Our old saying, “The places old time music takes ya!” (spoken with a shake of the head), was taken to new heights the last weekend of March when we found ourselves performing inside of a snow castle on a frozen lake in Yellowknife, NWT, a city and province in Canada that have seven official languages. It seems anything is possible there, as all weekend we were surrounded by activity: dog sled races, cross country skiing, snowmobiles, biplanes, helicopters, hockey and curling tournaments; people were out and about in the “spring” weather.
Bundled in full winter attire, we performed Friday afternoon, and again Saturday night in the Grand Ice Ballroom for the Royal Ball, the culminating event of the month-long festival. The crowd was alight that magical evening, and they danced and sang along, and we felt the love. As we played, we watched from the semi-heated stage (just enough that our fingers weren’t too stiff) as Snowking himself proudly waltzed his wife around the icy dance floor. Snowking is a larger than life character who is often seen from afar wearing a bright yellow coat, has a huge white beard, the most sparklingly handsome blue eyes, and is of good humor, not to mention possesses a clever knack for storytelling and song. He began building snow castles for his children many years ago. Those small “backyard-sized” castles evolved into the annually-built, quite sizable castles like the one we recently spent a great deal of time in. Four to five foot thick hard-packed snow walls, arched hallways and doorways, VIP balcony, translucent glassy ice windows, turrets, flags, ice and snow sculptures, carvings, and accent lighting all make up this grand structure. The best of all though, was…jing-jang-jong…The Ice Slide. We climbed Dead Man’s Stairs to the highest point of the castle, a large turret where one could gaze out across the frozen Great Slave Lake during the day, or gaze at the stars and aurora borealis by night. Then, instead of going back down the stairs: super boring; one could simply hop onto one of the two side-by-side Ice Slides and bomb down a luge-like chute at high speed, right under a snow bridge tunnel, curl out onto the courtyard below, and glide to a stop in front of large gothic ice windows. Then you picked yourself up and sauntered into the ballroom. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Caleb was the fastest among us, gliding the farthest at the bottom of the slide. We also recorded his chilliest X-Man ever at 3 degrees Fahrenheit. After great hesitation, he ventured a perilous X-Man jump on the ice in front of the castle, and landed it without doing the splits, much to his relief.
From the moment that we arrived, to the moment we left, we felt so welcomed by the people of Yellowknife, most especially our new friends on the Snowking crew, and the Aurora Fiddle Society. And we know they have a strong Northern fiddle tradition of their own. They hosted us, fed us, showed us around, chauffeured us, and generally made sure we were taken care of. In return, we performed at the snow castle and taught two days of workshops with the Aurora Fiddle Society, who brought in townspeople, as well as kids from neighboring communities. We taught a string band class, where everyone learned tunes together, and we also broke off into small groups teaching fiddle, guitar, and harmony singing.
Late nights in the castle brought after-show backstage gatherings in the tiny arched snow hallway. I likened it to spending time inside of a beer cooler, only with the beautiful kind of muffled sound that comes from thick snow. Adjacent were a small, greenroom, and Snowking’s office, each lightly heated, each about 6’x6’ rooms with low ceilings, which became gathering places crammed full of people telling stories and talking over cigarettes and drink. Snowking’s office was filled with pictures and notes tacked all over the walls, memorabilia from over the years, and various cross-cut saws hanging up that had been cut in half and handles put on to live on as snow saws. There were yellow coats hanging around on hooks for Snowking security to wear, and wooden benches lining the walls. That was the part of the night where everyone relaxed after the day’s work, and the magic of that little community dazzled a bit more strongly inside those thick snow walls under the northern lights.
We left there a little sad… I think we fell in love a little bit with this community and this great winter event. It just means we will have to return soon and visit the Yellowknifers! Hail Snowking!