Massive ice castle sprouts near downtown Wisconsin Dells

A farmer’s progress comes at the mercy of Mother Nature, and that’s true for Dan Beck’s crew in Wisconsin Dells, too. He jokes that they have an icicle farm, and above-freezing temps are about as bad for growing them as lack of rain to a corn farmer. Another challenge is wind that races in from more than one direction.

Dan is Wisconsin site manager for Ice Castles LLC, a Utah-based company that turns frozen water into a wintry wonderland of tunnels for crawling, thrones for perching and a maze of sometimes-narrow, twisting trails on 1.5 acres. What began as an empty Mt. Olympus Resort lot is slowly growing into a massive fortress with 10-foot-thick walls, two 50-foot slides, a domed room with waterfall, water fountain, light show and more.

The all-ice project turns the ground into a rugged and slick rink, for now. Workers strategically attach icicles – about 10,000 per day, when weather cooperates – and use chainsaws to pick axes for chiseling slot canyons, walkways and more. Icicles, with time, morph into walls and roofs whose color shifts from white to blue as the glaze thickens. Walkways are a bumpy mix of crushed ice and snow, although sunshine increases slipperiness. This is no place for a stroller, but maybe a small sled for the toddlers.

“Most of this work happens in four weeks,” says Brent Christensen, regarding his patented process, used by site crews of 15 to 25 to create the surreal-looking castles. The Dells project is one of five this winter. Others are in Midway, Utah; Lincoln, N.H.; Stillwater, Minn., and Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Brent, the father of six children, built his first ice house for them in 2008. It had a wooden frame and was a mess, he says, but “it became a work of curiosity. I’d get up at 5 a.m. to try things, and I started thinking about how I might build something without a subframe.”

One year later, Brent was using icicles as a building material. “We could build something 20 feet high in a week,” he explains, and the ice castle he built was taller than his house in Utah. The level of attention from media and passersby was encouragement enough to think even bigger, so he found a resort to sponsor his work and it has grown from there.

“The Dells kind of found us. We were exploring the area last summer – as far down as Chicago” and liked the notion that the area already had tourism traffic in winter because of indoor waterparks.

“Lots of people think ice castles are structures made out of blocks of ice, symmetrical and with straight edges. Ours has more of a natural feel,” Brent says. “We capture the beauty that happens” as icicles form, drip and merge as weather dictates.

Work in the Dells for Dan, from Ohio, began in late October with a refining of the castle design, then laying a network of water and electrical lines that are miles long. This is his sixth ice castle project, and “every site is different.”

Before the ice castles, his work involved outdoor adventure sports – dog sledding to rock climbing work. He was an English major at Ohio State University who made Shakespeare his thesis topic. While skiing in Silverthorne, Colo., he noticed a poster to recruit workers for an ice castle project there, and the rest is history.

On his Wisconsin team are local folks and others from as far away as Alaska, Puerto Rico and Colombia. If all goes well, which means a steady stream of freezing temps, the Dells ice castle opens to the public around Jan. 6. When we meet, the project is about 60 percent finished, and I’m wisely outfitted by Dan with a helmet and shoe grips before gingerly touring the work site.

“The warm spell is a challenge,” he acknowledges. “We’ve definitely lost some of our work.” But like any experienced farmer, you can tell faith and fortitude prevail over these temporary obstacles.

Ice castle admission will be $9.95 to $18 ($6.95 to $12 for ages 4 to 11 years old). Prices vary by day of week and are cheapest when purchased online. Each ticket contains an entry date and timed slot for entry.

“We expect it will be a very popular weekend attraction, and – believe it or not – we’ve gridlocked freeways because people hope to show up early, without a ticket,” Brent says.

The attraction is not for wobbly knees or fashionistas. All is outdoors, so dress sensibly and surefootedly, to less the chance of slipping or falling. Buying a ticket, by the way, means releasing the company from liability.

“We always have people show up in high heels and it’s always a bad idea,” Dan says.

Look for the attraction near Top Secret, an upside-down White House facade at 527 Wisconsin Dells Parkway. When the ice castle is ready for visitors, it will be open from noon or mid afternoon to 9 or 10 p.m., depending on the day. Closed on Tuesdays. icecastles.com/wisconsin-dells, 888-407-4054

Volunteer firefighters in Eagle River need 14-inch ice on Silver Lake before they begin cutting blocks to make their annual ice castle. Look for the 20-foot-tall castle off of U.S. 45 North downtown; completion is expected by Jan. 12. The tradition began in 1933, requires 700 hours of labor, begins with a LEGO design and is hard to miss – especially at night – because of castle lighting. eagleriver.org/about/ice-castle, 800-359-6315

Windswept ice caves on Lake Superior at Apostle Islands National Lakeshore draw thousands of visitors when conditions are right during winter. They were inaccessible as 2016 drew to a close, but refer to bayfield.org and 715-779-3397, ext. 3 for updates.