Words by Matthew Mallon | Photos by Angela Gzowski
It’s Tuesday, Yellowknife’s first full-on -40 day of the winter and across town, everyone is sharing screenshots of their weather apps on social media. Northern credibility is a valuable currency. Down on the lake, the crew has grown since our last visit; the castle’s emerging corners and halls are bustling with bundled figures hard at work, shoveling snow, hauling blocks, carving. There’s no pour happening today; the tractor is down again. But there’s still plenty to do. The Avalanche Kid and Snowmobile are playing a sort of reverse Ice-Jenga with precisely cut blocks of ice. “Finally,” says Snowmobile, “all that work with these blocks is starting to pay off.” He’s right. This twentieth edition of the Snow Castle is shaping up to be something special, more than just the next iteration of the structure.
It’s hard to tell with all the snowpants, toques, scarves and masks, but there’s something different about a couple of the new crew today. The women have arrived. The first-stage building crew has historically been a men-only group (not by design; that’s just how it played out. There was at least one full-time female crew member a few years back, but none lately). That changes come February.
Katie O’Beirne, a.k.a Snowbird, just got back to town on Saturday, started working at the castle on Monday. She used to work in health, for the government, but she’s in the middle of a big change in life. “I just quit, to switch gears entirely. I’ll teach yoga. That’s one thing I’ll do. Working here this month. Otherwise, don’t know yet,” she says. She and her partner just moved onto one of the houseboats frozen in the water just out in front of the castle. It’s a good commute.
She’s been in Yellowknife for three and a half years or so. “I got pretty involved last year but wasn’t official crew. I think once it started Tony handed me a badge and said [imitation of Snowking’s voice] “Yer crew now!” Last year, I was doing quite a lot of carving, this year I’m doing it full-time.”
Does she have a speciality?
“There’s a couple different things. One thing is carving out windows, opening up space, like doors and windows. That’s just labour, pretty much. And then there’s more pattern-y designs, like the brickwork around the windows, that require more attention to detail, but it’s repetitive, it’s not a hugely creative process. And then there’s mural work.” That’s where O’Beirne can exercise some real creativity.
“I like to switch it up, so sometimes I don’t have to think too much, I’ll just come in and start carving and have a formula for what I do, and other times I’ll be in the mood to do something crazy.”
O’Beirne also feels that this year is shaping up to be something out of the ordinary: “I feel inspired by the fact that it’s the 20th year. It just feels like it should be really more grandiose. It’s always super-epic. But I just think it should be a little bit more this year.”
Tricia Fleming has been in Yellowknife for about a year and a half, and just started volunteering at the castle. “I’m new,” she says, beaming with delight. “This is either my fourth or fifth day.” She laughs.
The new kid in town: Tricia Fleming on either her fourth or fifth or possibly sixth day
Fleming is here via “Nova Scotia, and kind of P.E.I. [where she studied at the Atlantic Veterinary College].” On her first trip up here, three school-related weeks working with wildlife vet Brett Elkin, she “just fell in love with the place. I did get to go winter camping and caribou hunting, so that was a huge benefit, but then seeing the festival and everything… As soon as I went back I started looking for jobs up here and as soon as I got one I moved up.”
Does she have any prior experience in snow castle construction?
“No. Other than just building snow forts. In my childhood.”
What’s she here to do?
“Anything they ask me to do, really. I’ve moved around snow blocks, lots of shovelling, watching what everybody does and getting an idea of what’s going on. Today I just started carving after lunch. I helped with ice blocks one day. That was fun. I just love being outside and working. Everything, I find, is interesting. I love the idea of building anything. I don’t have a lot of background in it, but I love the conversations at break-time, and then watching people take those conversations and then go do something. Sometimes I have no idea what they’re talking about, but then I go and watch them and go ‘Oh, okay, well, that makes complete sense.’ I guess I’m still kind of feeling my way through, just learning maybe from a distance. Sometime, I’d love to get up when they’re doing a fill-in, a wall. It just looks like they’re pounded with snow the whole time they’re up there. It looks like it could get frustrating after a while, but it looks like fun. So maybe sometime I’ll try that. And the carving is really cool, so far. Everything is interesting.”