A freestanding, intricately carved birdcage towers over passersby near Yukong, a giant gorilla holding a parka-clad person in his snowy palm.
Nearby, two settlers warm their frozen hands over a frigid bonfire in front of a covered wagon.
Resting in the shadow of the Elijah Smith building, these Rendezvous snow sculptures represent several Canadian provinces, the Yukon and a snow-carving team from Japan.
“It’s northern culture and art at work,” said city tourism developer Sheila Dodd.
And this year Whitehorse was hoping to host teams from China and Korea as well.
But territorial Tourism and Culture officials balked.
Korea was very eager to come, but it was a very expensive ticket, said Dodd.
“The Canadian Tourism Commission in Korea was going to put up a big chunk of the money, but we just couldn’t cover the rest of it, because we’d have to pay for the food and accommodation and we just couldn’t do it without the extra money.”
Dodd applied for $10,000 from the Yukon government’s arts branch. All she received was a piece of paper in the mail stating the branch’s funding criteria.
“I don’t know why they didn’t give us funding, or what their criteria was for not funding it, but I’d love to know,” said Dodd.
“Because it’s art, alright.
“And most of the carvers sculpt other things, not just snow. A lot of them are sculptures of marble and rock and sand and all sorts of different mediums and they just work all year.”
“Snow sculpture has been recognized as a valid art form and a positive community activity by various funding panels,” said tourism communications officer Karen Keeley in response.
“But there was a large volume of applications in the December intake, with 22 projects funded out of the 27 applicants.”
Snow carving often falls through the cracks, said Dodd. And it’s really difficult to get funding for this event, because it’s not a sport.
“So, it’s very difficult to make people accept that it’s a big deal and that Yukoners are very interested in this and it is a true reflection of a northern culture.
“But we could certainly use help on it, cause it’s not a cheap project,” she said.
It’s expensive to have teams from all over the country compete, even though none of the carvers get paid.
“They take a week off to come and do it, but we try and find funding to help with accommodations, food and their flights,” said Dodd.
This year Air Canada donated $10,000 in flights, but that didn’t go far.
“Each team is comprised of three people, and you know what it’s like to fly into Whitehorse if they’re coming from Quebec or Ontario, it just kind of eats up that budget — so we’re always looking for help.”
The downtown merchants were also very supportive, she added.
“It’s hard, there’s 30 men to feed and they’re hungry when they’ve been out there at minus 30, and they need three big meals a day.”
Sam and Andy’s donated a free lunch and Boston Pizza offered a free pizza night, while the Westmark donated half of the required hotel rooms free of charge.
The city also puts a chunk of money aside each year to help fund the snow carvings, providing for the labour to build all the snow frames, bring in the snow and supply the lighting.
And Ottawa donates its car park and supplies the manpower to maintain and look after it.
“They come with the little Bobcat and clean everything and they also give us security,” said Dobbs.
Yukon Tourism provides $2,000 to help with accommodations and fund the Japanese carving component.
“But it would be great to get some added sponsorship from the government of the Yukon,” she said.
Next year Dodd would like to see a team from each province and territory in Whitehorse.
“But we can’t do it without the help of the government, because that’s 13 teams, apart from our own team, and it costs a big chunk of money to fly them in,” she said.
“So, it will be interesting to know if the arts branch will consider it the kind of festival they’ll support.”
Dodd is worried the upcoming Canada Winter Games will make sponsorship for next year’s event even more difficult.
The Westmark certainly won’t have any free rooms for us, she said.
“It’s going to be a different kettle of fish.”
Although concerned about the Winter Games, Dodd hopes the Games will embrace snow carving.
“It would be fantastic if each province and territory actually sent their own team for the Canada Games instead of us just finding them,” she said.
Whitehorse plans to place big snow sculptures outside the various Winter Games venues, depicting all the winter sports.
“We’d also like downtown to have a big snow stage and to carry on with the challenge and have a team from each province and territory,” said Dodd.
The local snow-carving team has some really fun ideas, she added.
“They were even going to make a little kids mini-golf out of snow.”
This is the first year the local team received $5,000 in funding for its competitions abroad from the arts branch.
“And they’ve been competing internationally forever,” said Dodd.
“And it’s always been out of their own pockets, nobody’s ever given them any money before.”
Donald Watt, Mike Lane and Gizli Balzer won the gold at the Sapporo International Snow Festival for the second year in a row, after competing in China, France and Quebec City.
Their winning sculpture depicted a hunter in combat with a walrus.