Get Out in the Cold and Explore Edmonton’s Ice Castles

by Erica Osko

In a season where I prefer to stray from my cozy armchair as little as possible, the Ice Castle in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park reminded me that rather than being a painful inconvenience, winter can create astonishing magic. The castle is a truly breathtaking creation that I would not have believed possible outside of Narnia or Frozen. Though it may be difficult to conceive of a typical frigid Edmonton winter as magical, Christian Denis, site manager and lead artist for Edmonton’s Ice Castle, says that Edmonton is the ideal place for such a work of art. “We have hearty Edmontonians who [embrace and love winter] and it’s just the perfect climate for it. We have beautiful winters here so why not take it to another level?”

The castle certainly does just that. It’s huge — about an acre in size — and is made entirely of frozen H2O without any internal supporting structure. It contains tunnels encrusted with icicles, a running fountain, and an enclosed ice slide–perfect for those who want to play in the snow, or those who just want to stand back and admire the castle’s beauty. In daylight, the ice is naturally blue like water, showing off gorgeous icicle formations glittering in the sun, while at night, thousands of colored LED lights embedded in the ice create a unique experience perfectly suited for the long, dark Edmonton evenings.

Image courtesy of AJ Mellor
Image courtesy of Melissa Smuzynski

The Ice Castle is all about collaborating with nature and optimizing life in the cold, a practice Edmontonians know well. You may be able to survive in Edmonton while avoiding the cold, but to really thrive, you have to embrace it. Chris plans for the Ice Castle year round, and by mid-October, he and his team begin setting up sprinklers to prepare. Once the temperature remains consistently below zero, they turn on the sprinklers, kick-starting the mysterious process wherein running water freezes onto a framework of icicles, resulting in castle walls that mimic cascading ice formations found in nature, like a frozen waterfall.

The Ice Castle exemplifies how collaboration with the cold can be truly beautiful. Chris and his team continue to shape the castle every day, adding thousands of icicles that eventually get absorbed into the structure. “We’re constantly having to be flexible and adapt to the conditions we have to work with. We’re at the mercy of mother nature,” he says. With mother nature as its main architect, the castle is practically a living, breathing structure that turns out differently every year, and changes throughout the season. Already, the large temperature fluctuations in the early winter have created particularly unique freezing patterns that will continue to develop until the spring thaw.

Image courtesy of AJ Mellor

The Ice Castle experience encourages Edmontonians to embrace winter while it lasts, as the beautiful structure cannot last forever. It won’t look the same year to year, or even week to week. Chris says: “One thing I love about [working with ice] is the impermanence of it. It’s something we don’t get to keep. As proud as we are, it’s actually really fun to say goodbye to it at the end of the year and start fresh [with] something new.”

If you’re looking for an authentic winter city experience, the Ice Castle is hard to beat, and since no one really knows when it will disappear, it’s a good idea to get there fast. If, post-New Years, you’re reluctantly bracing yourself to endure the last three months of winter, I would encourage you to get outside and experience a unique beauty that occurs only in the frigid cold.

The Edmonton Ice Castle will be open Jan. 5 until March, weather permitting. Visitors can buy tickets online by visiting icecastles.com

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