Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park is receiving a winter makeover like no other. For the first time in the park’s history, a spectacular ice castle adorns the frozen landscape.
At first glance, the acre-sized castle reminds one of Narnia’s perpetual wintry world under the White Witch’s domination. But this is Alberta, and the castle’s stalactite and stalagmite’s natural beauty brings to mind the Canadian Rockies – Lake Louise’s frozen waterfall or Johnson Canyon’s spectacular vista.
On a sunny day the 15-foot thick fantasy ice walls are deep glacial blue and two criss-cross waterfalls cascading into an ice pool sparkle with diamond-like ferocity.
During a heavy snowstorm, fog swirls at its base and snowflakes stream from gray skies. The opaque ice, that appears to rise from the earth, looks like a remote, half-built eerie fortress long abandoned by aliens.
And at night, while twinkling stars peep through the open ceiling of 25-foot high walls, hundreds of multi-coloured LED lights illuminate the ice formations transforming cave-like tunnels and arches into magical rainbows.
Although the frozen panorama looks like an enchanted representation of C. S. Lewis’s world, it is the work of ice creator and architect Brent Christensen who annually constructs these temporary palaces across the United States. The Hawrelak Park location is his first exploratory venture into Canada.
Unlike traditional ice castles built out of ice blocks, Christensen’s palaces look like something carved organically from nature.
Each castle is built from a patented technique of fusing icicles onto a base and gently spraying them with water. The placing and spraying of icicles is repeated for weeks as castle walls grow higher and take shape. Depending on temperature and wind direction, the structure varies in shape and size. No two are ever alike.
“Esthetically, it’s way beyond what a human is capable of doing. The beautiful part is that it’s all Mother Nature’s doing,” Christensen said.
Ice Castles, as the project is called, is a Utah-based entertainment company that builds large-scale ice features. It started in 2006 as an experiment. At the time, Christenson had moved his young family from California to Utah. Eager to enjoy the crisp, wintry cold, he went to work building an ice rink for the kids.
But it wasn’t just a plain old rink. It came with an ice cave and a 20-foot castle tower and luge that banked off the neighbour’s fence. Christenson describes his first big attempt as “epic.”
A graduate of human development from California State University, Christenson was at the time a businessman operating a lawn mower repair business with four employees.
“I’ve always been more of an inventor doing all sorts of stupid things and making things that don’t exist. I love innovation and when I started in this business (lawn mower repair), I was designing my own tools,” Christenson said.
Like any inventor curious about how the laws of physics work, he persevered experimenting with chunks of snow and ice as building materials. In his backyard laboratory, he broke off icicles and fused them onto the main structure and was amazed at how quickly an inverted icicle would grow when sprayed with water.
“In four or five days you could make a bridge and tunnels strong enough to support a person.”
After a series of backyard successes, Christensen took his experiments to the public at Zermatt Resort in Midway, Utah. The winter resort was reorganizing and manager Jan McCormick was an “out of the box” thinker eager to try new ideas.
Both envisioned multiple castles and Christensen spent the summer of 2009 designing it. In the fall, he drew up irrigation blueprints and at the beginning of December turned on the water taps.
“Midway has all these geothermal pockets, and I built the castle around the geothermal pockets. There was a hot spring and we built the castle around a pond with goldfish swimming in it. At night the castle was reflected in the water. I thought it was great,” Christensen mused.
Compared to the backyard projects, the Zermatt venture was gigantic, and the workload was insane with Christensen putting in 12 to 20 hours a day.
“I almost put myself in the grave that year.”
Admission was a paltry $2 per ticket. Nearly 12,000 people flocked to see the structure. Although the work was mind-boggling for one man, what crystallized in his mind was that his invention could grow into a major attraction.
The following year, the city of Midway offered Christensen the half-acre Town Square Park. A large field without obstacles, Christensen designed gathering spots as well as tunnels and caverns to explore.
He and wife Linda ran every aspect of the operation from buying materials to supervising the ticket booth. Although a short season, it was eventful with marriage proposals, TV interviews and an onslaught of photographers shooting the latest winter paradise.
Envisioning expansion to other American cities, Christensen brought on board CEO Ryan Davis to deal with the business end – planning, working with city councils and keeping track of budgets.
“He was a real estate developer. He’s very intelligent and very good at planning.”
Christensen is the creative architect of Ice Castles and he sent Cory Livingood, one of his long-time artisans to oversee the Hawrelak Park creation. Livingood’s role is to travel to new locations and hire local ice builders, find tools, put into place the irrigation and electrical systems and build a castle.
“Brent designs the overall layout and then allows me to go over it for better flow,” said Livingood. He is seated in an austere warming shack built from a sea can sitting on the castle’s perimeter. The ice crystals on his beard are melting as he removes thick gloves and a helmet, a requirement for all workers.
The Hawrelak Park castle features tunnels, caves, arches, waterfalls, a fountain and a slide. Of course, no castle is complete without a throne. And if Mother Nature complies, Livingood hopes to have a fire bowl supported on an ice base.
He explains that icicles are farmed at the site on racks made from chain link fence and metal conduit. The racks are sprayed with water. As the garden of icicles grows, they are harvested, handpicked and carefully placed in bags.
The icicles are towed to different areas of the castle where builders fuse them vertically and horizontally to the ice walls. Once again a soft spray of water bonds them to the ice creating a solid, unbreakable mass.
“When we sprinkle the water, we try to resemble nature as much as possible,” Livingood pointed out.
This is the fifth ice castle he’s built. From past experience, he can tell exactly how ice freezes.
“On a warm day, the ice drips and it takes longer to grow. On a cold day, it grows fast and on a super cold day, the water turns to snow and the ice will be less dense.”
It’s impossible to guess how many icicles are used, however on any given day, a crew can harvest anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 icicles.
Sometimes the thick palace walls appear a glacier blue or even turquoise, depending on the angle.
“It all depends on the density of the ice. Light waves are absorbed by the ice. Only the blue colour refracted and that’s why we see it as blue.”
For Livingood, smoothing out problems and overcoming day-to-day challenges is a big part of his job. For instance, during the holidays, there was an equipment breakdown and builders constructing the winter attraction have been using ice picks and shovels to groom trails.
“If there is an issue, you don’t have much time to come up with a solution. You have a few seconds before you freeze two miles of line. Here the big challenge is that we have a new crew that has never done this before, maybe never seen this before.”
“But I don’t give up easily. There are times you should stop, but I never do.”
Ice Castles opens its gate to the public on Dec. 30 and will extend to March 2016. It is located at Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park, 9330 Groat Rd.
Hours are Monday to Thursday, 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday, 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday, noon to 10 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday closed. Tickets range from $9.95 to $20. Available only online at icecastles.com.