Snowking Winter Festival
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The festival is held in a snow castle, built from snow with window panes and other features made of ice. Each winter the castle is built on Yellowknife Bay, on Great Slave Lake. The castle is designed and the construction is supervised by Snowking, Anthony Foliot. The design evolves every year and the castle has grown to include an auditorium, cafe, courtyard, slide, parapets and turrets.
Once it is completed, the snow castle becomes a hub for winter arts activity in Yellowknife. The month-long festival includes concerts, art shows, children's theatre, and more. Carvers augment the castle with snow and ice sculptures.
The first Snowking castle was built in 1996. From humble beginnings in Yellowknife's Woodyard neighbourhood, where the castle was little more than tunnels in snowbanks augmented by blocks of snow cut from wind-formed snow drifts, the Snowking's Winter Festival has grown into a month-long event based around a large castle built of snow.
In the early years, Snowking and Sir Shiverin' Sam built forts of snow with their children near their homes on the shore of Yellowknife Bay. Over the years, the "castle" grew, and at some point moved out onto the ice of the bay. Each year the structure became larger and more elaborate. Crew members came and went over the years, but the Snowking remained dedicated to his kingdom. Funding was secured so that the castle could continue to operate and to grow each year. In 2009, the Government of Canada provided $16,900 of funding for the 2009 festival via the Building Communities Through Arts and Heritage Program of the Department of Canadian Heritage. In 2004, Foliot received $5,000 from the Northwest Territories Business Development Fund for the operation of the festival.
The castle has become a much-appreciated part of the community. The structure itself has become grander, and the festival plays host to more and more events, providing a unique venue for music and the arts. As a temporary cultural centre, Snowking's castle has become an institution in Yellowknife.
Construction of the snow castle begins on January 1 each year, although some preparatory work is done earlier in the winter season. Ice is cut out of the lake in late October or early November, when it is between approximately four to ten inches thick. This ice is set aside for later use as window panes, tables, stair treads or other purposes.
Planning the layout of the castle is a long process of informal and formal discussions between Snowking and the castle-building crew members. Planning meetings are held in November and December, but the design of the castle is not finalize until construction begins, and even then it is subject to alteration during the building stage.
Construction of the castle itself is in progress every day of January and February.
Early years of the castle were built entirely of blocks of snow. Firm snow from snowdrifts was collected by snowmobile and toboggan and brought to the building site. Later, front end loaders were used to pile snow that could be quarried from the mound using large cross-cut saws.
The evolution of building technique included using a front-end loader to fill wooden formwork to create walls and roof structures. In recent years, snow has been placed into the formwork using a tractor- or bobcat-mounted snowblower. Although the snow is blown high into the air in this process, the crew refers to filling the formwork this way as "pouring" snow, since the overall process is conceptually similar to that of pouring concrete.
Pouring snow in this manner has allowed the crew to build larger structures more efficiently than by doing all the work with blocks of snow. Formwork is all made by hand, typically using two-by-fours and plywood, although plexiglas has been used for curved shapes. For the outside of forms, a variety of wall sizes are used, but the most commonly used is a vertical wall measuring sixteen by sixteen feet and attached to scaffolding for stability and maneuverability. Many interior shapes have been tried, but since 2013 a steep-side arch with pointed peak has become the most commonly-used form.
In 2014, the crew built a five-sided, pyramid-ceilinged room entirely of snow with an interior height of approximately twenty-four feet, and diameter of eighteen feet.
It has become tradition that the castle's opening night is celebrated with a fireworks display. As many as 2,000 people venture out onto the ice to watch the show. Snowking addresses his subjects, welcoming them to another castle season.
Throughout the month of March, the castle hosts a film night, children's plays on the weekends, and live music most Friday and Saturday nights. It also host puppet shows and hockey games. Films are projected directly onto the snow walls. Plays are written and produced in Yellowknife. Musical events feature both local and visiting artists, providing a new venue for Yellowknifers, and an opportunity to hear musicians from elsewhere. The "Block 1,000 Rock and Roll Party" is an example. Tuesday nights have become "jam nights," an opportunity for anybody to take the stage and perform in the castle. Normally one night is reserved for the "Royal Rave", which is usually a multimedia performance featuring several DJs.
The highlight of the season is Snowking's Royal Ball, which is always a fiddle dance. Usually there are a number of talented fiddle players, and, if possible, a caller.
In the past, some events have attracted up to 200 guests. Popular performers have included Leela Gilday and Indio Saravanja and many others.
In the past there has been a "Snowtel" - a room of the castle that is intended for visitors to stay overnight - but demand is minimal, and this feature is no longer built.
Usually the castle season ends with another display of fireworks.
In the media
The festival has received much local, territorial, national and international media attention. Snowking has been featured on CTV’s, "Valerie Pringle Has Left the Building" hosted by Valerie Pringle as well as CBC television’s, Rick Mercer Report hosted by Rick Mercer. Snowking had visits from Ben Mulroney, the host of Canadian Idol and from the History Channel when they were in the north filming Ice Road Truckers. Season One of Ice Pilots NWT shows a wedding at Snowking 14. Snowking has been featured in stories on Shelagh Rogers' CBC Radio program, Sounds Like Canada and CBC television’s “On The Road Again”, hosted by Wayne Ronstad.
In 2009, Collective 9 created a feature documentary of the Snowking’s 14th Annual Winter Festival called Triumph of the Chill which is a documentary film about the construction and celebration of the castle.
- Office of the Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages (2009-03-18). "The Government of Canada Supports Snowking's Winter Festival". Yellowknife: Department of Canadian Heritage. Retrieved 2010-03-06.
- Bryant, Mike W. (2004-11-01). "Cash cow or economic incentive?". Yellowknife: Northern News Services. Retrieved 2010-03-06.
- "All hail the Snowking". Canadian Geographic Travel Magazine. Winter 2007. Retrieved 2010-03-06.
- Gleeson, Richard (2001-03-23). "Couple gets hitched in snow castle". Yellowknife: Northern News Services. Retrieved 2010-03-06.
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