We build statues out of snow, and weep to see them melt.
~Sir Walter Scott
One of my favorite features of social media is the comment box. Not so much for the comments on my photos which I always love, but even more so for the engagement in general conversation with the friends who enjoy my work. During a recent conversation, my facebook friend, Crystal Francisco, sent me a “cool” (ed. note: I told him not to do that joke) link to this website called IceCastles.com. So, I hopped on over to their site and checked it out. She was excited to tell me about the ice castles because she thought I would love to photograph the magical visuals, and also because I live just about 4 hours from Stratton, Vermont where the team have “grown” one of their famous displays. Yes, I said grown. The team grows and harvests icicles made on site and then assembles them in to mammoth 20 to 40ft tall sculptures that resemble caves, cities, waterfalls, castles and more. What started as a dad’s fun backyard project has now GROWN into a giant traveling display.
Each castle field consists of approximately 20,000,000 pounds of ice and is built entirely by hand! Complete with sound activated LED light displays and music. As of the writing of this article (Feb 2015), The Ice Castles team have grown displays in 4 locations across the US. Stratton, Vermont, Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Lincoln, New Hampshire and temporarily closed, Midway, Utah. Each a one-of-a-kind masterpiece in ice. If you would like to visit, you can find out more info at their website IceCastles.com. Now I am not the biggest fan of shooting in the snow, but these ice castles really intrigued me. So, I proceeded to contact Ryan at IceCastles.com, who was really awesome, and set me up with a private shoot.
About 15 minutes after booking the hotel for the weekend I got the wonderful national weather service bulletin that we were going to get a snow storm of historic proportions just in time for my road trip. On top of that, there were high wind warnings and windchill temperatures of -40°F the night of the shoot. I seriously doubted that I was going to be able to pull this off. But the hotel was booked, and I wasn’t going to bail now. I headed off to the local sporting goods store and promptly purchased 10 sets of “hot hands” hand warmer packs. This purchase would later save the shoot. Because time was short this weekend, we left home at 6am, and headed for Vermont. The shoot was planned for 10pm that night, but stops along the way and check-in at the hotel had to be completed before hand. The hotel was about an hour away from the Stratton Mountain Snow Bowl Lodge where the castles were on display. The day was spent walking around Brattleboro, VT in sub 10°F weather. I could only imagine how cold it was going to be for the shoot. Brattleboro was a very cool little town full of art galleries, organic farmer’s market, and home of the famous or infamous “Strolling of the Heifers”.
Brattleboro is totally awesome and you really should visit. Check out the town HERE. After a nice Mexican lunch at Milagros and acquiring a couple of pounds of fresh roasted coffee at Mocha Joe’s Cafe, we headed back to check in at the hotel and suit up for the night’s shoot. 8pm leave time arrived and now the winds have calmed slightly to around 20mph and the temperature in town, a balmy 10°F. By the time we arrived on site, the temperature was now -4°F and the wind was blowing around 15mph. Shoot temperature -19°F (Feels like). We activated our heat packs, two in each shoe and two in each glove. I have finger-less glove/mittens and put the packs in the palm and mitten section of my gloves. It made shooting a bit clumsy but heat was there for my fingers when the cold began to bite. There were no signs for the display so we headed in to the lodge to see what was what. The folks there pointed us to the back of the lodge and out to a small grove. The warmth of the lodge was much too brief. Here we go!
Out front, the attendants had an ice block counter set up with a nice little fire to keep them warm, lucky them. The entrance to the display was a wonderful cave sculpture lit from within and flanked by a bright full moon.
I was quite surprised that the cold was not even a factor. The heat packs were really spectacular, I just hoped they would last the whole two hours. The site has speakers placed throughout the display piping in spectacular, epic, orchestrated music. The entire time I was there I felt like I was in a Game of Thrones episode!
Being after hours and the only people there, an eerie presence lingered in the dark night. I half expected a white walker to come riding out from behind one of the displays at any moment.
Even though I wasn’t really noticing the cold. Operation of the camera was difficult and cumbersome. Continual attention to my fingers was required to avoid frostbite. You can easily “forget” while working. I think the adrenaline tended to stave off the cold, being surrounded by all this awesome didn’t hurt either.
I had some ideas to do some light-painting at the site with this new gadget I have called a Pixelstick. The Pixelstick allows you to shoot a long exposure shot and “paint” a photo, logo, or whatever in the “air” while photographing the landscape behind it as well. It’s tricky to set up but I had spent the previous summer learning to “paint” with it, so I was ready. After securing the shoot date, I contacted fellow master at The Arcanum, Don Komarechka. Don is well-known for his infrared photography and macro snowflake work. You can see that at this link. I thought it might be cool to light paint some of his snowflakes among the giant ice castles. Don, was great and agreed to let me use his work and combine it with my work to complete my creative vision for this shoot. Here is one of the shots from that collaboration.
I also did a shot of the official Ice Castles logo as well.
Along with the business end of things I took the liberty to add a little fire to the ice.
The cold weather was taking down batteries in my Sony a7r with extreme prejudice. Thoroughly chilled after just an hour in the cold, we decided to head in to the lodge and warm up for a few minutes while I changed out batteries for the final round. Amazingly, the heat packs were still putting out a lot of heat. Thank goodness, because it wasn’t getting any warmer! Back out to the display we headed. Big thanks to my girlfriend for coming along and helping carry some of my equipment and even hitting the shutter button a few times while I light painted! She hates the cold and was a real trooper! This last time out there would be no light painting. My goal was to capture the beauty of these totally awesome sculptures with the dark forest as their backdrop.
One of my favorite pieces was this giant 25ft tall ice waterfall.
As I shot this next shot, they had turned the music off for the night. The wind howled in the trees and you could hear the ice cracking. Deep loud cracks that sounded like a giant snow beast snapping off trees in the nearby forest. All I can think of when I look at this shot now is that somewhere in that ice cave is the dreaded Wampa snow beast and Luke hanging from the ceiling.
I guess I cannot help my wild imagination. With all of these structures lit from within and on the exterior as well, anyone’s imagination would run amok here. By this time, 2 hours in, I was quite chilled to the bone. On my way out I made my way to the far side of the ice city and captured this amazemaze sculpture.
All in all, this was one of my toughest shoots. But after all was said and done, one of my most rewarding for the effort put in. The chance to see, photograph, explore, and experience this wonderful, yet very temporary art was amazing! And cold weather or not, I would do it again in a heartbeat. Thank you to all of the great folks at Ice Castles and The Sun Bowl Lodge, Stratton Mountain Resort! If you are anywhere near any of the cities listed above I urge you to grab your camera, suit up and head out! Maybe on a slightly warmer evening though. 😉
See all of the other shots from this shoot at my full gallery. (at this link)