Bernie Karl knew he wanted an ice museum. Karl felt an ice museum would be a great addition to Chena Hot Springs, the resort he owned 50 miles outside of Fairbanks. So in December of 2003, he contracted two experienced ice carvers, Steve and Heather Brice, a husband and wife ice-carving team to build his museum. Three months later, his idea was
completed, and he had his giant, cathedral-like ice museum.
But then summer came.
With the nearly 90-degree Fairbanks summers, the Brices and Karl could do nothing but watch as the giant ice palace melted into a giant ice puddle. Karl was using a refrigeration system on the museum,
but it was expensive, inefficient, and as the rubble and puddles suggested, not sufficient.
“It felt pretty disappointing,” Steve said, on the biggest project of his career at that point. “I had given up on it.”
But Karl hadn’t. In 2004, he came across an absorption chiller, a machine that uses hot water and ammonia to refrigerate. The Brices started to work again in September of 2004, and completed a second ice museum, but this time, with the absorption chiller. When the summer came, the museum stayed. Karl’s idea had worked. He used hot water from the springs to freeze water, and keep his museum on ice.
No matter the season, driving out to Chena Hot Springs Resort is always an experience. The resort, nestled in Pleasant Valley in central Alaska, is literally at the end of the road. Chena Hot Springs Drive takes visitors from Fairbanks to the resort, and introduces plenty of twists, turns, scary moments, and beautiful scenery along the way. In the summer, drivers experience beautiful backdrops of colorful mountains and what seems like an endless forest. During the winter, the snow, ice and darkness make for a slow and slippery trip. The fall and spring provide a combination of both, and the light amount of snow and slush on the roads makes for the most dangerous drive.
The resort offers many options for tourists to spend money. Between the natural hot springs, restaurant, sleeping lodges and geothermal plant, Chena Hot Springs is one of the biggest tourism draws in the state. But perhaps the biggest crowd-pleaser at the resort is the ice museum.
“The owner asked for a big gothic cathedral, with an ice bar andbedrooms.” Steve said.
The ice museum is just as it sounds, a giant museum made completely out of ice. While it is owned by Karl, it is completely run and operated by the Brices. Steve and Heather have been in charge of the operation since the original construction during the winter of 2003-2004. Both experienced ice artists, the Brices are paid to build and maintain the ice museum. The two life-long artists made cutting ice into different shapes a career.
“I was hooked. I love the speed and possibilities,” Heather said.
The outside of the museum looks like a giant arched ice cathedral. The building appears to be made entirely of ice, but touch the outside and one can feel the plastic, ice-block-painted backdrop that covers the entire building. The only entrance is through two giant wooden doors with long, black, curved handles. On a spring day in the Fairbanks area, like the day I went to the resort, the temperature was more then 40 degrees. Once you open the door to the museum, cool air rushes into you and tingles every one of the senses. It feels like walking into an ice chest.
Once inside, there are two main sections of the museum. Guests first walk into a waiting area, a sort of arctic entryway to an igloo. The area has rows of hooks, each holding large, poofy parkas, hats and mittens for the tourists not acclimated to cold weather. To the right of the entrance are Steve’s new ice blocks; to the left, Steve and Heather’s working area.
The working area covers nearly three walls of the entryway. Magnetic bars hold up all sorts of ice picks, shavers, and knives with what could be the world‘s largest variety of serrated blades. In the middle of the knives, a silver spoon sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s used for scooping snow out of ice statues. There are small boxes, filled with a myriad of drill tips. Steve makes and sells many drill bits in a year, which he said provides only a fraction of his income. All shapes and sizes of drills hang above the knives. Steve estimates his tools are worth $70,000.
“This is our workshop” Steve said.
Standing inside the waiting area feels like being a child one room away from the tree on Christmas. You can feel the air, smell the ice and snow, and see the vibrant colors dancing on the inside of the museum. Standing in the waiting area makes you want to go in the museum itself even more.
Lights bounce off of each ice sculpture, throwing every color of the rainbow in every corner of the museum. Nearly everything in the m
useum is made of ice. From the spiral staircase, to the martini glasses, the Brices created everything inside. Even the fire in the fireplace, although it glows with an orange light, is frozen.
The museum has a simple layout. One hallway runs through the middle, and the attractions line the wall on either side. The left has the spiral staircase and a wedding chapel, where Steve and Heather had their wedding.
“We built it, so we figured we might as well get married there,” Steve said.
The right side has the fireplace, the Aurora Ice Bar, and an igloo with an ice xylophone. The xylophone has seven keys, all of which have been tuned by Heather. Three mallets sit in an ice cup, and the acoustics in the small dome are incredible. The C note rings the loudest, and seems to last forever.
The museum also has four guest rooms, which are available for rent. Each side of the museum has two rooms, which reach to the back wall. Each room also has a unique theme, derived from its name. The First room, the Christmas room, has a raised sleeping area against the back wall and an ice Christmas tree, complete with lights and ice ornaments. The second room, the rose room, has a similar set up, but instead of a tree, there is a large ice rose. The third room is aptly named the bathroom. It has a small sleeping area, and an outhouse made of ice. The ice outhouse – with completely clear walls - has a furry seat bottom cover, and enough room for a toilet paper holder and a person. Steve said it has been used in the past. Finally, the Nanook room is the most popular room. The Nanook, or Polar Bear room has a sleeping area shaped like the belly of a polar bear. The bedposts are the polar bear’s paws, and a large Nanook head rises out of the ground at the head of the bed, as if the block of ice is observing the room.
