FAIRBANKS -- Plywood sheeting had not yet been painted and insulation could still be seen poking through roofs of the rapidly reassembled buildings at the George Horner Ice Park last weekend.
The BP World Ice Art Championships, Fairbanks' annual monthlong celebration of Alaska's best-known attribute -- cold -- opened Feb. 28 in something of a scramble. The familiar features were still there, the skating rink, giant ice slides, ice maze, a huge ice lens that will function as a magnifying glass to burn wood even on 20-below days. And of course, the big attraction, stunning ice sculptures.
But growing pains were also evident.
"Everything you see, eight months ago there was nothing here," said Don Callahan, the "media guy" for Ice Alaska, the nonprofit group that sponsors the event.
After 16 years of drawing world-class artists and gawking crowds on Chena Loop Road acreage belonging to the Alaska Railroad, the park was obliged to move. The railroad had plans for developing the spot.
The 2011 ice show ended with no certainty that there would even be a competition in 2012. Luck smiled when the opportunity arose to purchase 25 acres of land about a mile west of the previous location on Noyes Slough. It had long been the site of the late George Horner's Redi-Mix cement business.
Ice Alaska's director, Dick Brickley, and his wife Hoa, the business manager, put down $850,000 of their own money as a down payment on the purchase price of $2,275,000. Brickley said he expects the remainder to be covered by a state grant that has already been approved.
"We also have a lease-purchase option for another 67 acres," Brickley said. "That would give us a total of nearly 100 acres."
Brickley has plans for it -- a roof over the skating rink, an indoor facility for children's activities, an ice tunnel connecting buildings, a restaurant with windows overlooking the park, housing for carving teams from various states and around the world.
But first Ice Alaska had to move its buildings, a process that began on June 19, Callahan said.
The antique, pre-fab pipeline era ticket booth/souvenir shop and office/snack shop were dismantled, transported and moved with assistance from the railroad. The main building was reassembled with some notable upgrades like new flooring and drywall, upgraded artists' quarters on the second floor and a new kitchen with equipment acquired when the Burger King on Eielson Air Force Base closed down.
"It didn't all make it," Brickley noted. "You can see the back part of the building is new."
BLUE DIAMOND POND
As of March 3, the sculptures weren't ready. The single-block competition had been judged the night before and some carvers in the amateur division were working on their blocks. But the stupendous multi-block carving -- in which artists create translucent universes from 10 six-foot-tall slabs of ice, some pieces standing 25 feet tall -- would not start until the next day. (Judging was at 8 p.m. Saturday night. Results and more information at icealaska.com.)
As on the old grounds, the route for the single block entries winds through spruce woods. The trees shield the ice from the sun. Combined with the generally sub-freezing temperatures in Fairbanks in March, it keeps the sculptures looking new until late in the month.
The new route is less convoluted and looping than the old. One can walk by all of the sculptures (or ride by on the Ice Park "train") in a single pass. Sculptors had three days to create their pieces from single chunks of ice weighing 6,200 pounds each and harvested right across the street.
One benefit of the new location is its proximity to Fairbanks' fabled "blue diamond" ice, a remarkably clear medium so hard that it dulls chisels and saws almost as soon as they touch it. (The old "Saw Bus" sharpening space has made the move too.) The source at the old location, O'Grady Pond, originally dug to drain surrounding land, was relatively shallow and had begun to develop algae. The cement plant had dug its own gravel pits, one of which, dubbed O'Grady Pond Too, is a short forklift drive from the spot where the carvers do their magic.
"It's 50 feet deep," said Callahan. "That ought to last us as long as we need it."
MERMAID WITH STAR
This year's single-block winner is by the phenomenal Junichi Nakamura, a retired farmer from Hokkaido, Japan, who has won both single- and multi-block competitions several times in the past, including last year's single-block winner, a giant and elegantly detailed bird with a berry in its beak.
This year he teamed with Victor Dagatan, originally from the Philippines, now living in Marietta, Ga., an ice carver at the Ritz Carlton Buckhead resort and winner of several international prizes in his own right.
Their winning piece, "Treasure Hunter Blue Marine," depicts a mermaid holding a globe in one hand. Within the clear globe is a starburst of white. With several other viewers on March 3, I stood in front of it stamping my feet in the snow and trying to figure out how it was done. The best we could figure is that spindles of snow were fused together with water at sub-zero temperatures to create the star burst, which was then placed in near-freezing water. When the water froze solid, it was carved into the globe.
