Hotel capitalizes on Alaska's ice, snow and talent

Posted: Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Chena Hot Springs Resort, long a hot spot for winter tourism, came up with a new way for visitors to chill in style: the first ice hotel in the United States.

But getting it built has proven more challenging than anticipated.

The Aurora Ice Hotel will be a fairy-tale come true: a translucent building that sparkles by day and glows by night, a soaring cathedral of light decked out with gargoyles and life-sized knights on horseback.

"It is going to be spectacular," said proprietor Bernie Karl.

But nature was less than cooperative. Betting on cold makes sense just 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle, but this fall's record high temperatures delayed construction. Then temperatures plunged to 50 below too cold to use the snow hoses.

After the temperatures leveled out, the fire marshal questioned the project's safety. Its uniqueness complicated permitting. Despite rumors, the issue never was about requiring sprinklers.

Instead, the walls' integrity under snow load, possible earthquakes or melting were the main concerns, said Alaska State Fire Marshal Gary Powell.

"We don't want it to fall down on people," he said. "We are looking for ways that it can be built. We think it is a good thing."

After discussions with resort staff, University of Alaska experts and Jim Clark (Gov. Frank Murkowski's chief of staff), the parties met Dec. 17. Karl and Powell worked out an agreement, and the state approved the hotel. The resort plans a grand opening in January.

The daydreams of three people converged to create the ice hotel.

Karl's wife, Connie Parks-Karl, bought the resort 60 miles east of Fairbanks about five years ago. The Karls also own a recycling business in North Pole, a hotel at Denali, a camp in Kodiak and an equipment rental. Bernie Karl, who spearheads new developments at the resort, got interested in ice buildings during travel overseas.

The Karls' friend Brenda Hewitt, then at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, showed them an award-winning business class project. A team of Norwegian students made the case that a snow hotel could succeed in Alaska's Interior. Now Hewitt is the resort's vice president of domestic marketing.

They met artist Steve Brice through Ice Alaska, the nonprofit that puts on the World Ice Art Championships every March in Fairbanks. The sculptor moved to Fairbanks in 1990, got hooked on ice and began racking up awards around the world. His fantasy of scaling up sculpture to architecture fit with the Karls' and Hewitt's ideas.

Scandinavia, Greenland and Canada already have ice hotels, but the Alaskans intend to up the ante and create a virtual ice palace open year-round. They are using refrigerated walls, multicolored fiber-optic lighting and world-class sculptured dcor. They declined to discuss the cost.

Bernie Karl views Brice's talent as key to putting their hotel in a class of its own.

"I believe he is going to be one of the most successful artists in the history of Alaska," Karl said.

 

Steve Brice, an ice sculptor from Fairbanks, uses his ice lathe to form stools for the ice bar at the Aurora Ice Hotel, which is under construction at Chena Hot Springs. He noted that the stools will be topped with cushions of highly insulated reindeer hide.

Photo by Doug Loshbaugh

This fall, the resort staff constructed an arched wooden framework 120 feet long and 30 feet tall for the main structure. Reinforced with chicken wire and laced with optical cable and refrigerant tubing, it supports the packed-snow sides and five hanging chandeliers of ice crystal.

The walls, 8 feet thick at the base, provide insulation. Blocks of ice make up the front wall, furnishings and an adjacent tower. The interior will include a sculpture gallery, working pipe organ, bar and six guest rooms.

Who would want to sleep in a room kept at 28 degrees Fahrenheit? Plenty of people, especially tourists from the Far East. Several wedding parties have reserved the lobby. Asian travelers already flock to the resort in the winter to steam in the mineral hot springs while watching the northern lights.

"Actually, we are doing really well," Hewitt said of advance bookings. "Our Japanese market is going crazy."

Tour packages cost a couple $878 (for three days and two nights) or $1,067 (four days and three nights), including one night in the Aurora Ice Hotel, the other nights in the adjacent lodge, passes to swim in the springs, loaned winter clothing and shuttle service to and from the Fairbanks airport. Day passes to tour the ice hotel and sculptures are $15 apiece.

The original plan was to open the hotel at Thanksgiving and close it in April. But early response was so enthusiastic that Karl decided to make the world's first year-round ice building. The refrigeration runs off generators and circulates up to 340 tons of coolant. If permafrost can survive Interior summers, so can a chilled structure of snow and ice under a specialized fabric, he reasoned.

Karl remained jazzed through all the setbacks. It was a seat-of-the-pants venture from the beginning, and now the world is beating a path to the resort to view his realized dream.

"I've built this thing a million times in my mind," he said.

Karl calls his resort a winter paradise and already is looking ahead,

planning to have ice sculptures along the resort's trails and Brice teaching ice-art master classes in the hotel lobby.

"Every year it will grow," Karl said. "This is just the beginning."



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