Twenty years ago, Gord Shantz would often check out ice sculptures whenever he got the chance, always wondering how they were made. Following a series of misfortunate events, Shantz and his friend Mike Holowenko got to find out.
Chance would have it that the pair happened to be stranded in Fort St. John, looking for some work to pay for the expensive bus ticket back to their homes in Kamloops, at the same time that a cold snap dried up the usually abundant well of volunteers that the High on Ice Festival depends on to assemble its final touches.
"It's really hard to get volunteers to come out and help set up when the wind is blowing and it's -30 below outside," said event organizer Jocelyn Schick, "We called the Salvation Army to see if anyone there could help us out for a few bucks and these guys were more than happy to step in."
While the story of men leaving the comforts of home to seek their fortune in the oil patch and finding no work to be had isn't entirely unusual, Shantz and Holowenko's story has a serendipitous twist.
Shantz was laid off in Kamloops and encouraged his gainfully employed friend to join him up North to work as slashers on the seismic lines in the oil fields.
They contacted a contractor who told them to come up to Fort St. John because he had work for them. When they got here, he sent them to Nelson to hook up with a crew there.
Waiting in their hotel rooms for a ride to the camp, they found out that they weren't needed on that crew and got word to return to Fort St. John to join a crew at Mile 101.
Once they arrived, the company put them up for a hotel for a few days. Soon the pair were paying for the room themselves and after five days got in touch with the boss who told them he couldn't find anything for them.
He directed them to the Army and Navy. They went hunting for the army and navy base, but soon found out that neither existed. Eventually it dawned on them that the boss meant the Salvation Army.
When they got to the Salvation Army the manager there was kind enough to let them store their packs and spend the night.
As the pair settled into the shelter, the temperatures plunged and the shelter received a call looking for help.
Shantz said he was anxious to get home and find work because he has a mortgage to pay, which was the reason he came to Fort St. John in the first place. Once Holowenko gets home he said he's going to have to eat some crow pie and ask for his old job back, installing floors.
"We're hooped!" said Shantz, "We're broke and we're stuck here, but we're grateful for the three days of work at the festival."
However, since he started working at the festival, Shantz said his luck seems to be turning around.
"It's been a really great learning experience. I've always wondered how they set these things up and now I guess I've found out."
The two jumped into their work enthusiastically and have become familiar characters at the job site. They've been able to get to know organizers and sculptors alike, to the point where they address each other like old friends.
"Gord's high on life," said Schick, "He's having a blast and taking it all in."
They had the opportunity to assist the sculptors who spent the day preparing the various logo sculptures that will be featured around town and at the festival.
Later in the evening the pair attended the volunteer and sponsor party and hammed it up with some of the sculptors already fluent in the sculpting dialect and culture, while munching on delicate hors d'oeuvres.
The two men don't plan to stick around to watch everyone enjoy the work they put in at Centennial Park though. Shantz and Holowenko are hoping that by Saturday they'll have earned enough money to get themselves back home, where they can warm up and find work.
"It's been quite the rollercoaster of a trip, but our time in Fort St. John was really interesting," said Shantz. And the festival organizers are grateful for their timely efforts.