When the temperature hovers around zero, most of us head for a warm fire, but not the good folks of Fairbanks.
That temperature means many of them are outside, because zero degrees in Fairbanks means it's a fine winter day. That's also optimal for the international ice sculpting championships, which Fairbanks hosts each February and March.
Ice sculpting in Fairbanks began in 1934 when a resident helped the community of 2,500 to stage the first winter carnival. Thrones were made for the festival's king and queen by pouring water over wooden frames that quickly froze, and the first ice sculptures were born.
Over the years, the little festival grew in size and popularity, and today it's known as the BP World Ice Art Championships, drawing about 70 teams of carvers from all over the world. Ice sculpting is a winter Olympic cultural event, and this championship festival served as the trials in 1993 and 1997 for Olympics the following years.
In smaller ice-sculpting competitions, restaurant chefs are often the carvers, having honed their skills on small centerpieces. However, the massive blocks — often 5-ton behemoths from local ponds — used in the Fairbanks competition demand power saws, hammers and chisels. Many Fairbanks carvers work in wood and even marble other times of the year.
There are three distinct events in the Fairbanks competition. In the single-block classic, two carvers are allowed 60 hours to complete their masterpiece. The multi-block carvers work in teams of four and have 110 hours to finish their offerings. In the open competition, old pros find themselves rubbing saws with amateur carvers.
The entire competition takes place within the beautiful confines of a wooded "ice park" along the banks of the Chena River that bisects Fairbanks. The park covers about two city blocks, and there is magic inside. I first visited the park at night and was disappointed to find the sculptures completed and the carvers gone. But then I but was quickly overwhelmed by the surreal beauty of the fantasyland I had entered.
Each sculpture was backlighted by two powerful lights whose incandescence, filtered through the ice, brought the pieces to life and made them appear to move as visitors walked past. Even my own shadow caused the pieces to change.
The carvers had created a private world in which people and animals mingled with fairies, elves and creatures that could exist only in the imagination. Fish swam and bears ran as gravity-defying creatures danced under the moonlight
The scent of pine and the crunch of snow under my boots reminded me that I was not on a movie set, but no Hollywood production could surpass the beauty alive in that small wood. I wandered for two hours among the towering trees, counting 53 sculptures and seeing each piece in the round. Although the park was full of people, the only sound I heard was the nearby river. Whether it was awed silence or a general respect for beauty, everyone was speaking in hushed tones.
The scene was no less powerful when I returned the next morning. In the low golden sunlight, the sculptures became prisms, shooting rainbows of light in all directions.
My favorite was a delicate mermaid with arched back that appeared to float among the trees. I was lucky enough to meet her carver, a young woman who keeps her carving chops sharp by using a chain saw on fallen trees during the summer months. She had returned to repair some of the mermaid's fingers broken off by an unwitting spectator. With a spray bottle of water and a handful of ice chips, the mermaid was quickly restored, fingers "glued" in place by the freezing temperature.