Words by Matthew Mallon | Photos by Angela Gzowski
Wednesday afternoon on Great Slave, and it’s so cold you can see the moisture in the air, particulates hanging frozen in the sunlight. The Bobcat tractor, with the Snowking in its cab, is back in action, sending up plumes of bone-dry snow as it plows up a bank for the next big pour. The crew’s icicle beards are particularly splendid today.
We take a quick tour of the site so far, going into the backstage area and the greatly expanded green room. All that ice they cut back in November is certainly being put to amazing use. The Snowking points out some VIP areas. “VIPs?” I ask. “Who are the VIPs?”
“The guys who gave us the tractor,” says the Snowking. “Ron’s.”
Joe Snow, the castle construction manager, is up on the roof, carefully inspecting how everything is coming together. Aside from the Snowking himself, Joe is the longest serving member of the crew, having worked on the castles for the last decade. Once he’s down on the ground, a coffee-break is called — at these temperatures you have to be careful not to let frostbite creep up on you — and everybody crawls out of their particular pile of white stuff and heads off to Snowking HQ for thermoses full of java and a package of macaroons. While a discussion of bas-relief friezes and snow-carving techniques goes on, Joe — also known as Ryan McCord, and renowned around town as an accomplished musician — carefully peruses the castle plans. Everybody on the crew submits ideas when castle planning begins, but it’s Joe Snow who draws up the final product.
“He’s the ramrod, he’s the push this year,” the Snowking told me a while back. “He’s got enough skill to be the heir apparent. He’s done everything that I’ve done, from learning how to do the arches and forms and stuff like that. He’s better-suited to running the boys. I get too cranky and I yell at them and they get all scared and wigged-out because they just don’t know where I’m coming from. I’m coming from the bush where there’s drillers yelling at you all the time. I’m used to that. But these guys are musicians and artists. They require a bit more of a sensitive approach.”
Joe was there for the big transition, from building with blocks of snow to pouring the forms. He recalls the days when the castle didn’t have a roof. ”I can remember sitting there for the Frozen Dog Film Festival with no roof on. Everyone just sat there on the ground, and it was snowing, and we all got up after a few films covered in about two inches of snow.” He laughs. “The performances back then, there was maybe a little bit of heat but it was cold in there.” Those days, the film festival might have gathered 15 to 30 people tops, while the Royal Ball brought in around 50 to 80. “Nowadays at some of our events we’re having 250-plus. So you can see how the castle has become so much more established and such a cultural event.”
Every year the crew pushes themselves, pushes their technology. Joe is particularly proud of the way they’ve been able to master creating new shapes and architectural forms, Gothic-style arches, ten-foot roof spans.
“Every time you sorta knock it out of the park, you’re always analyzing what worked and what didn’t for next year,“ he says.
Then it’s back out into the crystalline air for the big pour of the day. The Snowking is back in the Bobcat, its snowblower jetting snow up into the form. A cloud of snow vapour forms above the half-built castle. It almost looks like the whole frozen structure has caught fire.