BETHEL — WinterFest 2011 is in full swing this week.

But the project to grow an ice tower centerpiece by dripping water from a series of pipes held upright by steel and guy wires has yet to catch up.

Sudden weather changes — from a 50-degree thaw on Jan. 1 to below zero temperatures — are wreaking havoc with the debut attempt to build a 140-foot-tall tower of ice.

With blue ice forming, however, the tower has taken on the mystical appearance of a glacial monolith, which is lit at night by tiny red and white lights strung along the guy wires.

“It’s interesting,” Robin Zinchuk, executive director of the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce, said of the blue ice on Wednesday afternoon.

“I think it comes from the translucence of the ice. I don’t know if it reflects the sky or what. Channel 8 did a live remote here on Sunday morning and they kept on calling our lights red, white and blue, and they’re only red and white, but it does give the illusion where the ice is kind of blue that it’s a red, white and blue thing.”

Unlike last year’s giant snow maze centerpiece, which drew huge crowds to Bethel’s traditional winter celebration, crowds this year have been rather modest.

But Zinchuk attributes that to subzero temperatures on opening day Saturday, and again on Sunday and Monday.

“It hurts outdoor activities, because the weathermen are encouraging people to stay inside or telling them that if they go outside, ‘Don’t leave any skin uncovered,’” she said.

Additionally, this year’s venues are spread throughout the region and not just centered in Bethel.

“The whole principle of this event has been to send people to winter venues,” Zinchuk said. “We have actually a very robust bunch of events happening this weekend.”

WinterFest 2011 is from Jan. 22 through Sunday, Jan. 30. Among upcoming events are:

* The second annual Main Street Rail Jam, which is a skiing and snowboarding competition from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27, on lower Main Street. At least 50 competitors are expected, Zinchuk said.

* Thirty-minute dog sledding trips starting at 5:15 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Jan. 27 and 28, at The Bethel Inn Resort.

* Snow groomer, horse-drawn sleigh and helicopter rides.

* A 50th anniversary celebration on Saturday, Jan. 29, at Mount Abram Family Ski Resort.

For a complete listing, visit the WinterFest schedule at www.bethelwinterfest.com/winterfestschedule-2.html.

“Due to the fact that we don’t have the snow maze, which was a big attractor of people to go through it, there wasn’t a ton of people here (Saturday), and it was so cold,” Zinchuk said.

“Saturday and Sunday both were really cold, but we did have quite a good little crowd at our scenic helicopter rides, so I’m not positive what happened at the other venues, but Mount Abram said that they had 80 to 90 people.”

Like the maze and World’s Tallest Snowman built in 1999 and World’s Tallest Snow Woman built in 2008, the creation of a towering mountain of ice was envisioned as the “lure” that would bring people to Bethel from all over the world.

Warmer than seasonable temperatures in December slowed the ice-making process, and then when it was finally cold enough to make ice, the January thaw hit.

Last week’s sudden deep freeze made ice inside the water pipes rather than outside when pressure was reduced to prevent water from shooting out so hard that it fell to the ground without freezing, Zinchuk said.

That was remedied by installing “a plain old garden hose” atop the structure.

“Certainly, what we needed was the cold weather and the cold weather plays havoc on it, but (water) is running” again, she said. “We’re going to continue to build that tower right through until we get a steady warm up.“

“You know, we didn’t have the Snowman and Snow Woman ready until the end of February, so I expect that we’re going to be building that right through February, and we hope that by the end of February it will be a size that perhaps we’ll be able to put some events on — on the actual ice tower — whether it’s actual ice climbing demonstrations or something. It’s too thin right now for that.”

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