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Wisconsin Ice Sculptor Aims for Manmade Project to Rival Ice Caves

Roger Hanson is no slouch. He’s more like a genius.

Thu January 29, 2015 - Midwest Edition

SUPERIOR, Wis. (AP) The Iceman has been living since early December in a 32-foot camper trailer down by the river.

The high school dropout gets frequent visitors who bring leftovers of Asian chicken, vegetable soup and spaghetti in reusable plastic containers. One day, venison sticks were delivered and, on another, a full turkey dinner.

The Iceman doesn’t sleep much, is fond of Goodwill and is either sipping a cup of Folger’s French vanilla coffee or a Diet Coke. Hang around long enough and you find out he lost his hearing, in part, due to his affinity for pyrotechnics when he was in his 20s. The conversation also can turn to theoretical physics and a hypothesis of a virtual universe.

Roger Hanson is no slouch. He’s more like a genius, the Wisconsin State Journal reports.

His used Kountry Comfort camper, parked just feet from the frozen St. Louis River, is filled with computers he’s programmed along with a maze of wires, circuit boards, pipes, pumps and filters. The $50,000 creation is the control center for the Lake Superior Ice Project. The hope is that Hanson’s robotic-controlled spray gun attached to a 65-foot tower directed by the hundreds of algorithms he’s written will create a free-standing 75-foot-tall and 90-foot-wide world record wall of ice at Festival Park on Barker’s Island.

“It’s solid ice,’’ said Hanson, who is a self-taught software, electrical and mechanical engineer. “My wife thinks I’m insane sometimes. I think I’m insane sometimes. But I’m having a grand old time.’’

The city of Superior is attempting to build off the wildly popular ice caves of the nearby Apostle Islands last winter and create a tourist draw. That’s why the City Council voted 8-2 last year to approve spending $30,000 for the project. Hanson had requested $70,000, which would have covered the construction costs and his time but he agreed to the lower figure with the hope that success could lead to bigger things.

“He was very willing and flexible,’’ said Mary Morgan, director of parks and recreation for the city. “We are looking to create a signature event.’’

The sculpture would be another addition to the winter tourism economy of the city, known for its ore dock history, powerful high school hockey teams and the 380-foot-long S.S. Meteor, moored near the sculpture and built in Superior in 1896. It’s the world’s only remaining Whaleback ship designed to carry maximum loads with minimal drafts.

Events at this time of the year in and around Superior include cross country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, pond hockey tournaments, ice fishing and car, ATV and motorcycle races on the ice. When Hanson completes the ice wall, hopefully in the next three weeks, light shows with music are planned on the sculpture for three Saturday nights in February.

But already the parking lot has become a popular spot to eat lunch and stare through a windshield as Hanson’s creation grows by 7 gallons of water a minute sprayed in two-second bursts, 24 hours a day, weather permitting.

“We’ve been watching it as we’ve driven by but this is our first time stopping,’’ said Andrea Boyadjis of Duluth, Minn., who was with a friend. “We’ve been wondering how he’s been using the physics with it and how he [sprays] with the wind. I didn’t realize he wanted to make it 90 feet wide.’’

Unlike a traditional ice sculpture that is carved with a chisel from a single chunk of ice, Hanson’s creation is built in layers slowly over time with small, repetitive and pin-point bursts of water drawn from the river. He began construction of the towers in September, parked the camper on site Nov. 5 and started spraying Dec. 26.

The key is a cable strung between two towers. Water is sprayed onto the cable, drips down, freezes and eventually reaches the ground. After the base was built, the cable was removed. This was done by connecting the cable to battery cables attached to a power source. The process, using 220 volts, heated the cable and allowed it to be smoothly and quickly removed from the sculpture. The cable was then raised and the process of spraying repeated.

As of mid-January, Hanson had completed a third tier that reached 52 ft. Because of fears of the 15-ft. wide, million-pound column of ice falling over, he began expanding the base of the sculpture, which has no internal support structure.

“It’s unique to the lower 48 [states]. They do some projects up in Alaska that are pretty formidable but they’ve got a little more time to do these things,’’ said Hanson, whose full-time residence is Big Lake, Minn., about 35 miles northwest of Minneapolis. “The magic of the whole system is to get the water where you want it.’’

That is accomplished with his computers making four calculations every second using weather information from a station mounted on the top of the 85-ft. spray tower. Wind speed and direction, air temperature, humidity and other factors are all used to determine at which angle and direction the nozzle of the 4-ft.-long spray arm is pointed.

By the time the project is done, Hanson estimates 1 million gallons of water will have been used and that the structure will weigh between 6 million and 7 million pounds.

“The program has been developed over seven years,’’ Hanson said. “You have environmental conditions that are constantly changing. One day it might be 20 degrees and the next day it’s 20 below.’’

Hanson founded, in 1980, Acucraft, a metal fabrication company that specializes in fireplace inserts. He sold the company in 1996 and went on to develop software for the securities markets. He began making walls of ice in the backyard of his home in 2007 as a way to experiment with the excess water created by his geothermal heating system. His first was 30 ft. high. He went 10 ft. higher in 2008 and last year created a 65-ft.-tall, 90-ft.-wide structure that was bigger than his house.

The Superior ice wall is his first public project.

Hanson has installed seismic sensors to warn him of minor shifts, which could lead to a collapse. He typically wears a helmet and golf spikes while walking around the slippery base of the structure.

Hanson said, “It’s been an adventure. I get one chance to do this in my life. If I fail at this, nobody is going to give me another chance.’’

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