It’s good to be king. But Yellowknife’s snowking isn’t an absolute monarch. Over the past 25 years he’s built an empire, one snow block at a time.
All hail the snowking. Revered in Yellowknife, he’s the stuff of Old Town legends. His portrait hangs in City Hall and he’s respectfully addressed by his royal sobriquet. The Snowking’s Winter Festival is a centerpiece of Yellowknife’s tourism industry that attracts thousands of visitors and locals every year. The tale of how he built his first castle is such a well-worn local chestnut Anthony Foliot scoffs when asked about it.
“Oh my God, these are questions that should have been researched! Goodness me!” he says, sitting in the Up Here offices one chilly November afternoon. Just days before, he and his team cut the first ice blocks from Great Slave Lake. With his battered coat and long beard he looks ready to venture back out in the cold to go cut some more.
But what Foliot has really built over the past 25 years is bigger than any one man. Come the day he decides to hang up his crown, the snowking is confident his legacy is in safe hands. Because the best decision Foliot made during his reign as snowking? Was asking for help. It was about 10 years into running the Snowking’s Winter Festival when Foliot says he realized it takes a village to build a castle.
“I said, ‘OK, I’m not the businessman here. I have to have somebody who’s got the smarts for the money and then the management and stuff like that,’” he says. “Look at me. Do I look like a guy who could handle that kind of stuff? No. It’s my vision but I’ve been able to farm a lot out so I can enjoy what I’m doing. Without those people, I would be still building just a yard-sized snow fort.”
That’s where the castle started, in the dark days of the mid-1990s, when he was living in the Woodyard, a part of Yellowknife’s Old Town, and the city wouldn’t plow. His neighbour, who would go on to earn the snow name Sir Shivering Sam, had a quad with a small plow on the front to clear the area. The resulting snow pile proved tempting to the local children—and dads. By the next winter, Foliot had moved to the bright blue-and-yellow houseboat he still lives on today, and now the frozen lake gave him a much larger yard to play with. “So Shivering Sam, he ‘stole’ a front-end loader and piled up a bunch of snow. He didn’t steal it, we just borrowed it—we made a big pile and then we would cut our blocks of snow out of that.”
After about five years of making the best snow fort in town for local kids, his wife had had just about enough. “My wife said to me, ‘Well, are you just going to play in the snow again this winter?’ And I said, ‘Uh no, I’m putting on a festival!’”
Thus was born the Snowking Winter Festival, now in its jubilee year. And what a hulking 25-year-old it has become, with elaborate carvings, ice slides, and a great hall (hosting everything from live music and art shows to weddings and raves for an entire month in March). It’s a polished snow gem that attracts people near and far, but it’s held onto its Old Town roots—Foliot describes himself as Old Town and proud of it.
The crew of about 15 people all spend long hours from November on, when the first ice blocks are cut from Great Slave Lake, straight through until March when the festival begins. Crew members start as cadets, but after a full season—60 days—spent toughing it out, they earn a ceremonial ‘snow name,’ all frostily themed. Volunteer enough times with the festival and you’ll earn a patch to adorn your coat with the snowking’s emblem and proclaim yourself part of this peculiar platoon. Run the show as crew boss for an entire season’s build and you’ll earn your last star: a patch declaring you king. For there isn’t just one snow crown to rule them all: there is another. In fact, currently there are four sovereign snowkings walking around Yellowknife. In addition to Foliot, there’s been King Blizzard, King Avalanche and King Joe Snow. It’s all part of Foliot’s succession plan.
“I heard about a guy who was the CEO of the Winnipeg ballet,” says Foliot. “He said if you set up the program good enough, if you were to get run over by a snow plow today, things could carry on. Sure it might be sad, and you’d have to take time out to bury the guy, but things could still run. I thought that was the smartest thing in the world.”
The design each year is hashed out between the kings and Foliot. Last year was the first time there was a theme; under the sea. It could have gone better. An unseasonable warm snap meant the castle flooded, with dips around entrances and exits. A buoy, forgotten at freeze up, rose to the surface in the warming temperatures and became almost a pump, pushing water into those dips. In the end, the castle had to close a week early.
“We’re not going to do under the water again!” Foliot says. But they are sticking with a theme: this year, it’s outer space. The castle’s orientation is also changing. It’s going to be constructed so the entirety of the structure will stand over the shallower part of the lake that freezes right to the bottom, just in case climate change has designs to topple it again.
But the biggest structural challenge is that this fortress made of snow and ice must follow national building codes and other official rules to cover the festival’s liability insurance—a long way from the days of building tunnels in his backyard. Foliot is quick to credit the team behind the festival for successfully navigating what could be difficult situations.
These days, the slides are closed for evening activities, which are geared mainly towards adults. Exit signs are clearly marked, and there are panic bars on the doors to keep people from slipping. What hasn’t changed is the lack of bar services: there is no wine cellar in this castle, and the canteen sells nothing stronger than cocoa. And while a blind eye might be turned to the contents of the cups of legal adults enjoying the festival’s signature night-time events, like the King’s Ball, overconsumption of alcohol isn’t tolerated.
“I mean, snowking has no business in the thermos’ of the state,” says Foliot. But like everything about the festival, it’s all about the community who built it and enjoy it—and making sure people stay safe is a big part of that. “We’re strict and we have to be. We’re a family festival.”
He means that. After 25 years, the kids who slid down the king’s slide are bringing their own children out to play in the snow.
Is it because, with his long white beard, he bears a striking resemblance to Santa Claus (albeit with calloused fingers, yellowed from his hand-rolled cigarettes)?
“Well, I am Santa Claus’s neighbour!” he jokes. “But, you know, there’s something kind of satisfying about getting a kid off the couch.”
That’s what Foliot set out to build in the 1990s for his own children, and it’s what keeps the castle going today. Although a tourist draw, it’s really locals who come day after day, year after year. “They get a good facefull of fresh air and sliding and they go home all hungry and happy,” he says. Being outside is good for the soul. It’s why Foliot still spends large chunks of his winter playing in the snow.
And he’s confident he’s built a kingdom that will be safe for future generations, with a royal lineage large enough to weather even the harshest Arctic storm.
“I was able to build my house and move into it by the time I was 25. I was able to retire from regular working when I turned 45, kids are all moved out. What do I need? I got my three squares and my beer at the end of the day and my cigarettes. I’m good. I don’t need to wear fancy clothes.”
But he’s definitely earned his crown.