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Occupational therapist has super chill hobby

This year, Rotter and his group took second place out of seven teams with their ‘Aerial Aquatics’ piece. The swordfish in the center was almost 12 feet tall, said Rotter. Submitted photo1 / 2
This sculpture, "Where's Frank?" placed 3rd out of 10 at a previous contest. Submitted photo2 / 2

Eric Rotter knows what his perfect winter day would look like: 20 degrees and cloudy.

By day, Rotter is an occupational therapist at Perham Living and Perham Health. However, in late January, he and two friends turn into magicians and create stunning works of art from blocks of ice.

When it’s 20 degrees and cloudy, that is when the conditions are just right for ice sculpting.

Rotter and his teammates, Chad Peterson and Jerry Sharff, have competed at the St. Paul Winter Carnival for the last 20 years. Rotter only took two years off, when his children were born.

The trio competes in the multi-block competition where teams are given twenty 300-pound blocks of ice and 48 hours to make a three-ton masterpiece.

Once the clock starts counting down, anything can happen.

At this year’s competition, the weather was 15 degrees below zero when they started working.

“That’s too cold to do much,” said Rotter. At that temperature, ice will pop and crack if water is added, so they had to wait until the next day before ‘gluing’ blocks together.

Patience was worth the wait, and 44 hours of work later, they took second place with their ‘Aerial Aquatics’ piece.

Some years, Rotter added, they have the exact opposite problem with the weather.

“It was 60 degrees, and a thunderstorm came through,” he said. “All you could do was watch sculptures melt.”

That year, his team had made a book with the beginning of ‘Treasure Island’ inscribed on one page, and a pirate jumping out of the other with a sword in hand.

“Every time we made the sword, it would melt and fall off. By the time we were done… we went to the bar, had a couple drinks and came back with a plastic sword then wedged it in there.”

More than once, Rotter has seen pieces blown over by the wind or with honeycomb holes that were made by the sun. In the end, whatever is left standing is what the 10 judges will score.

Pieces are judged by the design, how well teams followed their plans and technical skill.

The blocks are stacked and glued into place with water or slushy snow. Then, the artists begin using tools such as electric chainsaws, grinders and blow torches to cut, shape and polish the ice.

Rotter said a key to building tall pieces, like their 12-foot swordfish at the center of this year’s design, is to maintain a solid column of ice through the center.

“There’s always a core chunk of ice that the weight goes through, otherwise it will just tumble,” he said. “It’s not really math, just judgment and learning from your mistakes.”

Some of those mistakes include the occasional injury from using their power tools.

One year, their design included a lot of rounded and beveled edges, said Rotter. By the time he got home, the tendons in his arms were swollen from using the grinder.

“You could hear them squeak,” he said, and laughed.

This year, Rotter also dropped a piece of scaffolding on the bridge of his nose and chunks were taken out of gloves by a grinder that “would take your skin off in a second.” Thankfully, no one on the team has been badly hurt while carving.

While the competition itself can be long and challenging, Rotter said he enjoys going back.

Some competitors teach ice sculpting to culinary school students; others are chainsaw woodcarvers who want to do something different.

Sharff began carving 30 years ago while in Alaska.

The teams form a community of people who just get to see each other once a year, Rotter said. “It’s just a fun event to go to and be around all of the people.”