NORTH WOODSTOCK, N.H. — There are several challenges with attempting to build a fully functional pub out of snow and ice, but Brent Christensen is the right man for the job. He is also the wrong man for the job, considering he’s a Mormon from Utah and doesn’t drink.
“What do you think?” he asked me a few times as he worked out the layout of the bar he was constructing inside a giant igloo. I suspect he was asking to be nice, and not because I was familiar with bars, or that I had already bragged that I once tried to build a snowman that was a scale model of one of those heads on Easter Island (uncompleted).
Before meeting Christensen, I felt myself drawn to what he had done. I love an overboard dad, especially when they carry a joke too far, and I can think of few who went as far as Christensen.
“I was just trying to amuse my kids, and then ...” he gestures here toward the 20-million-pound ice castle under construction a couple of dozen yards away in this White Mountains village. “It got out of hand.”
Christensen is the man behind Ice Castles, the mega-popular attraction that is celebrating its 10th winter in New Hampshire. What started with some ice caves and slides in his Utah yard has since grown into a winter amusement empire with hundreds of employees at Ice Castles in five states — each of them constructed entirely of snow and ice using a now-patented method that Christensen stumbled upon in 2011. The release of the 2013 Disney movie “Frozen,” about a princess who lives in an ice castle, certainly didn’t hurt business.
And this year in New Hampshire, thanks to persistent demand, the Ice Castles will include a bar for the first time.
“It took a while for the Mormon boys to come around, but we finally decided: Why not?” Christensen joked. “There’s no pressure. We have the setting and medium to try to make something cool, so we’ll give it a try.”
Christensen is 60 now, and what started with entertaining six cabin-fevered kids is now more geared toward wowing his 21 grandkids. He is based near the Ice Castles in Midway, Utah, but spends the winter hopping around the different locations, and only had a day in New Hampshire to try to get the bar built. The crew had already built the igloo that would contain it, and Christensen was there to freestyle what would go inside. As usual, his only real tools were a shovel, a hose, a chainsaw, some blocks of ice, and snow.
The first order of business was seemingly simple: Do they want the customers to come inside the igloo, or do they want to build the bar against the opening and have them stay outside while they order? Christensen was leaning toward bringing them inside, but David Trudeau, the special project manager for the site, talked him out of it.
“Are you sure you want to bring all that heat and moisture in here?” Trudeau asked. He’s one of the few year-round employees at the New Hampshire location, which means he has seen every bit of the unseasonable warmth that has defined New England this winter.
Most of the other employees are “nomadic types,” as Christensen put it, twenty-somethings who work as outdoor guides in the warmer months and then strap on ice spikes, helmets, and ropes to build the castles in the winter. Many of them bounce among the five locations all winter, capitalizing on weather windows. On this day, about 25 were climbing all over the castle next door.
Needless to say, the unseasonable warmth has wreaked havoc on construction, and there is no clear date for when the castle will be done and open. Already, they are later than they’ve ever been.
With the bar location settled, they turned their attention to the sanity of the bartenders. For it turns out that the acoustics in an ice igloo are maddening, particularly in the dead center. I lasted about five seconds there before I thought I was going to throw up. They brainstormed ways to dampen the sound, perhaps by cutting a hole in the roof or bringing in white Astroturf, but ultimately decided some rubber mats would do wonders, while also keeping the bartenders warmer than standing on the ice.
Christensen had just laid out some blocks of ice to establish the base of the bar and was inlaying some LED lights to illuminate the whole thing — there are LED lights embedded everywhere in the Ice Castles, which are perhaps best seen at night — when a woman stormed up all excited.
“This is all everyone in town is talking about,” Rebecca Golding exclaimed. “I’m so excited to finally see it.”
Golding is a local who has been running the concessions at the New Hampshire location for the past few years, and that would now include the bar. She told Christensen that she had so many people who wanted to be bartenders that she didn’t know what to do with them.
There’s just something about it — these grandest of childhood snow forts — that turns adults into kids. And that includes Christensen. As he took me for a tour of the castle construction, he was marveling at the ice, which is an icy blue because the New Hampshire water is so clear.
“I still geek out to look at this,” he said. “This wasn’t here. And someday soon, it will be gone. And it morphs in between. Each year, each castle has its own personality. And the ephemeral aspect is what makes it so magical.”
In the early years, he would get melancholy when the season would end and the castles would melt. Now, he just looks forward to what new thing he can try the next winter, what else he can create with water and cold, this dad joke that has gone further than anyone dreamed.