BY Spenser Bickett – SUN NEWSPAPERS intern
The ice castle that has been slowly growing in the Mall of America’s north parking lot over the past month opened its gates to the public last week.
Opening on New Year’s Eve, the castle is a distinct structure, unlike those that have been built previously in the Twin Cities.
The castle was still in the early stages of its growth as of its opening, and will grow much larger if the weather cooperates, according to creator Brent Christensen. The ideal temperatures, he said, are similar to what the Twin Cities experienced last week.
“That’s kind of an ideal temperature for us,” Christensen said. “We can do some good growing and it’s not so bitter cold that people stay home.”
Subzero temperatures create unique effects, such as icicles that form horizontally and vertically, Christensen explained.
“The ice will grow towards the water source,” Christensen noted. “You get a lot of really interesting formations.”
A native of California, Christensen started building ice castles four years ago. He and his family moved to Utah in 2000, and he started experimenting with outdoor winter activities, like igloos and ice rinks. A lifelong passion for experimenting, inventing and creating things led Christensen to the concept of an ice castle built from icicles.
“Four years ago I stumbled on the concepts of building ice castles like this, just totally by a fluke, just playing around and experimenting,” Christensen explained.
Christensen built a wooden fort structure and put a sprinkler on top, and let the ice encompass the wood, he said. The structure was enjoyable, but spring clean up was a mess, because of the broken, splintered wood, he said.
The following year, Christensen decided to make a structure completely out of ice and snow.
“I was experimenting with little blocks of ice, and chunks of snow, and then that’s when I, just from playing around, figured out that icicles can be used as an amazing building material when you combine it with spraying water,” he explained.
The benefit of building an ice castle from icicles and not blocks is that you don’t have to wait for the lakes to freeze to harvest blocks, he noted.
“The other advantage is that the truly beautiful aesthetic part of it is beyond what human hands can do,” Christensen added. “Sometimes the ice will take on a flowery pattern, or other unusual formations.”
The inherent strength of ice is a helpful attribute when it comes to building large structures, Christensen explained. “Ice has an exponentially increasing strength as it thickens.”
The lack of a wooden or metal substructure actually makes the ice stronger, Christensen said. The substructure creates an impurity that pure ice doesn’t have.
“We took it down last year,” Christensen said about his project last winter. “Even after it had melted for a few weeks, we had a hard time, even with the big bulldozers, taking it down.”
This year’s deconstruction will be complicated by the use of lights in the castle, Christensen noted.
“We’re going to have to try to use a little bit of finesse, we don’t want to just bulldozer with reckless abandon, because we want to save our light fixtures,” he said.
It’s still a little too early to start looking forward to next year’s structure, Christensen said. He usually doesn’t start thinking about next year’s design until the end of the current year’s design.
“At this point in the game it’s a little overwhelming to think of trying anything bigger,” Christensen noted. “The design we have here can accommodate some pretty good crowds, so I don’t know if we need to go bigger.”
Being able to show elderly visitors something they haven’t experienced is Christensen’s biggest reward for building ice castles.
“They’ve been around awhile and they’ve seen a lot of things, a lot more than I have,” Christensen explained. “So to be able to offer them a new experience, that’s rewarding.”
The castle is anticipated to top out at more than 40 feet and cover one acre, using more than four million gallons of water for its creation. Archways, tunnels and a center courtyard will greet visitors, illuminated at night with multi-colored LED lights. A children’s snow park and concessions will also be available.
If you go:
What: Mall of America ice castle
When: Noon to 10 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 7 p.m. Sundays.
Where: North parking lot, Mall of America
Tickets: $5 to $10