Ice Sculptures in Alaska

The sculptures, made of ice, are larger than life.

A snowy Sunday afternoon has drawn me to the ice park in Fairbanks. A competition is taking place, the World Ice Art Championship, one in which large blocks of ice, harvested from frozen ponds, are being transformed into exquisite works of art.  The sculptures stand in clearings between black spruce, some carved from a single block of ice, others assembled from multiple blocks.  The multi-block works are finished, detailed, lovely in composition. At the single block sites, many are still rough-hewn, in progress, as their sculptors work to liberate from the ice block the forms they envision in their heads.

I find my friend Heather Brice working on her sculpture.  She looks tired but smiles, determined, as she brushes the softly falling snow from her piece. She, like the other carvers, has been working practically around the clock for the past few days in order to meet the judging deadline. The effort shows in her piece: an elegant seahorse, polished and delicate, swimming upright.  Its unique anatomical shape is evident at once in the curvature of its neck, the down-pointing snout, its long tail, the hard, bony plates of its exoskeleton. True to its ability to change color to match its habitat in the sea, it has turned translucent to fit into the icy landscape. I gape, unable to comprehend that such loveliness can result from a rough block of ice.

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It is a remarkable process. In this outdoor art studio of a black spruce forest, carvers use chainsaws, forklifts, chisels and picks, as they work with their medium in its various states of water.  The temperatures have remained far below zero most of the winter, both aiding and hindering their progress.  The frozen ice, strong and dense, is less likely to fissure and crack when supports are sawed away.  On the other hand, challenged by such numbing conditions, wearing parkas and mittens and facemasks, these artists are most certainly among the most stoic in the world.

The subject matter of the sculptures are as varied as the artists that created them.  They come from all over the world – Japan, Latvia, Canada, Russia, Alaska – to try their hand at winning over the judges with their piece. A sculpture called “The Heart of the Universe” exudes power and presence through ice spikes that radiate outwards.  In “The Blessing of Baikal” a mythical father bestows a blessing upon his river-daughter before she flows away from him.   There is a tribute to Kobe Bryant, the basketball player, at his untimely death, as he towers high above his teammates, caught in the action of the game, dunking the ball into the net.  “Not Forgotten” pays homage to fallen veterans, in the figure of a motorcyclist who stops at the half- open gate of a cemetery.

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Later this Spring, the sculptures will slowly disappear, acquiescing to a gentler season, but their thawing will not lessen the fortitude they showed in the winter. We will recall them in our memories, how they glittered in the sun, were shaped by wind and reflected in the changing light. It is earth art at its finest, drawing attention to the landscape precisely as it is returned to it.

 

Winter Solstice in Alaska

“I’ve been up for hours and it is still dark outside!”

The complaint is justified, at this time of year, when the sun, in its best effort, follows a shallow, horizontal arc along the horizon, never really rising well above the Alaska Range. The day is marked by dusky metallic light, slanting in at an angle, a mere three and a half hours in duration.  Overnight, the temperatures plummet to 320 below zero.  The cold snap is predicted to last for several days yet.  We cover our noses and mouths with thick scarves when we go outside, but the hairs in our nostrils still tickle as they freeze.

It is the winter that sets us apart from the rest of the world.

“How can you bear it?” my friends in the Lower 48 States ask.  “Is it not terribly cold and dark?”

Indeed, it is a formidable winter.  Ruthlessly frigid.  Dangerous, even, if one is not clad in proper clothing.  But there is so much to love about the winter as well, I tell them.

Practicalities sometimes become easier. It is so cold that the roads, under a packed sheet of snow and ice, have the texture of sandpaper, less slippery, much easier to drive on.  In town, the parking meters have stopped working and we do not have rummage for quarters anymore.  Chores around the house lessen because it is too cold to concern ourselves with outdoor tasks.  The ones that we do still have, such as picking up after the dogs, is made simpler because the dog poop is frozen solid in the snowy yard.  We never run out of room in our freezer because we can place our dinner leftovers onto the porch, a natural outdoor freezer.

On an aesthetic level, we cherish the crackling, still, white world. Someone has hung Christmas ornaments along intermittent tree branches along our favorite walking trail through the woods.  We follow these, bundled into heavy parkas and boots, as the sun rises behind the spruces and birch trees. By the time we get back to town, dusk is already falling.  Outdoor Christmas lights, turned on early in the year to offset the darkness, cast a comforting golden glow onto the snow outside. In the pitch-black nights, the northern lights are clearly visible, wavering like a green curtain, extending into the Tanana Valley below. The stars, defined sharply in the crisp air, look like they can be touched.  It is as though we are, literally, on top of the world.

For one night, midwinter, the North Pole attains its maximum tilt away from the sun. The longest night of the year is upon us.  Just when we think the cold has lasted too long, we celebrate the winter solstice and its promise of returning light. What good is the warmth of summer, wrote John Steinbeck, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

This is precisely what our winter, rugged and fierce and beautiful, reminds us every day.

 

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