A construction crew is hard at work in Yellowknife with power tools, heavy machinery and canoe paddles. But they aren’t using the usual timber, bricks and mortar their materials are ice and snow.
For the past two months, a king and his loyal crew have been building a giant snow castle on the frozen Yellowknife Bay of Great Slave Lake. They’ve been blowing snow into wood forms then tamping it down to create high walls, carving out windows with ice for panes and adding details everywhere the eye can see.
“For 28 years we’ve been building this castle, and every year it’s different,” said the Snowking, otherwise known as Anthony Foliot.
The annual tradition was born in the early 1990s when Foliot was living in the city’s Woodyard neighbourhood on the shore of Yellowknife Bay, so-called because it’s where commercial forestry activities once took place.
He said at the time the municipality wouldn’t plow the road because it was on Crown land, so neighbour Scott Mitchell took care of the job and their kids began making a fort from the resulting pile of snow.
“The darn kids weren’t doing it right. So me and buddy went out there and we showed them how. They got tired of us and they went inside to watch cartoons and we kept on building,” Foliot said.
The castle now hosts the Snowking’s Winter Festival every March, beginning when the Snowking saws open the front door allowing his subjects inside.
Throughout the month, locals and tourists trek out onto the frozen lake to take a ride down an ice slide, enjoy a cup of hot chocolate, watch live performances in the great hall or check out an international snow-carving symposium.
“It’s just slowly getting bigger and bigger every year,” Foliot said.
The castle has a different theme each year. This year, it’s “funhouse,” which is reflected in carvings on the walls of flowers, musical notes and animals.
In another tradition, members of the castle crew are bestowed with unique nicknames, including Marty One Boot, Freeze Frame, King Blizzard and Snowmobill.
Foliot said he enjoys every aspect of the snow castle from cutting ice blocks and fishing them out of the lake before construction begins, to seeing the smiles on children’s faces during the festival.
“They bring you cookies. They give you hugs. You’re like better than Santa.”
The castle has faced it’s fair share of challenges in recent years. In 2019, for the first time, it was forced to close early when unusually warm weather caused flooding in the courtyard.
Several events at the castle were cancelled the following year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival pivoted in 2021 to adhere to public health restrictions, with Snowbuddy’s Winter Garden offering a snow maze, ice slides and other outdoor attractions.
This year’s festival, running from March 1 to 26, is to include a series of music performances, a short film festival, a burlesque performance and a comedy night.
—By Emily Blake, The Canadian Press. This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.