The day starts off like every other—cold and wet. One by one the workers arrive on site, zip into their winter jackets and don their thick gloves. They are each equipped with a pair of clamp-on ice spikes to secure to their boots and a safety helmet to prevent injury from a serious fall on the slick terrain. Each specialist scurries to a section and begins harvesting. By the end of the day, they are carpeted in fresh ice as a result of being doused by running sprinklers.
“Coming out of it covered in ice is almost like wearing a badge of honour,” says Brent Christensen, founder of the Ice Castles company, as he wipes away shards of ice clinging to his company jacket.
The ice-castle project, which involves Christensen and a team of determined Edmontonians building Canada’s first acre-sized ice castle, is both astounding and mystical. Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park is the setting for the phenomenal Arctic creation.
Having been in the works for close to three years, the formation of an ice castle this size was something of a fantastic notion. It was only when representatives of the Silver Skate Festival suggested Edmonton was the perfect place for this frozen kingdom to Christensen’s Utah-based company that the dream became a reality.
The project began as an alignment of sprinklers that stretched about three kilometres in length. But after just a few days of icicle growth, the site was brimming with mini glacial hills and pillars. A week or so later, the castle began to take form, growing to about waist height and into towering walls.
“When the temps are cold and there’s more mass for the water to land on, it can grow exponentially in a couple days,” Christensen says.
To build this frozen behemoth, the crew grows icicles on metal frames, harvesting them when they are fully formed. Once formed, the icicles are fastened onto ice mounds, which develop by running sprinklers overnight—they are aligned both horizontally and vertically to form a lattice framework. This approach enables the ice room to “organically grow,” and eventually morph into massive frozen towers and walls.
“People don’t even see the coolest part of the growth,” Christensen notes. “We actually have to engineer ice stairs internally by laying out vertical and horizontal icicles so we can climb up and work higher the next day. It can be lots of fun.”
Christensen started his company seven years ago when he found that he had a knack for creating massive ice structures. After moving his young family from sunny California to a wintry Utah, Christensen did what any devoted father would do—he discovered something exciting for his kids to do in their new cold environment. He went to work in his backyard crafting igloos, ice forts, caves and slides for his kids to play on until one year, when he created a 20-foot ice mound out of wood and running sprinklers that featured a luge, a cave—the works. Christensen eventually discovered he did not need the wood at all, realizing he could create these enormous ice structures by masterfully fusing icicles together instead. After this epiphany, Ice Castles was born.
“The main intent was to make a little fort for my kids, and I guess it got a little out of hand,” Christensen says with a laugh.
The ice castle attraction in Hawrelak Park is being done in partnership with Edmonton’s Silver Skate Festival—a 10-day family oriented winter festival that features recreational and art activities all around the park in early February.
Christian Denis, lead artist of Silver Skate Festival, is one of the overseers of the ice-castle construction, assisting with the composition of the ice castle through icicle harvesting or ensuring the growth of the castle fits the design plan.
“I wouldn’t say I have a specific role,” Denis says. “I’ve been here since the beginning, and I need to make sure this thing turns out awesome. There’s that ‘wow factor’ that I need to make sure happens.”
Experimenting with ice is certainly Denis’ forte. Being the Director of Ice and Snow for the Sculptors Association of Alberta and working with Silver Skate Festival, Denis found his love and talent working with the medium and its many characteristics.
“Ice, it’s almost like it’s alive when you play with it,” he notes. “You’re always improvising when it’s constantly changing. It kind of forces you to be on your toes all the time. I love that organic feel. Plus, there’s also the fact that you don’t get to keep it at the end. It’s not something that’s tangible—you have to say goodbye.”
The finished ice castle will feature an open courtyard, a slide, a waterfall, caves, a throne, labyrinthine tunnels, a fireplace and a fountain, as well as LED lights embedded in the ice that are synchronized to music. Admission into the castle is $15, and can be purchased online at icecastles.com
Edmonton is the only Canadian spot in which the development will take place. But, other cities getting an ice castle include: Midway, Utah; Eden Prairie, Minnesota and Lincoln, New Hampshire.
The crew is hoping the castle will be completed just before the new year, but that is all up to Jack Frost.
“We’re at the mercy of weather out here,” Denis says. “We had a slow start because of the early warm winter, but now it seems like we might get this thing done in time.”
Denis is beyond excited to unveil the castle for viewers to enjoy.
“I’ve been excited for this for three years now and it’s the perfect time. Edmonton is an arts city that is finally starting to embrace and celebrate winter. This ice castle is only going to amplify it.”