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Chester - It was almost too cold for a carnival.
The 23rd annual Chester Winter Carnivale, which ran from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday on the town's Main Street and featured its signature chili cook-off, ice carving and tractor parade, drew a brave crowd of hardy New Englanders, newbies and longtime revelers alike.
"It's lighter than it was last year," said Michele Procko, a member of the Carnivale committee, of the crowd, blaming the strong wind gusts that made the 20-something-degree weather feel that much harsher. But around noon, pedestrian traffic was increasing slowly as attendees made their way down from warming up with chili to face the elements with full bellies.
It was scenic enough, with a dusting of snow on the ground from the previous night and steam pluming from various hot treats into the air. But the wind was sharp and frigid, turning cheeks bright red and bowing heads against it. The balloons, at least, looked at home while buoyantly wind-tossed.
To be fair, the promotional posters warned them: the event would take place snow, rain or shine.
Evelyn Greg, for one, thought the conditions were just right - for the ice carving.
"The weather is perfect today," she insisted, adding that balmier years had proved troublesome for the craft.
Greg, 56, who lives in Chester, has been coming to the Carnivale for eight years. She and her goldendoodle Jake and miniature poodle Molly watched the six amateur artists from Manchester Community College at work behind caution tape and orange cones, flurries of frozen chips landing in small ice storms around their feet.
At about 3 feet tall each, the various wintry masterpieces - an eagle, a heart, a chef's hat - began to take shape under the edges of metal picks and chainsaws.
"Aren't they just amazing?" Greg said.
At the Leif Nilsson Spring Street Studio and Gallery a few yards down the block, three ice professionals did their work, donning snowpants, boots and protective eyewear.
Gene Puryear of Berkley, Mass., had been working for a half-hour on his frozen sculpture of a bald eagle when he said he had two more hours of carving to go. He's been in the trade for 20 years - for the love of art, he said.
Why a bald eagle?
"I know they're in the area," he said. "I figured I'd do something that represents the town."
Sarah Quirk, 36, came with husband Tom, 34, and sons Dominic, 6, and Evan, 3, all the way from West Hartford. They took shelter from the elements next to a storefront with cups of hot chocolate in hand. Others looking for fleeting reprieve - a few minutes of thawing - ducked in and out of the town center's boutiques and restaurants, often emerging with fresh face paint.
"We like to check out what's going on in other parts of the state," she said.
But the scene was no less cheerful for the weather, filled with the smell of hot kettle corn and the sounds of giggling children on a sweet sugar high, watching a colorfully dreadlocked woman on stilts hula-hoop her way down the road.
One young pair made their way back to their car arm and arm, huddled together, cold but content.
"Worth it?" he asked.
"Totally," she said.