Ice farm manager gears up for ice art championships

Posted: Monday, March 04, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Andy O'Grady, who grew up on a small farm in Minnesota in the 1930s, has fond memories of the family ice house.

''We used it to store ice for the ice chest buried in sawdust,'' he recalled. ''My dad or mom would take a block and shave a little sliver off for me to chew on and then put it in the ice chest.''

It's only fitting that O'Grady, 74, is operations manager for Ice Alaska. He's the man in charge of growing almost 5 million pounds of ice for the World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks, which kick off Wednesday and run through March 31.

Some of the blocks O'Grady and his crew cut out of O'Grady Pond -- named after you-know-whom -- are bigger than refrigerators. The largest pieces, used for the single-block carving competition, are 8 feet long, 5 feet wide and 3 feet thick.

''They weigh about 7,200 pounds,'' O'Grady said, admiring some of the huge, clear, blue blocks that sat on the edge of the pond.

O'Grady is responsible for growing, cutting, moving and stacking the huge slabs of ice for the dozens of carvers who chain saw and chisel masterpieces out of them each year. He also must manufacture enough ice to construct the popular Kids' Park, which includes a huge maze made of ice walls and a veritable ice playground featuring several slides.

''He's probably cut over 1,600 or 1,700 blocks out of that pond this year,'' said Ice Alaska chairman Dick Brickley.

O'Grady spends much of his time behind the wheel of a forklift, deftly maneuvering the blocks into position for carvers. It's a skill he picked up working as a cargo supervisor for Wien Airlines for seven years, one of the several blue-collar jobs O'Grady has held over his 55 years in Alaska.

O'Grady, a friendly man with a weather-beaten face and calloused hands, was a good fit for Alaska. He was a hard worker who could operate equipment, a skill that was in demand at a time when Alaska was growing.

He worked for the road commission driving dump and freight trucks. He was on a crew that helped build part of the Taylor Highway to Eagle. He delivered milk to the military bases. He worked construction. He spent 10 years as a cargo supervisor. Eventually, O'Grady joined the Fairbanks Department of Public Works and was there for 20 years, the last three of which he served as director, before retiring in 1992.

During his final years at public works, O'Grady got involved with the ice carving festival. The Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce began the event in 1988 and O'Grady said he ''was volunteered'' to help out. He has been involved ever since.

Ice is to O'Grady what corn or wheat is to a farmer. He talks in terms of ''crops'' and ''harvests.'' Instead of fertilizer and sunshine to make his crop ''grow,'' O'Grady relies on snow shovels, a snow blower and cold temperatures. He and his crew clear snow off sections of the pond -- called ''fields,'' of course -- to help produce thicker ice faster. Snow insulates the ice and inhibits growth, O'Grady said.

This year's ice crop is a good one, despite what has been a warmer-than-normal winter. O'Grady and his crew have harvested ice four times from some parts of the pond.

It was O'Grady's idea to build a pond on the site that Ice Alaska leases from the Alaska Railroad for the event. Using the land required a wetlands permit, which required Ice Alaska to come up with an alternative wetland.

The result is a 2 1/2-acre pond that produces all the ice the event needs. Huge blocks of ice no longer need to be trucked from one place to another. Now, they are moved the short distance from the pond to the ice park by forklift, usually with O'Grady behind the wheel.

''He does more work around here than 10 people put together and he knows what he's doing,'' said Tom Gutowski, who handles all the sharpening of chain saws and carving tools for sculptors.

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