Some snow enthusiasts will travel a long, long way for an abundance of the white stuff -- even all the way to China.
A local snow-sculpting team called Minnesota Big Snow will compete Tuesday through Friday in a prestigious competition in Harbin, a sister city to Minneapolis located close to Siberia, 750 miles northeast of Beijing. The champion team is one of 26 in the world to be invited, and the only Americans. The teams are invited based on previous competition performances and international reputation. There's not much prize money, certainly not enough to entirely pay their way, but that's OK, said team captain Kelley Casey: "It's all about the carve, the enjoyment."
And the high profile, by snow-sculpting standards. The Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, which attracts more than 9 million visitors a year, is one of the world's largest, and unlike the contests at the St. Paul Winter Carnival or City of Lakes Loppet (which Casey organizes), the finished sculptures stay intact for at least a couple of months.
"It's about the same latitude as here, but there's more tundra between them and any warmth, so the river stays frozen for at least five months out of the year," said Casey, who works for the architecture firm HGA when he's not out making art in the snow. Joining him on the journey will be three of his five teammates, Roseville city inspector Gerry Proulx, sign painter Pat Mogren and Matt Seeley, an IT specialist for Honeywell.
"We all have artistic backgrounds, but none of us do art for a living," Casey said.
The group of carvers, which has its roots in the St. Paul Winter Carnival, has participated in more than 100 contests in North America since forming in 1996, and has taken first and second place in the top U.S. national event in 2008 and 2009, respectively.
The Harbin contest runs four days, Tuesday through Friday, "but it's strictly regimented -- there's only about 30 hours of carving time," Casey said. "The likelihood of subzero temperatures adds to the challenge, but perfect carving temp is anything between 10-above and 10-below. It's the sun and heat we don't like."
For each team, the process starts with a massive block of snow packed solidly inside a giant plywood box. It's very dense because it's been repeatedly stomped on, "not quite the consistency of a sugar cube, but it's hard," Casey said.
No power tools are allowed, but the team travels with customized hand tools including a two-man lumberjack saw, chisels, curry combs and even dental picks and sandpaper for fine details.
While many competitive snow sculptors opt for giant abstract art forms, the Big Snow crew has an ambitious project in mind that bucks the norm. Because there is keen interest in American Indian art in China, Casey said, the team's sculpture will feature four sculptures in one, connecting common native symbols -- a grizzly bear, a bust of a chief, a beaded Indian drum and a buffalo skull -- with elaborate detailing.
"We're known for our texture," Casey said. "We pretty much carve every surface, try not to leave much flatness."
Because they are not allowed to use coloring agents, they must create the texture through shape and shadow alone.
"The judging is at 2 p.m. on the 13th, so we'll figure out where the sun will be at that point and carve accordingly," he said.
The team switches off tasks as they work.
"We work really well together, and if you get tired of your corner, someone else can come in and add a different flavor to what you started," Casey said. "We're good enough friends that we can yell at each other if we need to."
Casey hopes to keep the folks at home updated on the team's progress, but because social media are restricted in China, he's unsure how easy or difficult that will be. But you can catch them carving exhibition pieces at the upcoming St. Paul Winter Carnival -- if there's enough snow to work with, Casey said.
"In past years, they would have it made at a local snow hill and trucked in, but I do not know if the budget will allow that this year," he said. The carnival begins Jan. 26.