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Ice Castles makes for masterly winter memories

A playground frozen in time
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Sitting on one acre, the gigantic Ice Castle now dominating Edmonton Hawrelak Park is an alluring world of ice, a maze of dreamlike rooms that enchants the senses.

The ultimate goal of its builders is to create an out-of-the-ordinary experience and inspire unforgettable winter memories. Mission accomplished.

This icy fortress, with its 40-foot-high walls, not only takes your breath away. It seizes the imagination and hurls it across the galaxies into worlds unknown.

Could the high, knobby walls of blue ice once have been an alien bulwark? Are the towers remnants of a long-departed civilization? Or has Elsa’s icy castle simply undergone a magical meltdown?

For the more pragmatic, the deep blue stalactites suspended from above spark images of mountainous caverns barely seen and explored with the naked eye.

Once inside the frozen playground, the natural flow of time stops and the castle’s mysterious enchantment takes over.

“It’s a magical process coming up with the ideas. Once we start building it, it grows quickly and changes every day. It can grow up to three feet a day. It’s fairly immediate and transformative,” said Ritchie Velthuis, build manager and an Edmonton visual artist.

Velthuis, former executive director of Silver Skate Festival, is one of the major drivers bringing Ice Castles to Edmonton. As the skate festival’s executive director, Velthuis recognized that Alberta’s boom and bust economy was not conducive to steady funding.

About eight years ago, he widened the perimeter searching for business partners to help stabilize funding. During his search, Velthuis discovered Ice Castles and emailed the Utah-headquartered company an invitation to partner with Silver Skate.

The ice castle was not an engineered build and the City of Edmonton voiced a few safety concerns. Once details were hammered out, the city supplied its seal of approval.

“I feel super proud of this. I love Edmonton. This is a builder’s community and this is pretty exciting. I feel grateful and blessed for the work we’re doing here and for the friendships I’ve developed. And admiration for the people who work here. It’s not easy,” Velthuis said.

He takes a great deal of pride in providing employment to about 25 to 30 ice artists, and at crunch time during visitor hours he brings in another 15 to 20 part-time employees.

“Often times I feel like a figurehead. I’m so honoured to work with these people. They are a positive affirmation that anything is possible. I often say this is their castle and I’m really proud of them.”

The castle blueprint is tweaked each year, but it always contains maze-like corridors, towers, a throne, fountain, slides, dome rooms and a wood-burning fire pit to keep warm.

Now in its fifth edition, the ice castle is built around nine connecting towers that highlight four slides, including a 10-foot-high sky slide that swoops down dramatically and levels out while participants enjoy a view of space.

The burbling fountain, once central to the blueprint, is now placed on an exterior wall. In the central focal place is a new concept – a galleria.

As Velthuis explains, it is a large room that will feature snow and ice sculptures rotated on a weekly basis. Members from The Sculptors Association of Alberta will shape the frozen forms.

Ice Castles always aims to dazzle visitors by adding thousands of programmable LED lights built into the ice. One of the fanciest is a 16-foot high pixel wall with computerized light patterns that sweeps across an icy hallway leading to the galleria.

The centre also houses a 12-foot-high ultraviolet cavern. A harmless theatrical fun ride, the UV rays cause anything that contains phosphors to glow in the dark.

“Everything radiates from there. It has a much more open feeling than last year's castle.”

In yet another corner, builders have shaped a lookout area straight onto the park’s lake. Photo openings are available around each bend. However, several favourites are the throne, the fountain and the many caverns.

“The caverns are usually high so there are lots of opportunities for taking photos of icicles. What’s interesting about the caverns is that they’re not exposed to the sun. Ice grows in different configurations and it’s also determined by how cold it is.”

History

Utah-based company Ice Castles, which has been creating ice structures since 2009 in the United States, uses a patented sprinkler system to fashion the ice structures.

The complex sprinkler system is a series of drip pipes that release fine sprays of water that encourage the formation of long icicles. Once the icicles are grown, they are harvested and fused into a crosshatch and frozen by nature into solid ice walls.

Once a stable structure is formed, a group of 25 to 30 ice artists painstakingly hand carve the icicles into archways, caves, tunnels, slides, dome rooms and other unique features.

The creations are coated daily with delicate sprays of water until the walls are 15 to 20 feet thick. On average, the castles weigh an estimated 25 million pounds.

The structure's walking surface is crushed ice and visitors are encouraged to wear boots. Since the walking surface is crushed ice, small sleds instead of strollers are recommended for young children.

Ice Castles opened Friday, Jan. 3, and will remain open until March, weather permitting. Weekday, weekend and stand-by tickets are available from $10.99 to $20. Visit icecastles.com/alberta.


Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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