Playing with thick ice

Posted: Thursday, March 16, 2006

Imagine going to an art gallery and watching the sculptures melt, marble dripping down Michelangelo's Pieta like tears or Rodin's Thinker shrinking slowly in the sun. Walking through the Ice Park in Fairbanks, oohs and ahs are followed by the question - How could an artist put so much work into a carving, only to see it disappear in a few weeks?

"Ice sculpture is partly about the process," said Mimi Chapin, an ice carver and spokeswoman for Ice Alaska, the nonprofit that creates the Ice Park each February. "It's like a musical performance. You can record it, but it's never the same as the actual performance."

Carved at the end of February, the ice sculptures usually last until the end of March, depending on the weather. The transience of the sculptures adds to their beauty, as surfaces and shapes change. The long sword of the sailfish becomes a slender blade slicing the air, testing how thin ice can be before it shatters. Details carved into a bull and matador - flaring nostrils and the folds of cape - reshape as the sun adds its abstract touch. A mother and the child she cradles become one, the curves still evocative of motherly love.

Artists work with ice because they enjoy the optical properties, Chapin said. Ice is also cheaper than marble or bronze, and easier to fix if it breaks. If Venus de Milo had been made of ice, a little water would have been enough to reattach her arms.

While adults admire the way light illuminates the ice, children enjoy the theme-park aspects of the Ice Park. The family I was visiting last March arranged a play date at the Ice Park one afternoon and we met the other families at the entrance, where ice formed futuristic spires. We four adults were outnumbered by the 11 children, ages 1 to 10, but it was no problem to keep track of them within the park walls. All thoroughly bundled in snow suits, scarves, hats and gloves, they were ready to play for hours on the ice.

The children crawled through mazes and tunnels built of ice. One of the older girls was particularly delighted by ice houses in child sizes, bordered in ice flowers with neon pink, yellow and orange centers. Scenes from around the world were carved for children to crawl into and over, riding elephants and peeking out of pagodas. The ice-craftsmen even planned for infants, creating baskets made of ice to tuck a well-wrapped baby inside. The baskets were designed to spin gently, but the 1-year-old we tried it on responded with a look of concern rather than delight.

The real highlights were ice slides, already slicked down by previous sliders and the sun. The slides came in varying heights and slopes, for the different ages and levels of bravery. As a connoisseur of sledding, I'd say the slick surface gave one of the fastest glides I've seen in a playground setting. Even teens were happy to climb the ice-block steps over and over and careen down. They'd planned ahead, bringing pieces of cardboard, large plastic bags and small sleds to keep their behinds dry and increase speed. This year more and longer slides were added to the kids' play area, which has an "Ice Age 2" theme to correspond with the movie premiere, Chapin said.

We left the park after several hours, noses and cheeks pink from cold, promising to return another day. If it hadn't been naptime, we might have warmed up inside the small cafeteria, drinking cocoa and gathering energy for more ice play. Fairbanks-area families have season passes good for the entire month the park is open.

It's worth planning to visit the park more than once, at different times. Visitors can buy a day pass and come by the park several times between seeing other Fairbanks sights. We went back in the evening as the winter sun set. Slanted rays played across the ice, highlighting details and tinging sculptures golden or pink. When the sky darkened, colored spotlights shone on the sculptures. A climbing frog glowed green in the spotlight. At least for the night, it was safe from the sun.

Ice Museum

If the Ice Park melts before you get there, there's hot and frozen water waiting year round at Chena Hot Springs. The Aurora Ice Museum now keeps a few of the ice sculptures cold through the summer months.

From the outside the giant metal Quonset hut, with thick, insulated doors, is unappealing. And it's one time you'll want to put your coat on, rather than take it off, as you go inside. Basically, the building is a freezer, protecting a building built of ice blocks. Inside, everything from the bar stools and martini glasses to the faceted chandeliers is made of ice.

It's possible to rent the entire museum for events or overnight, but after an hour in the windowless igloo, I was happy to go back outside and enjoy the 110-degree water that made Chena resort popular. Ice can be beautiful, but warm water feels better.

Chena Hot Springs

100-year-old resort offers water, steaming or frozen

• Where: 60 miles east of Fairbanks.

• Ice Museum: Tours are $15 per person, every other hour from 11 a.m to 9 p.m.

• Hot pools: Entrance fees are $10 for adults, $7 for children (children under 5 years old are free), from 7 am to midnight.

• Web site:


Ice carving history

Some people avoid cold. Fairbanks seems to revel in it. For a month each year, from the end of February to the beginning of March, Alaska's second biggest city celebrates the cold that defines it.

The tradition of a Winter Carnival started in 1934. Dog sled races were the main event, but the first year Piestro Vigna created thrones for the festival king and queen by freezing water over a backdrop. As the years went by, he tried increasingly complex and detailed structures - an Inuit hunting seal in 1938 and igloos set in a transplanted forest in 1939.

The ice-carving tradition revival began in 1988 when the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce flew in teams from China and Chicago. The expert sculptors created an a gallery along both sides of the Chena River, and taught their skills to local artists.

Since then the World Ice Art Championship has drawn sculptors from more than 30 countries, including France, Russia, China, Sweden, Morocco, Malaysia, England, Australia, Japan, Mexico and Finland. And, of course, many Alaskans try their hand at a block of ice. Education continues to be part of the mission of Ice Alaska, the nonprofit that creates the Ice Park each year. Classes are offered at the park on Saturdays. Call the Ice Alaska headquarters for details, (907) 451-8250.

Some of the more famous ice carvers in Fairbanks also give lessons year-round, including Steve Brice, a champion ice sculptor. For information on his classes contact Roger Jennings at (907) 451-8104.


Fairbanks Ice Park

View about 100 sculptures carved as part of the World Ice Art Championships each March in Fairbanks.

• When it's open: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., February 28 to March 10

• Cost for a day pass: Adult $8, Youth $4, Children 5 and under - Free

• Web link: to learn more about the Ice Park, get directions or tour the park from the warmth of your own home virtually via web camera visit

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