The magic of the medium is among the fascinations of the championships. The third place winner, "Acrobats" by Vitaly Lednev and Junko Yanagida, had one abstract sheet-like form balanced on another. But I kept staring at a smaller element, several squared cubes stacked up point-to-point.
Another curiosity is how artists expand a single block. For "Hudson Hawk," the fourth place winner, Ivan Zeuv had to carve out slabs from the block, form them into wings and attach them on either side. The Hawk's wingspan must be at least 12 feet and I'll be darned if I could see where the joints were.
It was easier to spot the connections in the sixth place winner, "Space Dog," by Chris Foltz and Zach Moore. The towering E.T. figure required carving and stacking several sections. Another elegant detail is the thin leash by which the alien walks his vicious looking giant poodle.
Women and wings were a recurrent theme in the Top 10 finishers; so were Native American images. There was humor -- the "Crapper Creek Outhouse" honoring a popular Fairbanks radio show. And at least one political statement, a tribute to Joe Vogler, founder of the Alaska Independence Party, murdered in 1993, titled "Joe was right."
And a tribute to the single-block sponsor, Geico Insurance, featuring characters from the company's ads, the gecko, woodchucks, laughing pig, with Warren Buffett (whose investment firm owns the insurance company) overlooking all of them.
There didn't seem to be as many sculptures as in previous years. The total of single-block entries (not counting the amateur division) was 35, created by artists from 12 countries.
"Last year we had 22 (countries)," said Callahan. But, he added, "This is a pretty good showing, seeing that we did not know in December if we would have a 2012 event."
Missing from this year's multi-block displays will be the giant black tarps that have been used for sunscreens. Brickley said he has plans to rectify that in future years. But for this year he had to rely on the kindness of contributors -- specifically Lynden Transport, which loaned container trailers that are parked on the south side of each site.
None of that seemed to faze the patrons -- particularly the kids. They climbed on the giant ice turtle, leaped into the ice bowl in the belly of a walrus (which is near-impossible to get out of) and slid down the 100-foot slides lit with LED lights.
For some, it was something of a winter miracle that the event has successfully replanted itself on new ground, the result of tenacity, good will, good luck and a lot of elbow grease from volunteers.
"We're sort of an island of talent here in Fairbanks," said Callahan, himself a volunteer. "And we depend on each other. Everybody's making the special effort. I wasn't sure we'd have a maze this year.
The maze is big. It takes time. But time was running out."
"The Chinese team had it finished in three days," Callahan said.
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
GEORGE HORNER ICE PARK is located at the west end of Phillips Field Road. Access off Peger Road by taking either the exit from Airport Way or the Johansen Expressway. Hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily through March 25.
One day admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children 6-12 and free for children under 6. Admission includes reentry on the same day. Season passes are $25.
If you go: Wear warm layers. Good footwear, gloves or mittens and headgear are a must, especially after dark. If going for one day, try to see the sculptures both in daylight and at night, when they are lit with colored lights. Bring a sled, or at least a piece of cardboard or plastic, for the slides and skates for the rink.
The Geico Single-Block Classic winners:
1. "Treasure Hunter Blue Marlin;" Junichi Nakamura and Victor Dagatan; Japan and the Philippines
2. "The Quest;" Egor Stepanov and Aleksandr Parfenov; Russia
3. "Acrobats;" Vitaly Lednev and Junko Yanagida; Russia and Japan
4. "Hudson Hawk;" Ivan Zuev; Russia
5. "Birth of Matter;" Tian Zu Wei and Ling Zhi Zhang; China
6. "Space Dog;" Chris Foltz and Zach Moore; USA
7. "Giving Thanks to the Great Spirit;" Oleg Klavdeev and Edward Ponomarenko; Russia
8. "DragonTango;" Ivan Loktyukhin and Vadim Polin; Russia
9. "Spirits of Our Ancestors;" Fyodor Markov and Odin Miller; Russia and USA
10. "Pegasus In Sky;" Satoru Mahoe and Takahiro Sueyoshi; Japan Artists' Choice Award. "Entertainment;" Li Yan Liu and Qi Feng An; China