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Wall of ice slowly takes shape in Superior, Wis.

SUPERIOR, Wis. - It's only about 22 feet tall now, a couple of frozen columns that look a little like ice-coated rope. But Roger Hanson sees much bigger things ahead. Hanson of Big Lake, Minn., is the ice artist/engineer building what he hopes wi...

Roger Hanson stands next to the start of the ice wall he’s building on Barker’s Island in Superior. The structure, currently 22 feet high, hangs from steel guy wires. Hanson hopes to build the wall 75 feet high and 90 feet wide. Bob King / Forum News Service

SUPERIOR, Wis. - It's only about 22 feet tall now, a couple of frozen columns that look a little like ice-coated rope. But Roger Hanson sees much bigger things ahead.

Hanson of Big Lake, Minn., is the ice artist/engineer building what he hopes will be the world’s largest ice sculpture in Superior’s Barker’s Island Festival Park. He’s using portable pumps to pull water out of Superior Bay. A computer-controlled robotic nozzle constantly adjusts for wind direction and speed, spraying a stream of water every few seconds onto a support structure of steel cables.

Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, the ice slowly will build up on itself. Hanson predicts the ice wall will reach “full maturity” by mid-February - some 75 feet high and 90 feet wide.

The Guinness World Records people say a 53-foot-high ice sculpture made in China in 2010 is the largest ever. Hanson said he already has topped that in his backyard but never submitted an application for the record.

“I think that’s very doable. I’m sure we can get there,” Hanson said Thursday. “If it stays cold.”


That shouldn’t be a problem for at least the next week or so, with high temperatures forecast to be below zero for several days.

“Perfect!” Hanson said with a smile. “We like it cold.”

Occasionally on New Year’s Day a vehicle drove by slowly with gawkers’ necks craning to see how the ice wall was doing. Hanson works mostly alone, although his wife, a teacher, comes to visit on weekends.

“She thinks it’s great now. A lot of times, she just shakes her head at my ideas. But she’s used to it,” he said.

Hanson pulled into Superior on Nov. 5 and set up camp near the Barker’s Island band shell. His 32-foot travel trailer serves as his temporary home and his command and control center, with multiple computers and screens, circuit boards and plumbing fixtures. His system of aluminum towers and guy wires looks more like an Arctic communications post than artwork.

The project - he’s calling it the Lake Superior Ice Project - did not start well.

Hanson was trying to set up the support structure of steel cables during a frigidly cold November. Then, when he wanted to start making ice, most of December was far too balmy. The bay’s water, from the tannic-acid stained St. Louis River, is combining with tiny particles of clay to give the ice a yellowish tint.

“It’s been one problem right after another. I had a tower fail. The pumps and lines froze. ... I haven’t got more than about two hours' sleep any night,” Hanson said Thursday. “But everything is working right now. We’re making progress.”


Hanson, 64, said Mother Nature - through her temperature changes and wind and atmospheric conditions - is the real artist in the project. He said he’s just a contractor allowing her to do the work.

On Thursday, he was trying to fine tune how much water sprayed and when. A gusty south wind was giving the computer fits in directing the spray from 60 feet away. A temperature in the upper 20s was creating a condition called sublimation where the new ice, while not melting, would immediately turn into a gas.

“We’re just in a maintenance mode until it gets a little colder,” he said.

All of the systems in play - electrical, structural and computer - Hanson developed from scratch. He’s a self-taught mechanical engineer, electrical engineer and computer software developer. He started a successful metal stampings company, Accu-Craft, and then got bored and sold it.

“I taught myself all of it. I like to solve problems, which is good because I’ve had a lot of them here already,” Hanson said, noting he never got past the ninth grade in formal education.

Now, his life’s work and passion is his ice art.

“I’ve been doing this for seven years. But this is the first time I’ve done it in such a public way,” Hanson said. “Until now it’s been in my yard at home.”

Hanson received national media attention in 2011 when his work was featured on the “Today” show. It gave him the idea to try to take his work to a bigger stage.


“I’m enjoying it. It’s an adventure for me,” Hanson said. “The love of putting something together that works, and that people can enjoy, that’s why I do it.”

The ice artist was hired by the Superior City Council in September to build the ice wall that city leaders hope will attract Twin Ports residents and tourists alike as the focal point of a winter effort to bolster business in town.

The city is footing half the $30,000 cost of the sculpture, with the Tourism Development Fund kicking in the other $15,000.

If all goes well, the city and Hanson have agreed to do it again next year and the year after, with Hanson paid $45,000 for the second ice wall and $60,000 for the third. He hopes to make each structure bigger than the last.

“I’m not making any money on this. I probably won’t even break even,” Hanson noted. “But who knows where this might go from here. … Maybe the Chinese will hire me to win the record back.”

The Barker’s Island ice wall will be “finished” art for only a couple of weeks. Hanson is under orders to destroy it by March 1 so it doesn’t become a safety issue.

“That doesn’t bother me,” he said. “If it turns out like we think, enough people will have seen it by then. That’s the goal, to generate some excitement about winter here. “


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