they landed, and had to be taken inside for drying off. Long underwear was peeled off, boots were removed, hat hair stuck out in all directions, and Monona Terrace was filled with the pungently happy aroma of wet ripstop and sweaty kitefliers.

No festival of this magnitude would be complete without a farewell dinner, and a gathering of 60+ kiters in a German restaurant fills the bill. Ask anyone who was there about drinking from “The Boot”; if they can remember it, they probably weren’t really there. I can report, however, that while the Decorators drank prodigiously, Ray Bethell took on all comers and thoroughly doused his liver in brew. Robert Trepanier won the best hat prize for his furry leopard spotted chapeau (said Gomberg, “There were so many great hats here, and the guy with the best butt wins. It figures.”).

So why not fly kites on ice? The winds were good, the crowds were large, and everyone had a good time. The sponsors were happy to see lots of people having fun, and to get their own logo rokkakus. The organizers, led by Linda Underwood and Angie Tyler, were exhausted but smiling. And as we wondered how big an ice screw to use as an anchor if Peter Lynn were to show up, it seems clear that next year will be bigger, better, and icier.

If you watched the TV show, M*A*S*H*, you might remember this toast made by one of the doctors. I offer it up in salute of a great new event…

“Ladies and gentleman, take my advice:

Pull down your pants, and slide on the ice.”