Interpreter helps ice sculptors get to Alaska

Posted: Monday, March 11, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The reverberations of Sept. 11 have made Mimi Chapin's job as interpreter for Ice Alaska more important than usual.

The 56-year-old speaker of five or so languages helps ice sculptors from around the world untangle red tape so they can come to Fairbanks for the annual World Ice Art Championships.

Chapin speaks Russian, French, Spanish, Italian and what she calls ''a smattering of German.''

Her boss, Dick Brickley, chairman of Ice Alaska, said he couldn't put on the championships without her.

''Since this is an international event, a lot of our teams come from South America, Europe, Japan and China,'' Brickley said. ''It's not easy. The U.S. government makes it challenging. She'll contact Sen. (Ted) Stevens' office, Sen. (Frank) Murkowski's office and Congressman (Don) Young when the teams have trouble with their visas.''

Chapin also helps promote the park and even sculpts in the Kids Park. Like most Ice Alaska workers, she is a volunteer.

''The most fun thing in life,'' Chapin said, ''is to see people enabled and empowered to do things because they're communicating with other people.''

With her long silver hair, above-average height, creamy skin and blue eyes, she looks Norwegian. She claims British heritage, though. ''All I can say is there were a lot of Vikings who went to England.''

Chapin studied Russian at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, but was unsure what to do with it when she got out. At the time, she said, Russian scholars became either professors or spies.

Becoming a spy was out of the question. Chapin felt she had to go to Russia if she wanted to be a professor, but she was bothered by the Cold War. So she joined the Peace Corps, where she picked up a few more languages.

Chapin first came to Alaska in 1969 with her biologist husband, Terry, who was doing research for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

She kept up with Russian doing odd jobs such as translating scientific documents. Later, she coordinated Russian exchange programs and taught English to Russians.

Chapin was introduced to Ice Alaska in 1988 after she started working with then-Borough Mayor Juanita Helms on the sister cities project.

''I saw that ice sculpting was a possible tie that Fairbanks would have with Russian cities,'' Chapin said. ''It was a time when Russia was opening up. A lot of cities were looking for ties with Russia.''

Chapin started her job as interpreter for Ice Alaska, and she kept on even after her family left Fairbanks by returning every winter for as long as five months at a time.

The Chapins moved back to Fairbanks for good in 1998.

''Fairbanks is one place where you can have a university lifestyle and an outdoors lifestyle,'' Chapin said. ''We tried living somewhere where there wasn't much outdoors, and we just weren't very happy there.''

Chapin never expected to become an ice sculptor as well. It happened by chance.

''Dick Brickley said, 'We need a logo that needs sculpting. Get a chainsaw,''' Chapin said. It was an Alaska Airlines logo.

Chapin did it, and the logo turned out right, adding another talent and cementing Ice Alaska's hold on her.



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