38 years ago Sterling missionary Al York wanted to motivate kids to get out and enjoy the Kenai’s winter wonderland, so with $50 bucks for ribbons and medals he started the first Peninsula Winter Games. A quarter of a century later Soldotna Rotarians, Jerry Near, Ed Krohn and Norm Blakely got the idea of bringing ice sculpting to the winter event as a visitor attraction. Last Saturday, 13 years later to the day a group of Soldotna Rotarians led by Brent Hibbert continued the fishing for ice tradition that will result in beautiful ice sculptures at businesses from Kenai to Soldotna. The first year at Arc Lake the Alaska State Troopers stopped by to find out just what in the world the men were doing, “They thought we were crazy and must be doing something illegal, but no permits were required to harvest ice in Alaska. That first year we used Ed Krohn’s tow truck to lift the blocks of ice and ruined a couple of chain saws, but we got better at it every year,” Soldotna Rotarian David Wartinbee told the Dispatch while cutting ice Saturday at the Foster gravel pit.
The ice sculpting has evolved from a competition to a promotion for the Peninsula Winter Games put on by the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce annually, but the intent of the Games has remained true to Al York’s original intent, “It’s about the Kids! And everything is free for the kids thanks to our chamber community sponsors so mark your calendars. It gets underway at the Soldotna Sports Center Saturday, January 25th and the fireworks will start at 5:30pm bring the kids stay all day and the 20 some ice sculptures we hope will remain around town throughout the rest of the winter,” said Michelle Glaves, executive director of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce.
Selling ice in Alaska in the winter has gained international media recognition for the Soldotna Rotary Club who has turned the event to a fund raiser for local service projects and scholarships. “The way it works is the Chamber pays Rotary to cut and deliver the ice, then local businesses buy the ice and a local carver is paid to sculpt whatever that business would like in front of their business for the rest of the winter,” explained Wartinbee. Over the last 13 years the Soldotna Rotarians have cut ice in weather that has ranged from 25 below zero to a rainy 42 above, but have always had a successful harvest and funday that includes an outdoor barbeque featuring the famous Frigid Gourmet Allen Auxier.
2014 may become known as the year of “Thin Ice in Alaska!” Since the ice harvest began ice has been as thick as 28 inches according to Wartinbee who has been at each ice cutting event. This year may hold the record for the thinnest ice ever, “Dale Bagley plows the snow regularly so its deeper here than some of the lakes I’ve been ice fishing on. On some lakes the ice is only 10 to 12 inches but here today we have almost 17, which is thin in comparison to other years, but will still make for nice ice sculpting,” he said. Need being the father of invention, fishing for ice in Alaska called for the innovation of a ice cutting jig to hold the chain saw perpendicular for a straight cut, “Jerry Near figured out after seeing the saws used in Fairbanks that he could build a jig to hold the large timber blade straight and it works great. It’s important to have the blade cut almost but not completely through the ice so you don’t get a rooster tail of water coming up from the saw, then we free the block with a cross cut hand saw,” said Wartinbee.
For a complete schedule of events for the 38th Peninsula Winter Games, Saturday January 25th, go to visitsoldotna.com. Kids ages 8-18 must register in advance for the kids Monopoly tournament which will be held during the Games at the Soldotna Sports Center, call January at the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce at 907-262-9814.