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A tower of ice grows in Panton — but why?

DAVID CLEVENSTINE STANDS next to the roughly 14-foot ice tower he has built in his Panton yard, his third in the past four years. The Collins Aerospace engineer’s tallest has reached 33 feet on an interior frame. He said he and his family — and many in the community — enjoy looking at them. And that he enjoys building them.  Independent photo/Steve James

PANTON — Back in the pandemic winter of 2020-2021 Panton’s David Clevenstine was looking to cool off from a case of cabin fever — not the COVID kind, but the variety resulting from being cooped up too long. 

That’s when the electrical engineer, an employee at Collins Aerospace in Vergennes since 2016, remembered a story a former boss had told him a couple decades before, back when he was working a construction gig. It turned out that man had created a primitive ice tower at his home.

“When I was in my 20s, I worked construction, and my boss said, ‘Hey, look at this thing, I’m in the paper for a tower that I made.’ And he showed me this clipping of this picture of his backyard,” Clevenstine recalled. “I said that was kind of neat, and I just filed it away and never did anything with it. And then 2020 came around, and I’m sitting around at home every day, and it’s getting cold … I said this was an opportunity.”

Thus inspired, Clevenstine sprang into action. Before long  he produced the first of his three ice towers — the tallest reaching 33 feet — in his yard off Adam’s Ferry Road near Lake Champlain. 

Clevenstine said his boss’s tower was simpler than his: He “just turned the faucet on and let it go, and this is what happened.’”

That wasn’t good enough for an engineer who lives with his wife Elizabeth and four children age 15 and younger. It’s also fair to say the Clevenstine family has a construction mindset: Clevenstine and two of his children recently won a puzzle contest at the Ilsley Library in Middlebury, and the family regularly competes successfully in the Lego contest sponsored by the Bixby Library in Vergennes. 

Clevenstine said work for that contest’s Feb. 24 finale is well underway: “They’re building fast and furious over here in the hallway.”

TOWER TECHNOLOGY

Thus it’s no surprise he has taken frozen pillar technology to new levels, mostly developed through trial and error. Clevenstine described building his first tower back in the winter of ’20-’21.

“We tried and tried, and for the first week or so it didn’t really get off the ground. I thought it would just build magically,” he said. “That was the impression I got from Ray (his former boss). It was not the case. It took a week to get it two feet tall.”

Floor-cleaning equipment came to the rescue.

“That’s when I had the idea, you know, I’m going to put a broomstick in it,” Clevenstine said. “I drilled a hole in the top and shoved a broomstick in, and like overnight it just exploded.”

The engineering lesson learned?

“You’ve got to give it (the water spray) something to stick to,” he said. 

DAVID CLEVENSTINE MOVES the tripod, which he calls his “giraffe,” into place next to the ice tower in his Panton front yard. The giraffe, which can be extended to 20 feet tall, holds a hose with a spray nozzle that he has used to create a frozen pillar three of the past four winters.
Independent photo/Steve James

As he builds his third tower, the technology Clevenstine uses has advanced. But why just three in four years? 

“We took last year off because the weather didn’t cooperate,” he said “My rule of thumb is I won’t start spraying water until I see nothing but below-freezing in my seven-day weather forecast. So last year that didn’t happen until the end of February, and I said that’s probably too late.”

This year’s tower as of this past Saturday was approaching 14 feet high. No more household cleaning tools: It is supported by on two 8-foot-ball frames built with one-inch framing Clevenstine cut from two-by-fours, with another 8-foot piece connecting the two, and “another 16-foot frame on top of that” can be added.

He joked not only that are the frames more effective, but that also “We ran out of broomsticks.”

Clevenstine also upgraded in his second tower year from a basic spray nozzle to a misting attachment called “The Fogger.” The Fogger offers a finer spray that freezes more quickly and vertically at the top of the frozen pillar. 

Of course, a tower growing taller poses another engineering problem: How do you get the water all the way to the top? Clevenstine built a tripod that’s starts at about 10 feet tall (he calls it his “giraffe”) to which the hose attaches. The giraffe can be extended to about double that height, and it can fire the water high enough from its peak to hit the top of a 30-foot plus tower. 

“I shoot it straight up, and I almost double the size of the giraffe,” he said. “I just screw more pieces of wood to it. Whatever I can find.”

FINDING LIMITS

Mechanical solutions can only go so far with a giant backyard ice structure. Clevenstine said, for instance, his 33-foot tower measured 48 feet around at the base. And the ice tends to freeze backwards toward the hose and the giraffe. Clevenstine has yet to develop a mechanical solution to that problem. 

“Ice just accumulates everywhere. It accumulates all over the giraffe, so you always have to go out and knock it off, or the weight of it collapses it,” he said.

Nor is there yet a scientific solution for dealing with the wind coming off nearby Lake Champlain.

“We move (the giraffe) around all the time,” Clevenstine said.

And, of course, there is no controlling the weather. The tower is at the mercy of the elements; in general, the colder the better. 

“It grows leaps and bounds when it gets to the teens,” he said. 

Clevenstine also has his own personal preferences. He said he has never been tempted to turn the tower into a sculpture, for reasons both practical and aesthetic. 

For one thing, it might be risky to sculpt; he wears boots with crampons when he works around his towers and says he has slipped and fallen more than once.  

“I can’t control how it builds. It grows out toward the hose all the time, and new icicles come down. I just don’t trust it,” he said. 

And Clevenstine remains an engineer more interested in building a tower that sculpting it: “I’m just not an artist.”

MOTIVATION

Clevenstine spends more than an hour a day at peak times, or at least a couple hours a week in lower-maintenance stretches, to tend a pile of ice in his yard. In the year with the highest water use and expense, the family figured about 27,000 gallons went through the hose at a cost of $180.

He said the Vergennes-Panton Water District water comes from Lake Champlain, and ultimately returns there, and he believes the expense for his hobby is reasonable; he saw a single ice fishing augur in a hardware store recently that cost that much. 

DAVID CLEVENSTINE POSES in front of the tripod he used to hold the hose that sprays water onto the ice tower in his Panton front yard. This year is his third, which as of this past weekend was approaching 14 feet tall, less than half his tallest.
Independent photo/Steve James

Still, it’s a lot of work to take care of a pile of ice, albeit one with its own Facebook page (search for The Panton Ice Tower, of course). 

Why?

“We really like looking at it out the window. It’s right outside our kitchen window. It glows blue at night. We have lights inside it, and it’s pretty. And I like getting out of the house. It was really refreshing to get out of the house and getting it started again, breathing cold air multiple times a day,” Clevenstine said. “And I like building stuff.”

The tower also has made the family of relative newcomers more friends in Panton, he said.

“It’s been a really neat thing in the community. I’ve met tons of people that know the ice tower. They come up to me and say, ‘Hey, are you the ice tower guy?’ I shake their hands, and say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re neighbors,’ that kind of thing,” Clevenstine said. “It’s just fun.”

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