Fairbanks' Ice Park due to lose its longtime location

March 20, 2010 

The mercury uncharacteristically popped above freezing twice in the week before the multi-block competition judging at the 2010 BP World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks early this month. You might have thought the sponsors, Ice Alaska, would be worried that the giant carvings would revert to water within days.

Not so, said Dick Brickley, chairman of Ice Alaska's board. "We never worry about the weather in Fairbanks, especially warm weather, because we get so little of it."

The meltdown that does have Brickley worried is the one due to happen next month. The understanding by which the Ice Park has operated on land owned by the Alaska Railroad since 1995 is about to expire.

Visitors to the Ice Park, which opened Feb. 20, have been asked to send cards to state legislators with the urgent plea: "Help save the Ice Park or this will be the last year!"

As of this writing, temperatures in Fairbanks have stayed below the thaw point since the multi-block carving competition wound up. The viewing of the remarkable and temporary ice art by expert carvers from around the world should remain good through the last day, March 28.

However, this could be the last time the Ice Park site will host the event.

Frozen magic

The World Ice Art Championships are billed as "the largest ice sculpting competition in the world." Teams of artists who often make their livings by creating fantastic ice carvings for cruises, fancy weddings, major banquets, etc., vie for the ribbons in abstract and realistic styles that include single- and multi-block categories.

With the cold of Interior Alaska on their side, they're able to shape astonishing figures with exquisite detail, sometimes cantilevering hundreds of pounds of ice high above the ground with minimal support. Some carvings are three stories tall; the Guinness Book of World Records is currently checking to see if one sculpture hasn't broken the record for height.

Oddly, when the event started 21 years ago, the sponsors had carving-quality ice shipped from Seattle to Fairbanks in the middle of winter. Then they discovered that they were sitting on the Holy Grail of frozen water -- "Arctic Blue Diamond Ice," forming clear, blue and rock-hard in a pond at the Ice Park.

Now ice from the park grounds is shipped around the world. It was used for this winter's ice carvings in Anchorage's Town Square. A few years ago, some was ordered by famed glass artist Dale Chihuly for a show in Jerusalem.

In terms of attendance, the Ice Park may be Alaska's single biggest arts happening. Organizers say 40,000 people visit during the short lifespan of the sculptures.

This year's outdoor awards ceremony on March 6 featured Gov. Sean Parnell in a fur hat handing out the multi-block prizes.

First place for abstracts went to Russians Vitaly Lednev and Sergei Loginov for "Winds of Alaska." This was the same team that won first place for single block abstracts with their lovely evocation of figure skaters balanced on one foot, "Ice Dancing."

A French/Polish team took second in abstracts with a towering nude figure of a woman celebrating the delights of champagne.

Second place for realistic multi-blocks went to a Japanese group led by Junichi Nakamura, a previous first-place winner. His "Attacking Claws" showed a lion leaping onto a wildebeest; some locals thought it might be a reference to the mummified ice age ox "Blue Babe" at the University of Alaska museum, said to have been brought down by an American lion thousands of years ago.

Nakamura also took first in single-block realistic with his dazzling "Blue Ring Octopus."

First place for realistic multi-block went to a detailed aquatic study, "Saltwater Safari," from a team led by professional Fairbanks-based carvers Heather and Steve Brice. The piece featured long, thin spines of a giant zebra fish that may have stretched out four or five feet.

As the awards were given out, local organist Dan Gullickson played on an ice xylophone, "My Country, tis of Thee," "When Irish Eyes are Smiling" and, appropriately, "Finlandia."

A pair of "trains" -- four-passenger "cars" pulled by four-wheelers (one driven by Santa!) -- made it easy for visitors to review the whole park in a 10 minute tour. Ice slides, lit at night, sent kids and the occasional reporter sliding 350 feet in a gently curving course. Park-goers borrowed skates to zip around the all-ice hockey rink or walked through a massive ice labyrinth.

Some of the pieces were decidedly amateurish and many revealed miscalculations; a heroic depiction of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees by Louisiana carver Dawson List missed out on the judging when the top half couldn't be completed in time to add to the bottom half.

