Winter Games ice cutting makes a splash

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2008

When the Peninsula Winter Games decided that an ice sculpture contest would be a good event in 1997, Norm Blakeley, Jerome Near and others found there's more to ice cutting than taking a chain-saw to a frozen lake. Blakeley and Near went to Arc Lake for their ice and came back with a two-ton block the size of a desk.

"We rigged out some things, got the hole a little bigger and got a strap into it," Near said. "(Over) the years we refined our techniques."

At first Near and Blakeley did use chainsaws, but Near said it was difficult trying to follow the lines with them. Next the ice cutters came up with a cutting rig that had a remote throttle that made it easier to push the saw along a chalk line. But if the water got slushy, the chalk line disappeared. Now, Near said, ice cutters use an eight-foot by four-foot square and marking paint to create a grid they can follow with the saw.

Spectators will have a chance to watch the ice cutters and make a splash at the pond outside the PRISM training center in Kenai between 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday. After the ice cutters extract all the ice they can from the pond, they will invite anyone to don their swimsuit and feel for themselves what it's like to be an ice cube.

"You drink ice water so you could take a little dip in it," Blakeley said

Near said there are many Rotary Club members who will take the plunge. If a member donates $1,000 to the Rotary Club foundation he or she will be a Paul Harris fellow.

"We told them if you jump in the hole the club would make up the difference and get you the award," Near said.

Blakeley expects between 15 and 20 spectators at the ice cutting event on Saturday and said many of them would probably jump in the water. In addition to generating funds for the Rotary Club, some jumpers will be raising money for other local non-profits.

"We're calling it splash for cash," he said. "We try to make it a major event. We cut about 40 pieces of ice and have probably 15 to 20 people there, some of them jumping in the water."

Blakeley said the blocks of ice will be pulled from the pond with a fork lift. It pushes down on the ice to loosen it and then the ice cutters will drill a hole and drop a toggle into it, allowing the fork lift to push down on the ice and then lift them up and out.

The ice blocks are typically 4 feet wide and 8 feet tall and last year were 27 inches thick. This year, Blakeley said the thickness might be as little as 17 inches, prompting board members for the games to look to Fairbanks for their ice.

"Carlile brought down two vans full of ice from Fairbanks and it's 40 inches wide, 6 feet tall and 26 to 30 inches thick," he said, estimating the cost of transporting the ice may have been around $5,000. "They did it for free. It's pretty nice we have people in the community helping us like that."

Near said the local ice the ice cutters fish out of the pond will be used for the base of the ice sculptures while the ice from Fairbanks will be carved by the sculptors themselves. Because the PRISM pond used to be a gravel pit, Near said it doesn't have a lot of the vegetation a lake does, giving the ice a more crystalline look. Plus, he said, it's convenient.

Once the ice is loaded onto the trucks, it will be taken to the Soldotna Sports Center and other places around the central peninsula for the sculptors to carve. Near said if businesses wanted an ice sculpture they would have to donate $700 to the Peninsula Winter Games.

The carvers will also receive $250 for their efforts, but Near said he thinks the ice cutting event and the sculpture contest is more than a competition.

"It's just a matter of creating some interest in the community and using the resources we have," he said. "We've been doing that almost 10 years now and for us to make it work it depends on the resources, the loaders, drivers and all the folks that have their equipment that volunteer their time and help us do this."

And will Near take the plunge?

"I've been in Alaska since '61 and I've learned how to stay out of the water," he said. "If I did do that I'd be out so fast I wouldn't even get wet."

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at

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