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When the temperature tumbles, Fairbanks man revs up the ice factory and colors come out

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Posted: Saturday, January 9, 2010 10:15 pm | Updated: 1:40 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

FAIRBANKS - Nathan George actually likes it when the temperature drops to 20 degrees below zero. Thirty below is even better and 40 below, well, it doesn’t get any better than that.

When you’re building ice luminaries, “the colder the better,” George said.

“We look forward to 20 below,” he said. “That’s when the luminary factory begins.”

George may be Fairbanks’ most-prolific, not to mention creative, ice luminary builder. He has more than two dozen luminaries of assorted colors decorating the yard of his Chinook Drive residence in west Fairbanks. One of his neighbors refers to the luminaries as “gum drops.”

George uses food coloring to make different colored luminaries. He has purple, red, orange, green, yellow and brown, to name a few of the hues. The colder the temperature, the deeper the color.

“To actually get the color caught in there you need it to be 20 below,” he said. “The colder it is, the more streaking you get.”

A 54-year-old fiscal officer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, George started making the luminaries about 10 years ago after seeing some smaller luminaries in a friend’s yard.

Making ice luminaries is not rocket science, George said. You fill up a bucket with water, set it outside to freeze and bring it back in before it’s frozen solid. If you time it right, the center and bottom of the bucket won’t freeze solid and you can drain the water out, leaving a hole for a candle when the luminary is turned upside down. Unlike some luminary builders, George doesn’t use an empty coffee can in the top of the luminary to create a candle hole.

Most of the time, George can use a butter knife to break through the bottom layer of ice and drain water from the center of the block, but he has resorted to drilling the bottom of some luminaries out when the bottom — or top depending on how you look at it — of the bucket freezes too much.

The ice luminaries not only make for cool yard ornaments, they also provide George with a visual reference when backing his car out of his driveway. Last year, he and his wife used the luminaries to welcome home a friend who was returning from the Lower 48 after getting a kidney transplant, his wife, Julie Shalvoy, said. They lined the luminaries up in the friend’s driveway and lit them the day he returned home.

“That was really cool,” Shalvoy said.

Mostly, though, making the ice luminaries is a way to take advantage of Fairbanks’ frigid climate and have some fun at the same time.

“It’s something to make the cold weather work for us,” George said.

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587

George’s tips …

George has learned a few secrets over the years, such as using heavy-duty plastic buckets from Alaska Feed Co. instead of the thinner buckets you can buy around town, not shoveling the deck where you put them out to freeze (the bottoms freeze quicker without snow acting as insulation, and you don’t want the bottoms to freeze) and not leaving them out too long (he uses 12-hour intervals to

coincide with his work schedule) or they will freeze solid.

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