But many were brainy as well as artistic. "All Heading Towards the Same Place, Which in the end -- is only a beginning," by an American/Japanese team, contained a surreal field of human figures emerging from holes in the ground via ladders, walking toward a mound of other human figures climbing over one another, with the topmost figure shoving down his nearest rival as he strove to climb the next ladder.

The technical ingenuity also made viewers marvel. For "Expectant," the second place single-block abstract winner, the Chinese team made a baby out of snow then froze it in a clear ice ball that was set in a heart shape suggesting the baby's parents. In daylight it was easy to miss, but when the colored lights came on at dusk, it was lovely.

Humor was a hallmark of many pieces. "Are They Personal Use or Subsistence?" had a fisherman with a salmon perched in a tree as a bear wielded a beaver like a chain saw to bring down the trunk.

Each turn in the paths through the displays brought something new and wonderful. It is impossible to stroll through the park without feeling that one has experienced magic.

Fair market

"It's a great event," said Jim Kubitz, Alaska Railroad's vice president of real estate and facilities. "It's spectacular the way they put it together. The problem is, we've been working with them for about 13 years now, trying to do a long term lease and haven't been able to make it happen."

When the federal government ran the railroad, Kubitz said, lease agreements for railroad land were willy-nilly. "There were some people getting land for $10 a year," he said.

In 1985, when the state took over, the Legislature insisted such disparities cease and mandated that the Alaska Railroad get "fair market value" for all land leases. That's not an insignificant chunk of change; the Comfort Inn, across Peger Road from the Ice Park, pays nearly $45,000 a year to lease a much smaller piece of railroad land.

"I've been working personally with current and former mayors to put something together where the North Star Borough could lease the land, and we're still working on that," said Kubitz. "We've spent thousands of hours of staff time trying to solve this problem."

The nonprofit Ice Alaska group is "trying real hard," he said, but is in no position to make the financial commitment.

The railroad has invested in developing a subdivision where the park went in -- supposedly on a temporary basis -- 15 years ago. The railroad board has twice approved lease offers but Ice Alaska has not accepted either deal.

"We could lease to other people, but not until they're gone," Kubitz said. Following its legal obligations, the railroad has long urged Ice Alaska to make a decision.

"Finally they told us that they were going to leave in April of 2010," Kubitz said. "They agreed to it."

Juneau's turn

Alaska statues allow the conveyance of railroad land -- but the railroad isn't allowed to so on its own.

"We do land trades with municipalities and the State of Alaska and Native corporations on a regular basis," Kubitz said. The pending transfer of Government Hill land from the railroad to the Municipality of Anchorage is an example. "But because it is state land, we have to go through legislative approval."

In February the North Star Borough passed a resolution asking the state legislature to do that and Interior lawmakers, at least, have become aware that the ball is in their court.

"The Ice Park has been a fixture in the area for a long time," said Fairbanks Rep. Scott Kawasaki.

There's nothing pending in Juneau at the moment, Kawasaki said, though he thinks Fairbanks Sen. Joe Paskvan may hold a hearing on the matter.

"Speaking for the rest of the Interior delegation, we're not just going to lay low on this," Kawasaki said. "The Ice Park's a real asset to the community. We're either going to work directly with the railroad and get some resolution in the next 30 days or we might see some legislation come down the pike."

The event could move to a new location. Kubitz thinks Pioneer Park, the former Alaskaland, on the other side of the Chena River might work. "It's not used in the winter. It has a huge parking area. And it has bathrooms."

The current Ice Park features heated porta-potties around the grounds.

Other suggestions have proposed relocating it in North Pole or the south side of Fairbanks, said Kawasaki. "But that area's more industrial. I'd like to see it remain closer to town."

The benefits of the current location include ready access to the pond that produces the Arctic Blue Diamond Ice and a wooded setting that protects the sculptures from sun and wind.

Leaving the site won't be easy. There are several buildings that Ice Alaska has erected there over the years to accommodate carvers, volunteers, equipment and visitors.

Dick Brinkley sounded resigned to evacuating the premises within a few weeks.

"If nothing happens come April, we're tearing it all down," he said. "That decision's been made."


Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.

Fairbanks' Ice Park due to lose its longtime location

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