Last week I was able to participate in the 43 edition of the International Snow Carving Competition in Quebec City, Canada. This event is part of the Quebec Carnaval, a three week endeavor that features all kinds of attractions day and night. I am not sure how the good citizens of Quebec City have so much endurance for three weeks of festivities, but they really rock it out for almost a month. Truthfully, the event seems to have a lot of cool history and definitely a lot of civic pride.
The spokesperson for the Carnaval is Bonhomme, who is like a rock star in Quebec City. He is a snowman that talks and has some sweet dance moves (we saw him really getting down at the outdoor
disco moshpit rave dance party one night). Every year, Le Monde de Bonhomme sprouts up on the Plains of Abraham and turns into a frozen atmosphere of super fun. There are dog-sled rides, horse-sled rides, regular sled rides and other carnival type events.
My teammates love the ice fishing tank where you can go and fish for some trout with a tiny rod and hook, and then have it cooked on the spot. There were constant little groups of young people with little bloody plastic bags of fish walking around. I guess they were saving them for later, maybe? Hard to say, but it’s always popular.
Once again, we threatened to go on the ice luge, but we were generally too tired and sore to do anything too exotic or strenuous. We were so tired that if there wasn’t a shuttle we probably wouldn’t have bothered to walk back to the hotel. There was a hot tub booth that had 3 or 4 hot tubs in which people were joyfully testing their immune systems and probably catching pneumonia. One guy jumped out and ran around the event site, which seemed foolish, but then again, I’m not from there, so what do I know. I guess I know that when it is -23 out, it is pretty smart to have a lot of layers on. And not be soaking wet.
After driving through the snowstorm that I had driven all night to miss the previous day, I arrived on Monday for the opening ceremonies and festivities. Even though there were wrecks everywhere from Potsdam to Quebec City, the
insane experienced drivers of Quebec were blowing by me at alarming rates of speed. I am good in the snow, but I was impressed by the don’t care attitude of the majority of drivers that left me in the dust.
The opening ceremonies were where we met the other teams, the organizers, and the volunteers. Each team is assigned a Chef de Mission, or handler, to help with translating or getting any needed equipment. Our Chef this year was Marc, the same guy we had last year. It was nice seeing him again (along with his fiance Claire who was also a Chef de Mission). He is a very excitable and talkative kind of guy, so he makes the various carving events fun and memorable. This year, there was another team from the U.S.A. (there were two for some reason), three guys from Maine. They had never carved snow before, so they were all excited and interested to hear what it is like to carve. They are stone carvers and carpenters in real life, so they were no strangers to subtractive work, but they had a lot of questions about the snow (that we didn’t really know either).
There was a team from Germany, three nice ladies from Potsdam, near Berlin. They were very surprised to hear that I was also from Potsdam, and after a bit of confusion, they realized I was talking about the NY version and not the real one. It was a good laugh for a bit though. Other teams were Canada (a sculptor, a police woman, and a student), Morocco (primarily sand sculptors), and France. This year, there was some sort of funding problem, so many teams didn’t make it to the competition. Overall, though, it was a great group of people this year.
Opening night was a lot speeches and celebration (Bonhomme came by and gave us a pep talk) but it was also a time to meet the judges. Each team was allowed to present a maquette to the judges to make sure any changes could be accommodated and accounted for at the end. It seemed weird talking to the judges after having been the judge the previous week, but every competition has a different way they like to do things. The judges in Quebec take it very seriously and with good reason, this is a big-deal part of the festival.
Day one was exhausting, partly because I had already been carving for a week, and partly because the snow was hard as cement. Snow is temperature dependent, so when it is -20 the snow becomes extremely difficult to work with. We were prepared with some new tools this year, so that was a big help, but it was still pretty slow going. Basically, at that temperature you are carving ice more than snow. Most of the teams only lasted about 9 hours on the first day because of the cold temperatures, and in our case, pacing. Our strategy was to pace our selves and not get too tired so that we could have a chance later in the week.
The snow was excellent quality, in fact, it is the best snow we’ve carved in a long time. Todd, the snow block maker, really put a lot of effort an attention into the blocks (as usual). Even though the snow was hard, it was fine grained and consistent with just a little ice here and there–which is ideal compared to many competitions. They use man-made snow, so it is much easier to carve and anticipate while you are carving.
For meals, each team is required to stop and be off-site during the meal time. I think this is for safety mostly, but it is very European compared to the other competitions that I have been in. Other events tend to be 24/7 where competitors can come and go at will. This competition also has a 10pm curfew except for the last night when we could work all night. The advantages are that all the sculptors are more included and there is more camaraderie among participants. Also, more sleep time. The drawback is that if you are sculpting on someone else’s schedule, which can sometimes be tough for the creative types.
Day 2 was a short day because we went to a sugar shack in the late afternoon and were done carving for the day. Sugar shacks are fun winter-time restaurants in Quebec that serve maple syrup themed dinners. It’s kind of like breakfast for diner with a musician and dancing. They seem to cater to groups of people and probably tourists, but the locals that we went with knew all the songs and all the dance moves.
