It started as a way to pass the time during the holidays. Four years ago, Matthew Lavoie, Lance Gray and a group of their friends started building an ice bar at Inuvik’s Airport Lake to ring in the New Year.
Every year the scope of the project grew bigger. People kept offering ideas, and expanding on the bar’s design. The event drew more and more attention. Someone asked if they were going to start competing with Yellowknife’s famous snowcastle. That’s when it got weird.
“No,” says Lavoie. “All hail the snowking.”
“We’re in his kingdom,” adds Gray.
In fact, his majesty Anthony Foliot (AKA the snowking) has given the duo some much-needed architectural pointers when it comes to the tricky task of engineering ice and snow.
“The initial year, we had ice that was cut off from the edge of the lake,” says Lavoie. “It was rough cuts. Ice covered in mud and dirt and we just made it work. We were so proud of what we did.”
Flash forward to last New Year's Eve where the ice bar featured an engraved “2020” barback, carved inuksuk, and ice shot glasses, all lit up with blue and purple lights. It was a far cry from their first effort, and took a team of several builders about a week of designing, cutting ice blocks with chainsaws, and mortaring the entire thing together with slush to perfect the structure.
“The idea of doing one, or the process of doing it, isn’t really set in stone,” says Gray. “Everyone’s got so many ideas… It’s always like a cool little open think tank.”
Lavoie was coordinating all the prep work from down in the Deh Cho. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources forest officer had moved away from Inuvik in 2019, but was still heavily invested in ice bar arrangements before returning home for the holidays.
“He came for his holiday and in that two weeks he was up, a week of it was straight working,” says Gray, a forest fire tech in Inuvik.
The team worked from early in the morning to about 10pm on the last couple of days, getting the bar ready for the big night. The trickiest part was staying motivated in the dark, cold Inuvik winter, says Lavoie.
“That’s the motivation. Work harder to stay warm.”
Lavoie has spent plenty of New Year’s Eves at his family’s cabin at Airport Lake, blasting off fireworks or making skating rinks. The ice bar’s gradual evolution is, at heart, just an extension of those early projects—a creative way to spend quality time with friends.
As such, there’s a frost ceiling on how big the ice bar can become. Lavoie and Gray both say they don’t want to turn a fun activity that’s a lot of work into, well, just a lot of work. There’s also the matter of red tape. For now, the ice bar is strictly a BYOB event.
“We’re not actually a licensed bar,” Lavoie clarifies.
Friends and neighbours are served their own drinks, on-demand and chilled to perfection. Plus, complimentary champagne at midnight, of course.
“Someone came up to the bar [last year] and slammed a bill down, asking for a Bud Light,” says Gray.
“Sorry,” says Lavoie. “We’re not that kind of bar.”
Looking back at those celebratory images from last New Year’s Eve at the ice bar, it’s hard not to feel wistful for a socially non-distant time that now lives in our memories. What sort of gatherings will be safe to cap off this unsettling year? If you build an ice bar in 2020 will anyone be allowed to come?
The new normal on social gatherings is one reason—along with all the labour involved—that Lavoie isn’t sure he’ll be making a fourth ice bar to ring in 2021. Except, come on, of course he will.
“I really have no intention of doing it again, other than, when the time comes, eh, sure, why not.”
But even in the unlikely case the ice bar doesn’t come together, there will still be a place for Lavoie and Gray and their closest friends to gather—at least in small numbers, and two metres apart. As there will be, hopefully, for all of us.
“I don’t think that will change,” says Lavoie. “The ice bar is a structure, but at the end of the day, that time of year, it’s just nice to be with those you care about.”