Just before the final touches were put on Yellowknife’s famous Snowcastle this year, a young local boy approached Anthony Foliot, a.k.a. the SnowKing, with something to give him. “It was a piece of last year’s castle, and he said, ‘I kept it in my mom’s fridge,’” explains Foliot. Deciding something special had to be done with the boy’s gift, Foliot and his crew formed two hands out of ice to cradle the piece. It’s now an integral part of this year’s castle – a symbol of continuity in the SnowKing Winter Festival, one of the Northwest Territories’ longest-running, best-loved traditions.
Today, Foliot is seated on one of the benches set up in the castle courtyard, sporting his classic white SnowKing beard and vivid blue coveralls. Nearby, youngsters shoot down a mini-snowslide and climb on a web of ropes. A longer slide, with dual chutes, rises just behind them.
Now in its 21st year, the Snowcastle is full of such flourishes. “Every year, we’re pushing for better and bigger,” says Foliot. The first castle was a modest structure Foliot built for his children. It proved so popular that it became a local tradition, and then a cherished annual event, drawing visitors from across Canada and beyond.
This year’s snow structure is a multi-roomed palace, complete with a café, VIP room, stage, and courtyard. It sits on the ice of Great Slave Lake, just offshore from the eclectic Woodyard neighbourhood, and beside Foliot’s bright blue and yellow houseboat. Surrounding the glittering palace are ornate snow sculptures, with the icy parking lot sprawling toward more houseboats frozen into Yellowknife Bay.
A young boy runs up to Foliot to offer him a high five. Other kids say hi. Some of the bolder ones even go in for a hug. The SnowKing’s pride is evident. “I give back to my community in a big way,” he says with a grin.
Foliot moved up to Yellowknife more than 35 years ago, bringing with him a background in construction. Then, as now, he lived a seasonal lifestyle, making money by hauling freight on Great Slave Lake in the summer. Now, his winter job, and the role for which he is most famous, is building and running the castle.
“The beauty of living on my houseboat and not paying rent is that I don’t have to chase a buck,” he says. “Most of the crew here makes sure they can take January and February off to do this project.” And despite the many hands, this is no light work.
The crew numbers around 15 full-time employees, as well as a handful of builders and carvers who come out on weekends and off-work hours. Five hours a day, seven days a week, for two months, the team sweats away to raise the icy walls. It’s the many years of experience among the crew that Foliot says allows the Snowcastle to get better year after year.
Foliot says his crew is encouraged to express their creativity. This year’s special touches? Ornate etchings in the snow, crystalline windows, a bar made of polished ice, ice sculptures, a massive dragons-head to complete the castle courtyard – and of course the slides. “Last year’s slide was good,” Foliot says, “but Avalanche Kid” – one of the crew, each of whom have snowy nicknames – “wanted to up his game, so he really pushed hard on this one.”
For 2016, the ride-at-your-own-risk feature rises up to nearly the height of the castle walls, with a platform at the top offering a hard-to-beat view of Yellowknife Bay. Two parallel slides drop away, passing under a bridge optimally placed for taking action shots. The tracks then shoot off in opposite directions, depositing squealing riders onto the slippery courtyard floor.
It’s a feat, with the bridge and all, that even Foliot says he was uncertain would come to fruition. But with decades of experience behind them, the crew never fails to turn Yellowknife into a winter kingdom.
“The crew has been the same for a number of years,” Foliot says. Joe Snow has been around for 12 years, Avalanche Kid for eight, and Baron Von Blizzard and Snowbird for about five. “That’s a lot of corporate memory and they just sort of do what they need to do,” he says. “Everybody’s pushing for better, and that’s good.”
The SnowKing Winter Festival runs throughout the month of March. In addition to the sculptures and slides, visitors can enjoy art exhibits, a variety of music and dance performances, comedy shows and more.