Ice farmers harvest blocks destined for sculpture

Posted: Thursday, February 01, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Talk to Andy O'Grady and Dick Brickley and you get the feeling you're standing in a corn field in Iowa, not on a frozen pond in Fairbanks. They speak of ''crops'' and ''growing conditions'' and ''harvest.''

O'Grady and Brickley are Fairbanks' resident ice farmers and are responsible for producing ice used for the World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks each March.

The event attracts dozens of ice sculptors from around the world and requires hundreds of chunks of ice the size of a Volkswagen.

And while usually-frigid Fairbanks rarely fails to produce a bumper crop of ice, the harvest this year has been especially good.

''It's some of the nicest ice we've had,'' said Brickley, chairman of Ice Alaska, the organization responsible for hosting the ice-carving championships. ''It's been extremely warm but it's been absolutely perfect for growing ice.''

On Monday and Tuesday, O'Grady and his crew of five volunteers harvested nearly 300 blocks from a pond near the ice park. They cut the ice using chain saws with 5-foot blades and pulled the blocks out of the water with a forklift.

O'Grady and his crew have been harvesting ice for several weeks.

As the forklift rolled by Tuesday carrying a 4-foot-by-4-foot block of blue ice 3 feet thick, O'Grady paused to admire it. You could see through the block almost as if it were glass.

''Isn't that beautiful?'' O'Grady asked.

This year, O'Grady said he and his crew will cut about 1,500 blocks of ice, about 2.5 million pounds, the most ever in the 10-year history of the event. There are 30 entries in the multi-block competition and 50 in the single-block this year.

The ice-carving championships have become so popular, O'Grady said, that the demand for ice has increased exponentially. For example, the ice that will be used to build this year's kiddie park is enough for 30 single-block carvings and 26 multi-blocks.

''That's more ice than the whole event used to take,'' O'Grady said.

Despite the record harvest, O'Grady isn't worried about running out of ice. The pond is split into four ''fields'' and workers haven't even touched the last one.

''We've still got a quarter of the pond left,'' O'Grady said.

Workers must wait until the ice is 3 feet thick, a process that took longer this year because of the mild weather. Fairbanks has yet to experience its first extended cold snap and the temperature has dropped to 30 degrees below zero only once.

''From the time the ice was thick enough to walk on we've been out there with a snowblower to keep it clear so the cold could permeate downward,'' O'Grady said. ''It makes a tremendous difference. Snow is a good insulator.''

Blocks used for the single-block competition are 5 by 8 feet, 3 feet thick and weigh 7,000 pounds each. Blocks used for multi-block carvings are 4-by-4-feet, also 3 feet thick and weigh 3,000 to 4,000 pounds.

The warmer weather this winter resulted in fewer fractures in the ice when it was removed from the water, O'Grady said.

''With real cold weather you get more fractures,'' he said. ''When the air is 40 or 50 degrees colder than the water, it forces cracks in the ice that are 1 to 2 inches deep.''

It's definitely easier growing ice than harvesting it, a cold, wet job that involves an equal amount of patience and chain saw repair.

Workers used to chain saw the ice by hand until Tom Gullickson, who has cut most of the ice for the event since it started, invented a wooden stand into which the chain saw is clamped. The stand allows cutters to tip the blade of the chain saw into the water and pull the saw through the ice at a right angle, providing almost perfect cubes.

''It cuts them pretty plumb; that's what the sculptors appreciate when they're building multi-block sculptures,'' said O'Grady. ''Everything just fits right together.''

Gullickson, a carpenter, said he came up with the custom-designed chain saw stand to relieve his aching back after cutting as many as 100 blocks by hand in one day.

''I made a drawing on the kitchen table,'' Gullickson said.

The biggest problem ice cutters have is keeping chain saws running. On Tuesday, Gullickson replaced a clutch that went out on one saw while O'Grady and Kreig Neyhart untangled the chain for the other.

''You just expect problems,'' Gullickson said, sorting through a tool box on the tailgate of a pickup truck, which served as his operating table. There was a space heater running behind him to thaw out saw parts or workers' hands, whichever needed it.

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