The music is pretty accordion heavy, so it is not your typical stage show. This year, the place we went to was on Ile d’Orleans just outside of Quebec City. We loaded up a yellow school bus and headed out on some very slippery roads at quite a fantastic rate of speed. Luckily, the windows were totally frosted over, so I couldn’t see if we were about the crash or not. Pancakes, beans, ham, and beer were the fare that night, so it was a perfect way to end a day of carving.
Bonhomme came by, of course, because he digs the sculpture carving. He gave us another pep talk, but he must have had a cold because he sounded really different than the night before. In fact, he sounded different each time we met him. Hmmmm…
For desert, the sugar shack experience includes a maple bar, which is a fancy way to make maple taffy. The proprietor pours maple syrup into a snow covered bench, and you take a popsicle stick and roll up the hardening syrup so you can eat it. It is a super fun way to have an extremely sweet after dinner snack. My sister-in-law would not approve (she’s a dentist) but it is a very popular treat in the Quebec area.
The third day it was down to serious business, because that is the day when you start to feel you might be running out of time. Even if you are on track, the block is so massive that it seems like nothing is happening as you carve. Large areas of snow disappear, but when you step back to look, nothing drastic seems to have changed. 12 hours of carving on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday get the ol’ muscles moving a bit. The labor is extremely intensive depending on the design you are trying to make. It’s basically like shoveling snow for 12 hours at a time. At these cold temperatures, the tools need to be sharp, but they also need a little weight for them to go through as much snow as possible. The weight and the position of the carving makes is quite tough. I tried to count how many times I swung or poked the 10lb chisel at the sculpture, but I lost count (and interest in counting) at about 3,500 in an hour. This works out to approximately 40,000 reps per day. At the end of the day, it’s hard to lift anything above your head because you have been pursuing a non-ergonomic situation for hours at time. A veteran move is to make it seem like there is a lot of snow missing, but to not really carve all that much. We are certainly experienced, but that is not our way. We like to remove as much snow as we can so that the form looks light and airy. Volunteers from the local massage school do come to give 15 minute massages to the carvers every couple days, so it is possible to get a little tension worked out, but it never seems to be enough to dent the soreness. On the first night one of the masseurs pushed on my back a little funny, so I was in horrible pain for a couple days until a different guy came back and patched me back up. So…there was that at least.
The final night is called ‘White Night’ where the sculptors are allowed to work until judging at 9:00am on Sunday. This year, we worked a bit ahead so we didn’t have to stay up all night. We slept about 4 hours, so compared to some of the other teams, we were well rested on Sunday. At midnight, the volunteers bring food and coffee for the carvers, so it is a nice bonding moment for all the people involved in the competition. At 9am sharp, it is tools down for the competitors and the judging begins. For the judging, all the captains are given 2 minutes to explain their sculptures to the judges. I like this because is gives you an opportunity to highlight the things you want, and since there is often a language barrier, the competition provides translators for each team.
The medal ceremony was pared down a little this year compared to last time, but it was still cool. Cold, actually. Brutally cold. It was -5000 degrees anyway, but the wind was blowing extremely hard, so it just cut right through everyone. They had to hold down all the medals and everything so they wouldn’t blow away off stage. Bonhomme seemed to be unaffected, but he is made of snow after all. For the ceremony, we went up on stage and had our picture taken with some folks and then went back to the sculpture for more pictures. Our American Consul came by to say hello and to congratulate us as well as the Maine team for being there. It was great to have some support from the homeland, it made us feel good to be acknowledged and to be taken seriously. Hale was a class act and even brought us cookies from his wife.
After the ceremony, there was a party for all involved. It was fun to cut loose with the other competitors for the first time. It is different than Nationals because there is more of that early on in the competition, rather than later, but it was still great fun. It was nice to talk to everyone informally and easier to find out more about who they are and what they do in their normal lives. Even though there are some severe language barriers, there is still a lot of mutual understanding and companionship.
In all, it was a ridiculously fun trip though it was extremely exhausting. I think I lost 5 pounds in 5 days (sculptor discovers one weird trick for weight loss!) just from the sheer repetition of the carving motion. Through that tired achey-ness you really do feel a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, though. I hope to be back in future years because the event itself is amazing and the city of Quebec is so great.
Hey Doug – Congrats on your win! I was the team captain in ’73 for the first international contest in Quebec. My teammates and I were from the Univ. of Maine; we did a sculpture of Nixon and Canada’s PM, Pierre Trudeau. We won that year and then returned in 74, 75 and 76. After moving to Portland Oregon I was able to make two trips to Sapporo Japan for the international contest there. The techniques had evolved a lot in the intervening years. While in Sapporo I visited w/ two members of the Japanese team that I competed against in Quebec in ’73.
Glad to see you enjoy the Bonhomme – I had fun w/ him too!
Enjoy your next day in the snow,