Photo provided.

ITHACA, N.Y. — With steaming cauldrons of hot cocoa, fire spinning and marshmallows roasting over bonfires, the sixth annual Festival of Fire & Ice will bring winter outdoor play to life at the Ithaca Children’s Garden on Saturday.

“People bring their own sleds and shovels. The ice mounds always start to get hacked away and reformed. They kind of evolve over the afternoon; they’ll get tunnels and the whole things changes shape. It’s a place for play and evolution,” said Andrea Bruns, the Fire & Ice Festival’s events coordinator.

The event begins at 3 p.m. Each attendee can get a free marshmallow, and there is a dedicated fire for roasting the treat. A cauldron of hot cocoa has its own fire and boils with gallons of hot chocolate all afternoon. A huge bonfire, called the Fire Sculpture, is lit at 3:30.

Even on warm years, there is snow to play in, and ice to play with. Beyond the main bonfire and its ring of straw bales, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will make sure there will be mounds of snow, sometimes even adding ice shavings from the rink at Cass Park.

In the Ice Lab, ICG lays out bowls and spoons of colored water to squirt into the snow.

After sundown, when it’s just beginning to get dark, there is a fire spinner.

Becki Hawley entertained the crowd with her fire hoop dancing the first two years for the festival.

“The first time I was asked to fire dance for the Festival of Fire and Ice, I was thrilled. First of all I love that there is an event that gets people out of their houses in the middle of winter to have fun,” Hawley said.

She began fire dancing in 2010 after being an avid hoop dancer for several years.

“A friend of a friend came into town with her fire hoop. I tried it once and it was all over. It was easily one the most exhilarating thing I had experienced in my life,” she said.

While hoop was her primary implement, Hawley also used palm torches, fire fans, and staff. When she was performing more frequently, she would practice three to four days every week for a half hour or longer. Since then, Hawley has geared down her practice and performance due to injury, and Adrienne Ellis will be fire dancing in Hawley’s stead this year.

At the first festival, Hawley was asked to participate in a special fire ceremony.

“All attendees are encouraged to write a wish on a piece of paper and they put it into a paper mâché egg. Before I did my performance, they asked if I would put the egg full of wishes into the fire. It lit my heart up to be the person that offered everyone’s wishes to be transformed by the fire,” Hawley said.

“That’s magic and people need to know that there is magic in the world and they are a part of it. People need to remember the transformational power of fire…And on top of that I got to delight and inspire people, young and old, with my fire dancing. There’s not much I don’t love about that festival.”

The festival was the brainchild of ICG’s staff and volunteers along with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service representative David Stilwell, Rusty Keeler of EarthPlay, and Elizabeth Stilwell, then a Cornell faculty member in child development and play. Together, they saw the need to promote outdoor play in the middle of winter.

“The idea of a Festival of Fire & Ice emerged out of brainstorming around ways we could extend the vivacious play that was occurring in the Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone into the time of year when many Ithacans hole up indoors,” said ICG’s Executive Director, Erin Marteal.

The event hasn’t changed that much over the years, but it certainly has grown. The first festival in 2012 drew 480 participants, and this year ICG is expecting it will reach more than 1,000 people in 2018.

There is a suggested donation of $5 per individual, or $15 per family. Visit the Facebook event for more information.

Photos provided.

Jennifer Wholey

Jennifer Wholey is a feature writer and Head of Dining Partnerships for the Ithaca Voice. Contact her at