By Larry Persily 

They use hand saws, shovels, chisels and a lot of whimsy to create their winning snow sculptures, and Skagway-based Team Alaska again has taken home the top prizes in international competition.   

The theme at the World Snow Festival in Grindelwald, Switzerland,  Jan. 20-25, was hospitality, and “we thought we’d put a spin on that theme,” explained Team Alaska’s Michael Yee. Their winning sculpture was a camper trailer with a bear that had just availed itself of the hospitality of the trailer, leaving food and bottles strewn about. 

But this wasn’t an angry bear — it’s licking its lips as it sticks its head around the trailer. 

Yee said teammates Peter Lucchetti and Ken Graham “have a great sense of whimsy” in their designs, which the spectators love. The fourth team member in Switzerland was Philip Clark. 

“I think when you put characters together, they should tell a story,” said Lucchetti, who has a master’s degree in fine arts. Even better when you can make people laugh, he said. 

Team Alaska won the people’s choice and juried competition at the 38th annual event in Switzerland. 

They started with a 10-by-10-by-10-foot box of compacted snow and it’s the small touches that make a big difference, Yee said. “We try to detail everything out as much as possible.” 

The whimsy and the attention to details — plus the fact that a team from Skagway has competed for almost 20 years — have produced a winning combination. The team creates a clay model to scale of their sculpture for each event. It helps them and, in many cases, the judges require it. 

In Grindelwald, the snow is blown into the 1,000-cubic-foot box — much like pouring concrete into a mold, Yee said. “It’s also stomped down, so that it’s compacted,” he said. “It’s not ice, but it’s pretty hard.” 

After taking first place in international events the past three years and placing in the top three the past 10 years at different events, the team finds it has a heavy task as it travels around the world. “Our biggest challenge is trying to move our tools,” Yee said of the 100-pound assortment that pushes the limit on international baggage. 

“We are constantly paring down our tools,” he said. 

“We prefer all hand tools,” Yee said, which is OK, since most events ban power tools. 

Next stop on their winter tour is a lot closer to home than Switzerland — the sixth annual Snowking competition in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, on Feb. 19-22. 

The Yellowknife event is held atop the frozen Great Slave Lake, and Team Alaska plans to sculpt an ice-fishing shack, with a whimsical twist. The twist coming from a giant octopus coming out of the water to engulf the tiny shack. 

Team Alaska actually got its start in the Yukon, Lucchetti said, when snow sculpture event organizers called almost 20 years ago and asked him to make the trip. At first, he thought they wanted him to work on their squad, but then he realized they were looking for a Skagway team to join the competition. 

It’s been a winning streak ever since. 

The community is “incredibly supportive” in contributing to help cover the Skagway sculptors’ travel expenses, Yee said. “We do as much fundraising as we can,” with help from the Skagway Arts Council. 

The team gives back to the community too, including offering snow-carving lessons at the annual Buckwheat International Ski Classic, set for March 7 in Skagway.