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Ice Alaska harvest about half complete

By Julie Hermann


Every year, carvers at the BP World Ice Art Championships turn blocks of ice into beautiful and awe-inspiring works of art. But months before the carvers start competing, the 1,000 blocks of ice needed have to be cut out of pond ice. And harvesting ice for the championship is a lot of hard work.

Volunteers work together on the weekends leading up to the late-February opening date to collect the hundreds of blocks required.

The harvesting process begins early on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Volunteers bundle up in warm winter clothes and head to a pond, O’Grady Pond, near the George Horner Ice Park off Phillips Field Road to begin cutting blocks out of the ice layer on top of the pond.

Before cutting starts, there’s quite a bit of prep work. The ice has to be scraped free of snow, corners marked and cutting lines drawn. To make sure all the lines are straight, a rope is stretched down the ice and the lines are marked along it with brightly colored spray paint. The lines are then grooved with a small chainsaw just in case overflow from the water washes away the paint.

“We call it ‘scribing’ the lines,” said Connie Adkins, who is in charge of harvesting and has volunteered with Ice Alaska for 17 years.

Cutting the ice requires a chain saw mounted vertically on a square wooden rig, which stabilizes the saw and keeps the operator from having to bend over to use it. Chains can break and a bumpy ice surface can make it difficult for the rig to slide smoothly.

“There’s lots and lots of factors that make it really ticklish to do,” Adkins said.

The blocks are cut to the dimensions needed for the competition. For the single-block competition, the blocks are 5-by-8-feet square and the blocks for the multi-block competition are 4-by-6-feet square. The blocks are as tall as the ice is thick, about 30 inches this year, according to Adkins.

Once a block is free and floating, volunteers with pikes — rods with pointed hooks at the end — guide the block to an extendable-boom forklift waiting at the edge of the hole in the ice.

The forklift operator submerges the forks under the water and the pikers guide the block onto the forks. The forklift then lifts the ice out of the water and places it in rows with hundreds of other blocks.

When first removed from the water, an individual block is about the same temperature as the water, about 32 degrees, and can be different temperatures throughout. If the block is removed from the water at temperatures below that, the cold air hitting the relatively warm block can cause it to crack, Adkins said. The harvesters try to cut the ice when it’s warmer out, but that doesn’t always work.

“Mother Nature is our dictator,” Adkins said. “Sometimes, we have to do it at 20 below, and we have to live with the results.”

After being removed from the water, the blocks are given several days to adjust to the air temperature before being carved.

So far, 500 to 600 blocks, about half of the number needed, have been carved during three weekends.

“This year made us a little bit late,” Adkins said. “The weather was too warm this fall and winter, so we were waiting until the last minute.”

This year, the carving begins and the park opens Feb. 24. It will be open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily through March 30. Day passes are $15 for adults and $8 for children ages 6-17. Children younger than age 6 are free, and season and family passes are available.

Contact the newsroom at 459-7572.

37 Days to Showtime

Published in Ralph Bolt's Blog
18 January 2014

The First Harvest

1-18-14 Plus 10  Fahrenheit          

Around noon I drove down to the harvest area and the team was working on our first harvest of the year. The temp was nearly ideal. We have to avoid the severely cold weather as temps below about minus 20 cause the ice to fracture when it's raised into the cold air. Much of the volume of any given piece of ice is at the temperature of the water within which it sits. That water is 32 degrees so the ice is about the same, at least that part of it that is in contact with the water. The sudden exposure of that 32-degree ice to temps some 40 or 50 degrees colder than that cause sudden contraction and fracturing. So ideal harvest temps are above zero as we had today.


The pond at our previous site, which we abandoned some three years ago, was named after Andy O'Grady, a long-time volunteer at the park. Our current pond also bears his name. Andy's in his 80's now and remains a faithful and hard-working volunteer. He spends most of his time driving one of the big forklifts and today he and Connie were using the lifts to pick the ice out of the pond and drive it up to the staging area. Even on the coldest days, I've never seen him with a hat on.


Tom G. usually runs the saw. It's a hefty chainsaw with a long bar--I believe it's 48 inches. Most wood cutting with a chainsaw is done with the lower edge of the bar. It's tricky and dangerous to cut with the top edge although it can be and often is done in certain circumstances. But almost all of our ice is cut with the top edge of the bar. The cutting chain on the top edge is moving toward the tip which, with the saw mounted vertically on the sled, is underwater. Thus the ice chips are pulled underwater with the chain and don't end up on the surface where they would foul everything up. As it is, the upward moving chain on the low side of the bar just pulls clear water up which quickly drains away and doesn't cause much problem. As I understand the history of the park, the sled is Tom's invention. He can operate it with just one hand and an occasional nudge of his foot. He pulls the sled toward himself which keeps him on the side with the down-moving chain and away from the water coming up on the other side. A marvel to watch.


Three guys, Alan, Howard, Robert maneuver the big 4'x6' blocks away from the saw and toward the lifting area. They leave a relatively small nook in the ice in which to slide the block so the lift operator has a backdrop against which to hold the ice while placing and tilting the fork. You can see Howard standing on the back side of that nook with a block in place for lifting at his feet. Alan, meanwhile is holding a block ready for movement into the nook. Note the spikes strapped to his boots. The wet ice is very slick and we've had a few people fall into the pond during harvest. The spikes are essential to reducing that risk. ( I think we recovered most of them). To extract the ice, Andy lowers his fork into the water in front of the block, extends the boom to place the fork under the floating block and tilts his fork back so the block rests against the back frame of the fork. He can then lift it out and carefully drives to the staging area where he'll drop it off for later movement to the construction sites.


You can see the white ice on the top of the block--that's frozen snow/slush made by earlier thawing weather, rains, and overflow. It's OK for construction but no good for artistic sculpting. When this harvested area refreezes it will produce an entire block that is as clear as the bottom part of these blocks. We may get as many as three harvests from one area. Minus 30 and minus 40 temps make ice quickly.  More later. Ralph Bolt

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30 Days to Showtime

Published in Ralph Bolt's Blog
25 January 2014

Second Harvest

1-25-14  Plus 30 Fahrenheit

I'm beginning to wonder when--or if--it will cool down.  We need cold.  The area of O'Grady pond that was harvested last week should have substantial ice on it by now but it's barely skinned over.  Our best carving ice comes from the second or third harvest from a given site.  It will be many days until we can get a second cut.


Connie and Andy had their big forklifts out on the pond again today and the crew was finishing the harvest in the area Connie had marked and scribed over a week ago.  It's an interesting process.  These folks have been doing it so long, it's like a musical ensemble--each has a different instrument and as they play them together, the ice builds up in the staging area ready for the next set of artists to go to work.


Meanwhile, the Chineseartists were back working on the maze which now has some interior walls.  It's a big maze--although I haven't measured it, it appears to be around 80 feet long and at least half that wide.  Should hold lots of lost souls.  You can see that the ice is already clearing up and becoming transparent.  When first placed, it has a frosty finish on the surface.  As the ice ages, it loses that surface opacity and becomes clear.  That effect will be very apparent as we watch the sculptors build their creations in a few weeks.

More later. Ralph Bolt