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Icing the competition Winter Carnival Carvers head for Alaska

Greg Schmotzer sits at his kitchen table with a first-place award from this year's St. Paul Winter Carnival multi-block ice carving competition. In the foreground are sketches for an upcoming ice sculpture he'll be doing with three other men, including Chris Swarbrick, in an international competition. Submitted photo

Imagine a sculpture of two totem poles behind three horses rearing up on their hind legs, with an American Indian woman floating up out of the center, holding a dream catcher.

Now, imagine it 24 feet tall and made out of 40,000 pounds of solid ice.

Brain freeze setting in yet?

Hastings (Minn.) resident Greg Schmotzer, along with Chris Swarbrick of Ice Occasions in Ellsworth, recently took home top honors for the third year in a row at the St. Paul Winter Carnival's multi-block ice carving competition. But today, they have their sights set on an even bigger prize.

They will compete later this month in the 2009 World Ice Art Championships in Fairbanks, Ala. People from more than 15 countries will be competing.

Schmotzer and partner Swarbrick teamed up with two other carvers they've competed against for the past several years at the Winter Carnival.

"Yeah, there's a little rivalry there," Schmotzer said.

The team will have about five-and-a-half days to carve their sculpture out of 10 blocks of ice weighing more than 4,000 pounds each and measuring six feet by four feet, by three feet. The title of the sculpture will be "...And They Called Her Spirit."

To get an idea of how big the blocks of ice are, consider that, at the Winter Carnival, carvers are given 20 blocks to work with in the multi-block competition. Just one of the blocks they'll be using in Alaska is equal to about 14 of the Winter Carnival blocks.

"It's at least five times larger than anything we've done before," Schmotzer said.

The preparation

So how does one prepare for such a challenge?

"Buy about six 12-packs of energy drinks," Schmotzer's wife, Sharyl, said with a laugh.

But it's true. Schmotzer, Swarbrick and their team will work around the clock for the five days they're given to create their sculpture.

Schmotzer and Swarbrick will team up with Bob Halverson of Wisconsin and Zoli Akacsos, who is originally from Romania, but lives in Wisconsin today.

Schmotzer said there have been some arguments among the men throughout the design process, likely due to their history as competitors.

On the World Ice Championships' Web site, there are time lapse videos from the 2008 competition showing some of the staging strategies and carving techniques other carvers use. Schmotzer said he's been watching those in hopes of picking up a few ideas.

He's also extremely excited to watch Japanese carver Junichi Nakamura in action. Schmotzer has admired Nakamura's work since Schmotzer first began carving ice in 1996.

"He really pushes the limits," Schmotzer said of Nakamura's work. "He usually crashes, but before he crashes, the stuff he makes is incredible. I've been trying to emulate his carving style--except the crashing part.

"It's his whole style. His ice just flows and everything works together, except for gravity. His carvings have a lot of movement."

The process

Once they settle on a design (there's still some argument over whether or not they're going to do the totem poles), the first step is complete. Actually, building the thing is where the challenge really begins.

The contest employs heavy machinery operators to move the ice around for competitors. Schmotzer admitted he'd be putting some serious trust into the people working the machinery.

The team will first have to even out the ice blocks. The ice used in the competition comes from lakes and ponds, so the blocks aren't completely uniform. Then they'll stack them in the rough shape of the sculpture and adhere them to one another using water and nail boards.

Once the blocks are all in place, they'll construct scaffolding around them and begin carving them down to form the various elements of the sculpture.

Schmotzer will be mainly in charge of sculpting two of the three horse heads. Halverson is the most experienced when it comes to carving human forms, so he'll be doing the American Indian woman. Akacsos will probably do the totem poles, and Swarbrick will do the third horse's head and all the horses' legs.

Swirling up around the woman will be "wispies" (smoky-like forms rising into the air) and the whole team will work on those, along with the large base that will bear the title of the sculpture and the name of their major sponsor, Jonsered Chainsaws.

Creating the ice sculpture will require some heavy-duty tools, and some others you might not expect. Schmotzer has learned each person can bring 75 pounds worth of luggage onto the plane, but a lot of their tools will have to be shipped to Alaska.

Schmotzer uses chisels, die grinders, angle grinders, chainsaws, torches and even household irons to create his carvings.

Schmotzer's newest tool is a homemade water gun made out of PVC tubes he will use to inject water in between the ice blocks to help them freeze together. He saw another carver using one at the Winter Carnival and then made his own.

Schmotzer and the rest of the team will leave for Alaska Feb. 28 and return March 8. They have from March 1 to 6 to create their sculpture.

"It's definitely going to be an adventure," Schmotzer said.

There will be a web cam trained on Schmotzer and his team's sculpture 24 hours a day during the competition so people can watch their progress. Go to after March 1 to view the Web cam or get more information.

The payoff

The first-place team will take home $4,000. The awards banquet is on Schmotzer's birthday, March 7.

Because this is the first time competing in the World Ice Art Championships for Schmotzer, he's excited to learn some new techniques. He said he's hoping to bring some of what he learns to next year's Winter Carnival carving competition.