Using trowels, some homemade tools and a 140-year-old saw, Minnesota's reigning snow sculpting champion Jonathan Baller crafted a lumberjack out of a block of snow Wednesday in Stillwater. Each shave of ice, each twist of the trowel, brought more detail to the towering figure, the first of a series of sculptures set to appear this week along the St. Croix River for the first-ever World Snow Sculpting Championship.
"A lot of times you have to figure out, 'OK, what's going to stand?'" said Baller, speaking of the art and engineering that goes into snow sculpting.
The snow lumberjack that Baller carved with his son Joshua and cousin Curtis Cook welcomes people to the section of Stillwater's Lowell Park where the snow sculpting competition got underway Wednesday.
The 12 teams in the competition have until 2 p.m. Saturday to finish their creations, with the expected sculptures to include a genie, a moth, geometric shapes, a teddy bear, and a depiction inspired by Greek mythology.
The sculptors hail from Ecuador, Argentina, Germany, Turkey and Canada, along with five local teams from Minnesota and Wisconsin. The event is an offshoot of a longstanding snow sculpture competition in Lake Geneva, Wis. That one, called the United States National Snow Sculpting Championship, has crowned a national champ for more than three decades. The organizers of the Lake Geneva competition, Winter Fun USA, helped the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce organize the Stillwater event.
The idea is that the winning team from the Lake Geneva competition will come to Stillwater in future years to face teams from around the world, said Mike Kasprzak, one of the many workers and volunteers who prepped the site Tuesday.
Before the snow can be sculpted, it must be stomped, and for that, volunteer Amy Dickson signed up.
She and other volunteers on Tuesday tromped on the snow as it was loaded into a 10-foot-tall cube. Stomping eliminates air pockets and ice chunks, things that could wreck a snow sculpture.
"It's a surreal experience," Dickson said, laughing about how she had to dodge the snow poured into a 10-foot-high mold by a front-end loader.
Kasprzak, wearing a sweatshirt that read "Snow Stompers of America," helped lead the volunteers through their stomping duties as Dickson and others compressed cube after towering cube of snow on the Stillwater riverfront.
When a snow cube reached 10 feet high, temporary walls that held it together were removed and the snow held its shape. They were helped by heavy machinery operated by construction workers from Market and Johnson, an Eau Claire, Wis., construction firm that recently opened offices in Stillwater. Some of the snow was made in Stillwater, and some of it came from the Afton Alps ski area.
As the giant snow cubes started to appear Tuesday, tourists wandered by to see crews moving and stomping snow, or to pepper Baller and his team with questions about the lumberjack emerging from the snow. Although Baller and his team — the Royal and Supreme Order of Snow and Sand Sculptors and Shovelers — are certainly competent, their job in Stillwater this week was to create a display piece, not compete. Baller said he's entering the national competition next month in Lake Geneva. With luck, he'll compete in Stillwater next year.
The snow, the riverfront and the competition were just what retirees John and Cate Thompson were hoping for when they drove to Stillwater on Tuesday from their Milaca home. "What I enjoy is kind of the spirit of everyone coming out and kind of getting back to normal," said John Thompson. "This beat out Duluth!"
The event is free and open to the public. It runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday and Sunday, and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The event has its own app.