Winnipeg couple designs Canadian camp-out for Icehotel Sweden

Winnipeggers know a good deal about ice and snow, so it makes sense that a couple of them are heading to Sweden to build a theme room in that country's famous Icehotel.

Jennie O’Keefe, Chris Pancoe also creating warming hut for Winnipeg river trail

The Icehotel, which first opened in 1989, is in the Swedish village of Jukkasjärvi, about 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. (Icehotel Sweden/Twitter)

Winnipeggers know a good deal about ice and snow, so it makes sense that a couple of them are heading to Sweden to build a theme room in that country's famous Icehotel.

"It's pretty awesome. We couldn't believe it when we found out we won," said Jennie O'Keefe, who, along with husband Chris Pancoe, will carve a room entirely from ice.

They're infusing it with a whole lot of Canadiana.

Called Spruce Woods, the room will feature a canoe for a headboard, beavers holding up nightstands as they chew on the legs, a VW camper van and, of course, a canopy of spruce trees.

Everything will be carved from ice, including a campfire that will be lit up from the inside.

The Spruce Woods room will feature a canoe for a headboard, beavers holding up nightstands as they chew on the legs, a VW camper van, and of course, a canopy of spruce trees. Everything will be carved from ice, including a campfire that will be lit up from the inside. (Submitted by Jennie O’Keefe and Chris Pancoe)

"The idea is kind of like the typical Canadian camping experience," said Pancoe.

"We often look at Nordic and European countries as being so romantic and beautiful and we thought, well, Canada is pretty great, too," O'Keefe said.

Icehotel Sweden, which first opened in 1989, is located in the village of Jukkasjärvi, about 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

Made of natural ice harvested from the Torne River, the hotel is reinvented every winter with new rooms, sculptures, staircases and artwork.

Last year, Time magazine listed it as among the world's greatest places to visit.

Jennie O’Keefe and Chris Pancoe designed Spruce Woods, which will be one of the art suites in Sweden's Icehotel for 2018-19. (CBC)

"It's extremely popular," Pancoe said.

Every year, some 50,000 guests from all over the world stay at the hotel, which also hosts about 50 weddings annually.

"The best part is that we get to spend a night in it before it's open to the public," said O'Keefe.

The couple is one of 15 teams chosen from 150 design applications submitted by artists from 13 countries to create the 29th rendition of Icehotel. The 

Each room in the Icehotel is –5 C to –8 C and prices for a stay in 2018-19 start at $344 Cdn per night for two adults. This is a design by Lotta Lampa and Julia Gamborg Nielsen from a previous year. (Asaf Kliger/Icehotel)

"This suite is where simple pleasures and timeless wonders are evoked — the ultimate glamping experience," O'Keefe and Pancoe say in the description of their design.

They named it after Spruce Woods Provincial Park in south-central Manitoba, which they visit multiple times a year with daughter Lucie and dog Sipi.

"We go there to rejuvenate, for there is nothing better than hearing the world wake before you after a night of sleeping under a blanket of stars. From northern lights to the smell of dewy moss in the cool air, each time we visit, we rediscover how the best things in life really are simple and tangible," the couple said in a news release about their design.

"As Canadians, we are so lucky that wilderness is never too far. We can simply jump in a camper van after work to unplug and cleanse ourselves from the urban jungle for a relaxing weekend in the woods."

Each room in the Icehotel is –5 C to –8 C, its website says. 

Although the artists' theme suites are allowed to melt away each spring, part of the hotel remains year-round. A 20-room section with an ice bar is maintained 365 days of the year, cooled by solar panels during the summer months.

The theme suites open for overnight stays on Dec. 14.

On fire, on ice

O'Keefe and Pancoe are actually on fire this winter, in terms of design competitions.

Although they learned in August that they were chosen for the Icehotel, they learned last week that another design was chosen to be part of Winnipeg's 2019 international warming hut competition.

The popular huts line the frozen river trail in the heart of the city every year. 

Huttie is an anthropomorphic, funhouse-inspired hut inspired by the retro cult children's TV series H.R. Pufnstuf. (

"We couldn't believe when we got word that we won that, too. It's a really big win for us to have these two international design competitions won by us, these two independent artists," said O'Keefe.

Their submission was one of three chosen from 221 designs — from 57 countries — to be part of the 2019 international event.

Although the competition is in O'Keefe and Pancoe's hometown, the selection jury had no information about who submitted the proposals.

Their design, called Huttie, is an anthropomorphic, funhouse-inspired hut inspired by the retro cult children's TV series H.R. Pufnstuf.

Inside, visitors are encouraged to relax and seek warmth on a plush gliding tongue "while taking in the psychedelic cascading interior on its mouth," the couple says in their description of the hut.

With files from Aviva Jacob


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.


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