Words by Matthew Mallon | Photos by Angela Gzowski
There’s just the littlest breeze coming up off the shore today, barely noticeable, but it’s killing. Stand somewhere long enough staring at people doing cold, cold things, and it starts to drill right into your bones. But the crew are on the move constantly right now, and that little wind is not something they have a second to notice.
It’s the the long stretch, the big push — after some tractor-related delays — to make the construction deadline, which is approaching tout suite. Everyone’s a little more intense. The Avalanche Kid walks by, frowning in chilly concentration. “People can make it seem like fun and games out here all the time, but it really isn’t sometimes,” he says to me. Good point. As much as there’s a major element of play on the castle site, this is seriously hard, grinding work, two-plus months of daily construction labour in sub-zero temperatures. And this long February stretch of -30ish weather has been no party on the lake.
Chris Pyke, aka Professor Chill, stands up on top of the latest pour and yells “Lemme have it!” to the Snowking down below. A great cloud of snow blasts up from the Bobcat and envelops him. It goes on for a while. Then a pause, and he has to stomp around on the snow with boots and shovel. Then another five minute snowstorm right in his face. Then more stomping. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Chris is is one of the crew’s main pourmasters. The pourmaster stands in the ‘box,’ the plywood frames that the crew use to erect the various walls of the structure. He wrangles the snow after it’s been blown in over him in great frigid waves, to ensure that it packs down smoothly and firmly, to ensure smooth, dense walls. Patrice Tremblay, a quiet French artist also known as PatrICE, is another pourmaster, as is Byron Fitzy, aka Baron von Blizzard, a contractor who doubles as the Festival’s technical director once the building is done. As far as I can tell, and I might be wrong, being in the pour is the toughest job onsite.
After an hour or so of this, Chris sits in the Snowking World HQ, breaking off chunks of his icebeard as he answers a few questions about how he ended up in the box.
He’s from Cape Breton. He was a teacher, teaching “grade 7-8 mostly” in Fort Providence and in Yellowknife. His journey from teacher to snowbuilder involved a personal crisis and a redemption on Yellowknife Bay.
“My story with the Snow Castle is that I kind of burned out, and I wasn’t doing so great, and…. lotta changes in life, and yeah,” he says with a wry smile on his face. “I wasn’t doing well.”
Despite this major dark patch, he still managed to play music around town (he plays regularly at the Cellar on Monday evenings as part of the Old Town Mondays). One of his musical partners was Ryan McCord, aka Joe Snow. “He could see I really wasn’t doing well, and he said ‘Why don’t you come down to the lake?’ So I did. I went down there for a look and then I ended up coming back every day for the rest of the winter.”
“I, slowly, kinda got better. I owe a lot to Tony, as far as coming around and seeing things from a new perspective, and just helping me out. It’s good to get outside and do stuff, and forget about your issues, right?” Another wry smile through his melting icebeard. “He brought balance back, by allowing me to be here.”
So, how’d he end up being the guy in the box?
He laughs. “It’s a different gig. I’ve been in it with two people who’ve never been in it before, and one guy was actually scared at the beginning, because it does sound pretty nasty in there. You’re getting snow pounded at you and, well… I find a lot of fun in it.” He laughs. “I actually do.”
See Part 4 here.