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From its plucky roots as a modest snow fort built for children in the city, the annual festival has become a tourist attraction drawing visitors from around the world

It’s a clear, cold day in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories – minus 35 degrees to be exact – and a horde of brave souls have gathered on a frozen lake, ready to storm a wonderfully weird castle created from snow and ice.

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Anthony Foliot, the Snowking, sits on an ice throne in the courtyard of the Snowcastle.

The Snowcastle, as it is officially and affectionately called, is the centrepiece of the Snowkings’ Winter Festival. Each year, a colourful collection of characters, led by Yellowknife royalty the Snowking, spend four months building a huge winter playground on Great Slave Lake. In real life the Snowking goes by Anthony Foliot, a loveable, scruffy jokester that you’d swear was born wearing a pair of faded coveralls. “Nobody knows how old I am, eh,” he says in his trademark gruff voice. “When someone asks, I say ‘fifty-few.’ ”

Now in its 29th year, the Snowcastle began as a modest fort built for the neighbourhood kids in the early 1990s. “My buddy, Sir Shiverin’ Sam [Scott Mitchell], had a plow so we piled a big snowbank and carved a hole into it and put some snow blocks and flags on top,” says Foliot. The tradition continued in the years that followed, getting bigger and more ornate each winter. With the help of local builders and artists, along with public grants and private sponsorships, the Snowcastle has become a cultural mainstay in Yellowknife, drawing visitors from around the world.

Visitors and volunteers take in the sights and sounds of the Snowcasle and carvings at Snowking’s Winter Festival in Yellowknife.
Caroline Dugas, a carver from Gaspé Peninsula, Que., inspects her caribou carving.
Cat McGurk, a Yellowknife carpenter and artist at the Snowcastle, stands inside a carved lattice wall, which took 34 hours to complete.
A boy admires the artwork on the walls of the Snowcastle’s Great Hall. The Snowcastle began as a modest fort built for the neighbourhood kids in the early 1990’s. With the help of local builders and artists, the Snowcastle has become a cultural mainstay in Yellowknife.

The 2024 instalment of the Snowcastle is a 12,000-square-foot Antoni Gaudi-inspired structure that features three ice slides, a Great Hall for performances, international snow carvers and 165 feet of “mouse tunnels” for children to explore.

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A young Snowcastle visitor takes a break from playing at Snowking’s Winter Festival. This year's Snowcastle features three ice slides, and has 165 feet of 'mouse tunnels' for children to explore.

In comparison with the kind of luxury ice hotels featured in travel magazines, the Snowcastle has a plucky, grassroots vibe that is very “on brand” for Yellowknife. The city began as a collection of shanties propped up by prospectors looking for gold on the traditional land of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation in the 1930s. With that working-class grit and a little bit of imagination, the settlement grew into a quirky mosaic of builders, miners, artists, bureaucrats and adventure seekers who create their own fun during the coldest months in Canada’s North.

The Snowking’s Crew is responsible for most of the build. People such as Joe Snow (Ryan McCord), Baron Von Blizzard (Byron Fitzky), Vincent Van Snow (Niki McKenzie) and Snow Queen (Cynthia Brown) work through the bitter cold in January and February to have the castle ready for March. None are professional architects or master sculptors, but they do have a mandate to create a castle that is safe and fun for visitors and builders alike.

“This place is an attraction for artists,” says Foliot. “When more talent gravitates here, they put more jam into the project. I like that the Snowcastle gives creative people that opportunity,” he says.

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The Yellowknives Dene First Nation drummers open the 29th Snowcastle with a prayer song and drum dance at Snowking’s Winter Festival.

Cat McGurk, also known as Sno-Cat, is one of the featured carvers at this year’s Snowkings’ Winter Festival. A Yellowknife carpenter by trade, McGurk says she fell in love with the artistry of carving after volunteering at the Snowcastle for several years and participating in the World Snow Sculpting Championship in Stillwater, Minn. “My snow carving is math heavy, and there’s a lot of structural considerations I needed to make so the sculptures can support their own weight,” she says. McGurk’s intricate lattice textures of free-flowing branches took 34 hours to complete and stands out among other whimsical carvings etched into the walls of the Snowcastle.

Inside the courtyard, tourists take selfies against the ice windows, children scream on rope ladders, parents search for their kids crawling through the mouse tunnels. Ooohs and ahhs can be heard as guests gawk admiringly at the craftsmanship around them. McGurk squints as the evening light bounces off the snow into her eyes. “It was difficult and fun to do, but I’m interested to see how it changes as it melts,” she says. “We’ll do it all again next year.”

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Vortex Flower, a carving by a Ukrainian-American team of sculptors, features a spatial vortex with a human at the centre.

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