Fairbanks and the 2011 World Ice Art Championships 3/20/11
Fairbanks is a genuine end-of-the-road, wild west town. With Denali in the background, Fairbanks is a launch pad for the truly intrepid who want to head further into interior Alaska. We are not talking suburbs. When you get outside Fairbanks, it is the bush.
I spent the last week in Fairbanks and I did want to tout it as a cool place to visit, especially during the World Ice Art Championships , held annually in March.
The ice art competition is something to put on your bucket list. Ice sculptors from over 38 countries have created large and intricate works of art made out of huge blocks of ice. Using chain saws and other hand and power tools, teams are given up to 10 blocks of ice. Each ice block measures approximately 4 ft. x 6 ft. x 3.3 ft.
Teams in the Multi-Block Classic sculpt a minimum of 46,000 pounds of ice. They do have heavy equipment, including specialized forklifts, to harvest, cut and lift the blocks.
The sculptures can be huge, over 25 feet tall. I liked Dream Big Dragon Slayer which featured a detailed ice dragon that must have been 20 feet tall. The Multi-Block Classic starts at 9am on a Sunday and the work must be done on the sculpture by 9pm on Friday. Teams can have two to four members.
In addition to the Multi-Block competition, there is also a Single Block Classic. In this competition, one or two member teams craft single blocks of ice measuring 5 ft. x 8 ft. x 3 ft. Each block weighs 7,800 pounds. This competition begins at 9am on a Tuesday and work must be finished by 9pm on a Thursday.
It all takes place in a large roomy outdoor Ice Park. As part of this event, there is a Kids Park which has to be one of the greatest playgrounds, ever. The Kids Park is entirely composed of ice structures including very long sides built on a hillside, a lifesize maze to walk through, long tunnels to crawl through, an igloo, and other kid-friendly sculptures. I went on a late Wednesday afternoon and there were many lit-up kids running around.
The event, in its 22nd year, is a celebration of spring in interior Alaska. Lights are creatively placed in and around the exhibits to add an extra nocturnal dimension. The event is organized by Ice Alaska, a volunteer organization. The goals of Ice Alaska are worthy:
1) To promote artistic and educational endeavors using ice.
2) To enhance and promote international friendships through cultural and artistic exchange.
3) To preserve and display all cultures through elegant ice exhibitions.
4) To promote Alaska and to encourage winter.
The website of Ice Alaska, http://www.icealaska.org , has photos and video of the exhibits and more information about the artists and related events. The event is something to see.
Before I went to Alaska, an Administrative Law Judge in New Hampshire had told me about her experience flying out of Fairbanks in the winter. She recalled it was 50 below as she sat in a plane. Before take-off, she watched the plane’s wings being de-iced. Earlier, the engine had refused to start due to the cold. She asked herself: do I want to stay on this plane? She did stay and lived to tell about it.
Since I have been in Alaska, I have watched weather forecasts on TV. (They go on longer than in other places because the state is so big and there are multiple weather patterns going simultaneously) For a good part of the winter, the low temperatures in Fairbanks routinely hit 40 below. When I was at the Federal Court there, I joked with a security guard about the weather being nice. He said this winter Fairbanks had a run of solid 45 below for two weeks straight.
It was a balmy 17 below when I arrived but it warmed up and got sunny up into the 20s everyday.
One thing I learned: do not forget to plug in your car at night. I had a rental car and there were hitching posts around town. I found driving in Fairbanks a bit of an unnerving experience. There is probably an inch of ice covering many sections of road. Stopping and turning on ice is an acquired skill. Having lived in New Hampshire, I am accustomed to bad road conditions. It is different in Fairbanks though. Watching the glare ice on the road can throw you and cause second thoughts about speeding. I imagine experience with sliding helps.
I happened to be in town during the Tanana Chiefs Conference. The Conference is a non-profit organization with a membership of Native Governments from 42 interior Alaska communities and participants were staying at the same hotel as me. I don’t know what happened at the Conference but I will say that the Native Alaskans knew how to party, hard and loud. It sounded like a good time.
When I told one New Hampshire friend I was going to Fairbanks, he jokingly said, ” Scarebanks”. Fairbanks does seem to have more than its share of crackpots. Last week the FBI arrested a group of Alaska militia members from the Fairbanks area who, according to court documents, were planning on killing state troopers, a federal judge, one of the judge’s family members and an IRS employee.
I admit to being at a total loss to explain the warped ideology behind that world view. Whip together paranoia, conspiracy theories, hatred of the federal government, blood thirstiness, love of weapons, racism, anti-semitism and voila. Voltaire once said, ” Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
The group’s leader, 27 year old Schaeffer Cox, had claimed that he had 3500 members under his command. Cox claimed to be a Sovereign Citizen, not subject to the laws of Alaska or the United States.(Good luck, Mr. Cox) Cox was so far out in La-La Land that before his arrest he had bragged Alaska authorities were “outmanned and outgunned”.
Of course, no place has a monopoly on crackpots. I would not let it keep you away from Fairbanks. On the flight back to Anchorage, I lucked out and got a completely clear view of Denali. Flying at 23,000 feet, off to the right, it was not too far below. It was majestic, almost unworldly. Not a bad way to finish the work week.