A large throne, castle turrets, bridge, ice harvest history displays, furniture, fire pits and a “Sn’Icecast” media news desk — all made out of, or embedded in, ice: King Isbit’s Royal Courtyard and Palatial Playground is being expanded considerably this year, with several new features intended to create the illusion of Polar Fest visitors being inside an ice castle.

“We can’t actually have people going inside (the ice structures), for safety reasons,” explained Ice Harvest DL Committee member Scott Walz, who is one of the volunteers behind the creation of the Minnesota Sn’Ice Snow and Ice Showcase.

So instead, local artist Hans Gilsdorf decided to design a throne and courtyard that created the illusion of an open air palace, with a large ice wall behind the throne that is 66 feet long, end to end, and two large castle turrets made of ice, spaced evenly on opposite sides of the throne.

A Bobcat uses a pair of specially created tongs to remove a cake of ice from Little Detroit Lake during the 2020 Ice Harvest Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 8. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)
A Bobcat uses a pair of specially created tongs to remove a cake of ice from Little Detroit Lake during the 2020 Ice Harvest Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 8. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)

In addition, there is also a bridge made of snow and ice, crossing a “river” of ice that leads up to the throne; a news media desk made of ice that can be reserved for live broadcasts via television, radio or streaming video; and a variety of other snow and ice sculptures.

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"We do have a few surprises up our sleeves," promised Gilsdorf.

As has been the case for the past couple of years, the return of the legendary King Isbit and his icy royal hangout will be the focal point of Detroit Lakes’ annual Polar Fest celebration. The Grand Lighting Ceremony for the royal courtyard is set to take place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 6, kicking off the community’s 10-day celebration of all things cold, icy and snowy.

1,000 ice blocks used

More than 30 volunteers showed up to help cut, harvest and stack up over 1,000 blocks of ice from Little Detroit Lake for King Isbit's Royal Courtyard and Palatial Playground. (Lee Kensinger / Special to the Tribune)
More than 30 volunteers showed up to help cut, harvest and stack up over 1,000 blocks of ice from Little Detroit Lake for King Isbit's Royal Courtyard and Palatial Playground. (Lee Kensinger / Special to the Tribune)

Preparations for the courtyard construction began back in December, when small crews of volunteers started clearing snow from the ice harvest field on Little Detroit Lake — something that was necessary to allow the ice underneath to get to the right thickness.

Then, on Jan. 7-8, about 30 volunteers assembled on the City Beach to begin the process of harvesting 1,000 ice cakes, each measuring 22x44 inches on the sides and anywhere between 14-16 inches thick.

The Wee Cut Ice crew, from Spicer, Minn., brought out their ice harvesting equipment to help with the harvest for the third straight year.

"We were lucky to have the ice that we did," said Ice Harvest DL Committee member Scott Walz, adding that it wouldn’t have been possible if not for the volunteers who diligently kept the ice harvest field clear of snow in the weeks leading up to the harvest..

A couple of weeks later, on Monday, Jan. 20, another crew from Detroit Lakes’ own Accessories Unlimited brought out their own custom-designed ice saw to assist the MN Sn’Ice volunteers with cutting the ice cakes into uniformly sized blocks — blocks that could be more evenly and safely stacked to form the various ice structures in the courtyard area.

“It’s crucial to get the first course of ice level,” said Gilsdorf, noting that a solid, level base provides much-needed stability for the entire structure above it.

Travis Ballard, co-owner of Accessories Unlimited, said that this cutter is the third specialized tool created by his company for the MN Sn'Ice ice harvest and construction project since it was started in 2018.

"It's a type of shape saw designed for planing the ice blocks so they're more true and easier to stack," Ballard explained, adding that its hydraulics are powered by a Bobcat engine.

He said they spent a couple of weeks testing it prior to bringing it out to the ice palace construction site for the first time Monday afternoon.

The first piece of equipment they designed for the inaugural Detroit Lakes Ice Harvest in 2018 was a large pair of customized ice tongs that could be operated with a crane to lift the ice out of the lake once it had been cut.

"We've kept in constant contact with them (the Ice Harvest DL Committee) to provide them with whatever they needed to assist with the harvest and the construction of the ice palace," Ballard said.

"Last year we built a saw to cut the blocks out of the lake," he added. "We've been test driving it for them this year, and it's getting really close to being ready."

The second saw should be fully operational for the 2021 ice harvest, which will be the biggest to date. Next year there will be a full, ornate palace built in honor of the sesquicentennial: The City of Detroit Lakes and Becker County will both celebrate their 150th birthdays in 2021.

‘It’s going to be spectacular’

Gilsdorf said that while this year's showcase will not include a full-size ice palace, King Isbit's courtyard will include a 60-foot wall immediately behind Isbit’s throne, two large turret-like ice towers, and a bridge over a "river" of ice.

“The bridge will come all the way up from the road to the throne,” Walz added.

The ice furniture and fire pits (also encased in ice) that were a part of last year's project will be included in the 2020 version as well, he said.

Travis Ballard, left, watches carefully as the custom designed ice saw that was created by his company, Accessories Unlimited, cuts the ice cakes taken from Little Detroit Lake earlier this winter. The blocks needed to be cut to a uniform thickness for use in King Isbit's Royal Courtyard & Palatial Playground, located on the Detroit Lakes City Beach.  (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)
Travis Ballard, left, watches carefully as the custom designed ice saw that was created by his company, Accessories Unlimited, cuts the ice cakes taken from Little Detroit Lake earlier this winter. The blocks needed to be cut to a uniform thickness for use in King Isbit's Royal Courtyard & Palatial Playground, located on the Detroit Lakes City Beach. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)

In addition, eight history panels will be embedded in the ice structures. According to Becker County Museum director Becky Mitchell, the history panels will include a look back at the history of ice harvesting in the county, which began in the late 19th century and continued up until the early 1970s — but there will also be some panels dedicated to the story of the return of ice harvesting to Detroit Lakes in 2018, and its purpose.

“We don’t want to forget to tell today’s history,” she said.

"Everything will be lighted," Gilsdorf said, from the throne and ice bridge all the way to the sledding hill and snow sculptures in the park.

He said Jack Davis has been the engineering mastermind behind the lighting design for each year's ice structures. Davis added that he has been working on the lighting design for Isbit's 2020 Royal Courtyard for "about four months now."

"Some of the lights will be embedded in the ice, some will be flood lights, and some will be wall washers," he explained. "There's a lot more going on this year."

Davis created the Lego model of the courtyard, for planning purposes, and it has also become a promotional tool for the MN Sn'Ice project.

Gilsdorf said this year's lighting design is intended to be a mix of the techniques they have learned from the first two years of the project, along with a few new twists that will be unveiled on the night of the Grand Lighting ceremony.

"This year the light show will be a lot bigger and more dynamic," he said. "It's going to be spectacular. I'm really excited to see it."

If You Go

WHAT: Minnesota Sn’Ice Snow and Ice Showcase, which encompasses King Isbit’s Royal Courtyard and Palatial Playground, a sledding hill, snow sculptures and more

WHERE: City Park, Beach and Pavilion

WHEN: Starts Thursday, Feb. 6 with a Grand Lighting Ceremony for the royal courtyard at 7 p.m. to kick off Polar Fest, then courtyard sculpture viewing and sledding continue through Feb. 16, the last day of Polar Fest. The snow sculpture competition is on Monday, Feb. 10; sculptures will remain on display after that for as long as they stand. Sledding hill open daily from noon-8 p.m., Feb. 7-16.



For more stories about 2020 Polar Fest, CLICK HERE.