By Jenny Neyman
When the Firth family put the finishing touches on an ice carving of a walrus outside of Soldotna Professional Pharmacy on Jan. 20, the business’ owners and staff couldn’t be happier with it.
“Just the details that are in ours, the whiskers, the fat rolls, even just way they have his fins in the back, it looks like he’s in the water. It’s pretty awesome,” said Kimberly Hansen, daughter of pharmacy owners Tom and Lyn Hodel.
The sculpture, one of 18 created around the Kenai-Soldotna area as part of the Peninsula Winter Games kids festival, drew a steady stream of admirers through the rest of the week and into the weekend.
“There’s been lots of people coming by to look at it, posing with it and taking pictures,” Hansen said.
On the afternoon of Jan. 23, Tom Hodel went by the pharmacy to take some photos of his own, only to discover two very big and prominent details were now missing.
Someone had stolen the walrus’ tusks.
At least, that’s what seemed to have happened at first.
“They were broken right off. They stuck maybe an inch out and then were broken off. It wasn’t like they just melted off,” Hansen said.
Sometime between noon — when another photographer came and took pictures of the still-tusked walrus — and when Hodel arrived at about 4 p.m., the walrus had its teeth knocked out.
“Just to think it happened right in the middle of the day, too. And there’s people getting out of church down this road,” Hansen said. “We were pretty bummed. It’s just sad that people would do that.”
On Monday morning, the pharmacy called the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the Peninsula Winter Games and arranges the ice sculptures, to report the tooth decay. At that point, without any witnesses, it looked as though the tusks had just vanished.
“They’re completely gone. It’s horrible. And what are you going to do with ice tusks? I mean, I’m really having a hard time with that one,” said January Yeager, project coordinator with the chamber.
In the three years the chamber has been organizing the Peninsula Winter Games, and in Yeager’s recollection before that, she couldn’t remember any other instances of vandalism to the ice sculptures.
“Last year the arms broke off of the Dairy Queen ice cream, but that was an accident, that wasn’t a vandalism thing. As long as we’ve been doing it it’s never been a problem,” she said.
Ben Firth, of Anchor Point, who did five sculptures for the Games this year along with daughter, Aurora, and sons Silas and Josiah, said that he hasn’t had a problem with vandalism in the several previous years he’s been carving for the Games festival. The tusks were about 2.5 to 3 inches wide at the base and would have taken some effort to remove.
“They wouldn’t have fallen off by themselves. If it was an accident or vandalism I don’t know, but it would have taken a little bit of force to break them off like that,” Firth
The ice carvings are such a popular highlight of the Games that Yeager couldn’t imagine why anyone would vandalize them.
“We get a ton of feedback, and we actually, here at the chamber, have gone through a couple of stacks of flyers listing where all the ice carvings are. We’ll have tons of people show up, like last year we had a steady stream of people all day long coming in to take pictures of (the chamber’s ice carving), stand with it and all that,” she said. “It’s a labor of love, really, from everyone concerned. It’s not easy to get that ice out of the pond. It’s a huge, huge undertaking, but it’s so cool once it’s done.”
The popularity of the carvings is growing. There were a dozen last year, and this year 18 businesses and organizations requested sculptures.
“They just see them going up across the street or around town or whatever and say, ‘Hey, I want one of those,’” Yeager said.
The Firths carved five ice sculptures this year, including the dental-challenged walrus.
To emulate ivory coloring, the Firths carved the tusks out of the layer of whiter ice lining one side of the block — the side exposed to the air in the pond from which the blocks were cut. Upon further investigation it appears the walrus got its teeth knocked out, as there were still chunks of ice tusk in the snow below the carving, rather than poached.
Hansen said she looked at a security camera recording taken Jan. 23 of the pharmacy parking lot. Though the camera wasn’t zoomed in enough on the far corner of the lot, where the walrus sits, to identify anyone, the recording does show a family visiting the walrus, kids climbing all over it and apparently accidentally breaking the tusks off, and the family getting in their vehicle and driving away.
“It looks like it was an accident, but, still,” Hansen said.
Firth and his kids headed back up to Soldotna on Wednesday night to work on an eagle sculpture on Kalifornsky Beach Road, and stopped at the pharmacy first to do a little dental work. They carved new tusks, carved out holes in the walrus’ mouth and froze the new tusks in place.
“Ben was nice enough to make a new pair and he put them on Wednesday night,” Hansen said. “I was here ’til 7:30 and the next morning the tusks were there, so he came in the middle of the night. That was really nice of them.”
But Thursday morning the walrus, complete with new dentures, was ready for more admirers. But by Saturday morning, it appears it may have been admired a little too roughly again. When the pharmacy crew came to work Saturday, one tusk was broken off. Sometime during Saturday night, the other tusk was gone. Hansen watched the recording from Friday night and saw a group of young adults pull up in a pickup truck about 2 a.m., break a tusk and drive off.
“This one looks intentional, since it was the middle of the night. It looks like the tip broke first then they broke it up closer to the mouth,” Hansen said. “It’s just crazy. People are just unbelievable.”
Vandalism — accidental or intentional — isn’t the only threat the sculptures face. Mother Nature can be far more destructive. For the last several years, according to Soldotna-area weather data-keeper Jerry Olmes, a warm spell has beset the central Kenai Peninsula sometime in January through early February, wreaking melty havoc on the carvings, which usually go up in
This year, only two days have reached above 32 degrees — Jan. 5 and Jan. 25, when a light, freezing rain fell. During 2010, temperatures warmed to above freezing from Feb. 8 to Feb. 21. In 2009, Soldotna got almost an inch of rain between Jan. 14 and 18 with a high of 47.2 degrees Jan. 16, before cooling to below freezing from Jan. 18 to Feb. 13.
In 2008, 0.83 inches of rain fell Jan. 20, followed by highs of 38.8 degrees Jan. 21 and 39.3 degrees Jan. 22. In 2007, temperatures were below freezing Jan. 14 to 24 but rose considerably Jan. 26 to Feb. 3, with an unprecedented overnight high of 49.9 degrees Feb. 1.
The warmup in 2006 occurred mid-February, following a cold, relatively dry late January. The winter of 2005 was relatively mild with only 19 subzero nights. Temperatures were above freezing in late January, with 41-degree highs on Jan. 22, 23 and 25, rose again Feb. 7 to 10, and warmed to above freezing each day through the end of February starting Feb. 14.
“Johna (Beech, the Soldotna Visitor Center coordinator) put up on Facebook, ‘Oh, the ice blocks are going out.’ And we had probably 40 posts saying, ‘Oh, yeah, the weather’s going to warm up then.’ It happens every year. I don’t understand it. And it will full on rain and
everything,” Yeager said.
“Last year was really, really bad. And it’s just so heart wrenching when that happens because everyone has put so much effort into cutting that ice out and setting it and carving it and then it melts. It’s just awful to see that happen, but it’s really cool when it doesn’t,” she said.
However long the sculptures last this year, tuskless or not, Hansen said she’ll enjoy viewing them — from a respectful distance, of course.
“It’s just neat. There’re not very many places in the country that has something like that. And the people who do it are very talented. It’s just awesome that they can display their artwork around town for people to enjoy,” Hansen said.