It all started with an Alaskan outhouse race.
David Rothstein, L’97, had just graduated from Northeastern law school and had accepted a clerkship with the chief justice of the Alaskan Supreme Court, Dana Fabe, L’76.
“The winters are dark and cold, and cabin fever runs rampant,” says Rothstein.
To help deal with the long winters, Anchorage holds a two-week celebration known as The Fur Trappers Rendezvous, an extravaganza that dates back to the days when trappers and miners came in from the wilderness to get a brief taste of civilization. Today the festival includes snowshoe softball, bowling with frozen turkeys, the longest beard contest, and of course, dogsled races.
But the contest that caught Rothstein’s attention might be the strangest of all.
“Your team builds an outhouse, puts it on skis, and then races it through an obstacle course,” he says. “We put together a team, but when the race was cancelled, the only event left to sign up for was the snow sculpture competition.”
Rothstein had never done anything like that before but said his philosophy was, “I’m up here for a year and I want to do something different every weekend.” So snow sculpture it would be.
His two teammates took one look at the 10-by-10-by-40-foot block of snow, considered how they would be out there sawing away in the dark for seven days, and said ‘Hell no.’
“They agreed to bring me hot chocolate,” says Rothstein. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to have a screw loose to sit out here in the dark for hours and hours sculpting snow.’ I was surprised to find I couldn’t wait to get out there each day. It gave me an incredible sense of peace.”
Rothstein’s entry was a giant polar bear sitting in a beach chair with a surfboard and a boom box. For the first six days, no one could tell what he was working on and kept asking what it was supposed to be. He admits that was a little discouraging—especially since he was working next to the national champions.
But on the seventh day, a little girl came up to him and said. “It looks like my daddy when he’s had too much to eat.” Rothstein was thrilled.
“That was 20 years ago and I can still remember what that little girl looked like and exactly how she was dressed,” he says. “I had caught the bug.”
Frozen art across the globe
Since that day, Rothstein has competed in contests in New Zealand, Argentina, Scandinavia, Japan, and multiple locations in the U.S. and Canada.
“It’s a cultural exchange between teams from all over the world,” he says. “We work beside each other, drink together, and share the common language of art.”
Rothstein, who works as a lawyer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says he saves all his vacation time for the winter so that he can pursue his passion.
During a competition in Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina, he won first place for an abstract piece that depicted birds flying across the ocean. It was an homage to the Arctic tern, which migrates 10,000 miles each year between North and South America.
He also won first place for a whimsical sculpture in a Colorado contest—a 16-foot robotic octopus driven by a little snow girl named Rhonda who wanted to clean the ocean floor.
But his favorite sculpture was far more personal.
“It was a tribute to my neighbor, who died when she was 103,” he says. “I knew her for 10 years. She was blind as a bat but sharp as a tack.”
Although she could barely see—or maybe because of it—his neighbor developed an intimate relationship with the birds, squirrels, and chipmunks around her home.
“She’d sit there and call, ‘Here chippy, chippy,” and a whole family of chipmunks would come and climb right up on her. She was like Doctor Doolittle. We had a standing date on Sunday mornings at 10. She always had a shot of Bushmill’s—I think it was part of her recipe for longevity.”
Rothstein, who was a wildlife biologist before he became an environmental lawyer, marveled at her connection to these animals. “Sometimes we’d be sitting there on Sunday morning and she’d have three or four chickadees perched on her fingertips, eating out of her hand.”
When she died, Rothstein carved an eight-foot sculpture in her honor—a hand coming out of the ground with a bird on one fingertip.
“The next morning there was this crazy frost on my car windshield with all these intricate patterns,” he recalls. “I’d never seen anything like it. It was all feathers and paisley. It felt like she was sending me a goodbye message.”