Yellowknife Snow Castle reinvents itself for 2021 edition

The iconic Snowking’s Winter Festival will feel very different this year.

Pandemic-proof festival will nix live events in favor of ‘open-air garden’

The snow castle, constructed each year on the ice over Great Slave Lake, is normally the venue for live music and comedy nights as part of the annual Snowking's Winter Festival. (Chantal Debuc/CBC)

Spending a frigid night inside Yellowknife's iconic Snow Castle, warming up with a cup of hot chocolate or frantic jigging on the frozen ice of Great Slave Lake, is one of the great rites of passage for many Yellowknifers new and old.

But this year, the Snowking's Winter Festival will feel very different.

Gone are the live music, the comedy nights, and the warming concessions. The snow-carved slide is staying, but you won't be able to stay for long — visits will be limited to just 90 minutes on most days.

It's yet another event impacted by public health restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"We've had to kind of readjust the way we normally do things at the Snow Castle," said "Icepick Polly" (a.k.a. Courtney McKiel), one of the volunteers on the festival's board of the directors with five previous castles under her belt.

"The plan we've had approved by the [chief public health officer] is an open-air winter garden."

Courtney McKiel, also known as Icepick Polly, is on the board of directors for the Snowking Winter Festival. (Chantal Debuc/CBC)

Called the "Snow Buddies Winter Garden," the castle this year will still feature a slide built from snow and seating areas for visitors to take in the grandeur with their "bubble" of close contacts.

This time, visits to the castle are free, but you'll need to plan ahead. Registration for tickets each week opens online every Sunday night, and would-be visitors will have to book a time slot and show up five to ten minutes in advance.

No food is allowed on-site, and you'll need to wear a mask at all times.

The garden is limited to just 75 people. But for the first week at least, organizers will be keeping total visitors well below that amount "and monitoring from there," Polly said.

A worker carves details into the walls of Yellowknife's annual snow castle, reinvented this year as an open-air garden. (Chantal Debuc/CBC)

Snow carving competition goes local

Even the annual snow carving competition hasn't been spared some adjustments.

"It had turned into more of an international carving symposium, over the last few years, where we had carving teams come from all over the world," Polly explained.

"This year, it's obviously not possible, so we're hosting our first local carving competition, which is really exciting. We're having a lot of artists who are coming out, and this is their first time trying to create in this medium."

Visitors who want to pass through the garden's imposing gates will need to register online in advance, and keep their visit to 90 minutes or less. (Chantal Debuc/CBC)

Eight local teams will spend March 5 to 14 working on their masterpieces, which will be displayed to the public outside the garden's walls. That means no registration will be necessary to take in these wonders.

The garden will also still be taking reservations for private group events, like birthdays and weddings, so long as they're under 20 people.

Class groups are also welcome to book the garden for a time, even if they go above the 20-person limit.

The castle is open Tuesday through Sunday between March 1 and March 28. Weekday and Sunday visits allow for 90 minutes in the castle. Saturday evening slots are 60 minutes long.

More information about the garden and its offerings can be found on the Snowking's website, where you can also find out how to support the festival in other ways if you don't want to make a donation.


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