All of the attractions are accompanied by multiple pieces, ranging from Greek statues to tiger heads. Almost every railing in the museum is adorned with spheres, all with intricate designs carved in the middle. Much like everything else, all of the spheres have lights frozen in them. The Brices use Light Emitting Diodes - more commonly known as LEDs - to light the museum. LEDs shine brighter and last longer then regular light bulbs. They also don’t get as hot, which is very important when working with a material that melts at 32 degrees.
To keep the ice from melting again, Karl needed a cheap, efficient refrigeration technique. In 2004, he found his absorption chiller, made by Energy Concepts, a heat-based energy technology company based out of Annapolis, Md. Karl bought what Energy Concepts called their “Thermochiller”, and applied it to his museum. The absorption chiller takes ammonia, a colorless gas compound of hydrogen and nitrogen, heats it up, and mixes it with water, heating the mixture to ammonia’s boiling point. The ammonia gas is separated from the liquid. The gas goes to a condenser and the liquid goes to an absorber. Next, water from the Monument ark hot spring cools the ammonia vapor, and condenses it back to a liquid at a very high pressure. The high-pressure liquid ammonia then gets decompressed through a valve, and boiled at low heat in an evaporator. A calcium-chloride brine is then used as a heat exchange fluid. This mixture of high-pressure ammonia liquid and the calcium chloride mix absorbs heat from the museum. The air gets cooled and sent to handlers on the side of the museum that blow cool air into a duct to keep the museum chill. In layman’s terms, the hot water causes cooling. Think of a drop of water being evaporated off of skin. The water is hot enough to evaporate, but the area of skin still feels cold.
The absorption chiller has a long history. The first version was designed by French scientist Ferdinand Carre in 1858. It was first commercially available in the 1920s, and has been studied and experimented on by Albert Einstein and his students. Einstein created his “Einstein refrigerator” in 1926.
Fairbanks is a city obsessed with ice. The city has a hockey team named the Ice Dogs, is home to multiple carvers and hosts the World Ice Art Championships. The 22-year old ice carving competition draws more than 40,000 people a year, and nearly half of them are not from Fairbanks.
“We have a huge international draw,” said Dick Brinkley, Chair of Ice Alaska. “We had competitors from 21 countries, visitors from 20 other countries and a visitor from every state in the union.”
Fairbanks’ obsession with ice could be explained by the quality of the city’s ice. Fairbanks has some of the clearest ice in the world, one of the reasons the ice art championships call Fairbanks home.
Fairbanks’ lake ice acts differently then sea ice. In the bottom of the ocean, certain organisms give off carbon dioxide, and the gas tints the ice. In Fairbanks lakes, there is nothing to give off the carbon dioxide, and the ice stays clear.
“You find the bubble-free ice in lakes,” said Andy Mahoney, an assistant professor at UAF’s Geophysical Institute. “Fairbanks has plenty of gravel pads for lakes, and plenty of cold weather.”
Ice experts themselves, Steve and Heather oversaw the entire construction of the museum. After the shell of the building was finished, the ice was brought in for the Brices to play with.
“[Karl] told me to go nuts,” said Steve. “He told me to trick out everything with lighting.”
During the first four months of construction, Steve and Heather had a crew of workers helping them stack the ice for the rooms. Once that was done, The Brices were able to start working. The museum now offers five tours every day. The Brices usually aren’t present.
Steve, 48, was born in Fairbanks in 1962, when the Denali State Bank branch was St. Joseph’s hospital. His family moved to Georgia for a few years to get away from the cold, which Steve wasn’t a fan of.
“Three winters with no snow,” Steve said. “It was discouraging.”
Steve started coming back to Fairbanks during the summers to work construction. During the winter, Steve stayed in Georgia studying art at Valdosta State College.
He failed sculpting 101.
“It upset me greatly,” Steve said.
In 1990, Steve moved permanently to Alaska, and started sculpting stone.
“Someone heard I was a stone sculptor not making a lot of money,” Steve said. “Somebody wanted me to help them with ice.”
Steve said once he found out he could sculpt ice well, he was hooked.
“It’s faster, and you don’t starve to death like with stone,” Steve said.
Heather, 42, had a different road to ice carving. She was born in Sacramento, Calif., and moved around a few times before being stationed at Ft. Wainwright with her army father.
Heather received her Bachelor’s of fine arts from UAF, but focused on bronze instead of ice. Heather met Steve when she was babysitting for his cousin’s children.
“She said ‘my cousin is an ice carver, you should check it out‘,” Heather said. In 1999, Heather begged Steve to be on the multi-block team for the ice art championships. Steve hesitantly accepted, and their piece, “Fruit of plenty” won first prize.
The team, still unmarried at this point, moved to Anchorage and started Brown and Brice carving. The two married, and changed the name to Brice and Brice carving.
The two carvers, who love the Fairbanks winters and carve whenever they can, love their work, and won’t be quitting anytime soon.
“I’m doing this till I get bored,” Steve said. “It hasn’t gotten boring yet.”
Photos Courtesy of Chenahotsprings.com Media Gallery