Fairbanks festival-goers hop on ice train

North Pole man has 'vision,' designs train to take people through Ice Alaska festival

Posted: Tuesday, March 02, 2010

FAIRBANKS - It's "all aboard" on the Winter Wonderland train, the latest addition to Ice Alaska's winter festival and the 2010 BP World Ice Art Championships.

John Wagner / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
John Wagner / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

From now until the last weekend in March, the multicolored train propelled by two four-wheelers will be in service Friday evenings from 5 to 9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. to give free tours of the Ice Park.

The six-car, open-air conveyance, which includes two cars designed to fit wheelchairs, is the handiwork of Tom and Roxanne Ertel of North Pole.

In the few years since the Ertels moved north from New York state, the couple has gotten caught up in icy endeavors at their hometown's Christmas In Ice celebration and Ice Alaska.

A welder and fabricator, Tom designed and built the Snowflake Drop that debuted this New Year's Eve in North Pole, drawing a crowd of more than 400 to the town's fireworks celebration.

It was there, Tom said, that God gave him the vision to build the train. The Ertels went home, but Tom couldn't sleep and spent half the night drawing plans.

"I wanted it to be Christmasy and to look like a sleigh," he said.

Ten days later, Tom ran into Ice Alaska director Dick Brickley at a meeting and was greeted with "I heard you had a vision. ..."

The project Tom planned to start for next winter's ice events instead became a priority.

"This (train) is something we had on a committee list for five years," Brickley said, shaking his head. "Then I find two crazy people from New York who can do it."

The train car frames were fabricated at Hector's Welding where Tom works and the wood and finish work were done in his garage.

The base of each car is made with 2-inch by 3-inch angle iron supporting a ¾-inch plywood floorboard. The wheels are trailer tires with bearings forged from Tom's past experience making horse trailers.

Roxanne, an ultrasound technician and teacher, painted the ironwork with black Rustoleum. A friend, James Pirkle, cut the curved wooden side panels.

Roxanne then went to work painting the cars in primary colors, and she's still not done. She plans to make fleece throws in complementary colors for riders to fend off the chill as they ride around the park.

Tom isn't finished either. He's already thinking about and waiting for another God-given vision to construct a "real" engine to power the train instead of using two-four-wheelers.

But that will have to wait. "I have to do my home chores first," he said.

The free Winter Wonderland train rides will start on the half hour next to the Ice Stage opposite the Ice Maze each weekend, and they will be announced on the Ice Park's loudspeaker.

On Sunday, riders in the slow-moving train were able to view more than 60 completed ice sculptures. The current multi-block ice carving competition area is off-limits to the Winter Wonderland train until the 40 teams of carvers finish Friday.

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