Mountain Home: The Dunedin Snow Castle

Where most of us see a pile of snow, Jim Leithead sees a castle. The Dunedin-based wood and metal sculptor took full advantage of last winter’s sustained cold temps and big snowfalls to build the most elaborate snow cave, or quinzhee, ever seen in these parts. “Cave” (or “quinzhee”, a word of First Nations origin meaning “temporary snow shelter”) doesn’t really do Leithead’s structure justice. With multiple high-ceilinged rooms, a 20-foot entry passageway, a chandelier, a woodstove, a walk-around bar, pillar supports, all kinds of carved detail, and space for over 30 people, this was more castle than cave.

 

MLO Icecave
GLEN HARRIS PHOTO.

by Ned Morgan

“I love moving snow,” says Leithead. “I was a snowmaker at Blue Mountain for 15 years, and a groomer for four.” Leithead began last winter’s megaproject with a pile of snow he had blown off the driveway of the rural property south of Singhampton where he keeps his workshop. “It took me about seven days of digging out and cutting with my chainsaw—electric, because I couldn’t handle the fumes inside.” Leithead and friends laboriously hollowed out the pile from the inside out. “I made a grid with 10-foot squares and cut out 16-inch squares because that’s how big my blade is. Then we popped out the squares with spades. That took about four days. It was heavy work, moving out these solid blocks on a toboggan.”

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He left some blocks inside to fashion into pillars, arch supports, tables, benches, and the bar. Jeff Smith, a stonemason from the Honeywood area, helped Leithead shape the interior and exterior walls using chisels, ice scrapers, and spades. But Leithead’s primary tool, as always, was his chainsaw. Touring his workshop I could scarcely believe the virtuosic detail he achieves in his wood sculptures with just a chainsaw and a sander.

“Last year’s cave wasn’t even half of what I have in my head. I didn’t get my second storey, or the tube that goes out the wall for my hot tub…”

The Castle’s increasing popularity last February—spread far and wide via Leithead’s Facebook page (named for his studio, CedarFox Sculpture)—eventually became something of a curse. This was because the condensation from all the exhalation caused the domed ceiling to ice over and then sag, forcing Leithead to “shave” and then reinforce it with more blown snow.

But with a bit of maintenance, the castle stayed up for over nine weeks and hosted several parties, including sleepovers. This year, Leithead has bigger plans. “Last year’s cave wasn’t even half of what I have in my head. I didn’t get my second storey, or the tube that goes out the wall for my hot tub…”

Blue Mountain Resort people, take note: weather permitting, Leithead is ready and willing to bring a colossal and interactive snow structure to your slopes should the opportunity arise. “I want to go bigger,” he says. “With a groomer and snowmaker, I could then dig out an acre of snow with a mini excavator.” And if a cave didn’t sit right with your legal department, he could do it ceiling-free.“I could build big cliffs and canyons like the Niagara Escarpment.” The plans are always forming in his head; give Jim Leithead an electric chainsaw and a few helping hands, and something spectacular will ensue. All he needs is snow.

 

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