If you want to know the story of Wolseley’s grand ice castle, it begins on a day, about four years ago, when Maurice Barriault was out doing some work on the deck of his home. There he was, just chipping away at one of the many projects he often has on the go, when the little girl who lived next door wandered over and sat down beside him.
At the time, Kaya Raimbault was four years old. Her family had recently moved into the house on the corner, and Kaya was excited. There hadn’t been many kids where they’d lived before, close to Vimy Ridge Park, and she was hoping to make new friends. As it turned out, one of the most important of those new friends would be the man she calls "Mo."
By the time they met, Barriault had settled into retirement after a career that had taken him all over the world. He’d grown up in a small town in northern Quebec before joining the Royal Canadian Air Force, where he helped maintain Hercules C-130 aircraft; when he left the military, he worked 10 years in Africa teaching aircraft maintenance.
In 2010, Barriault was ready to retire for good. So he and his wife moved back to her hometown of Winnipeg, where they’d met when he was posted at 17 Wing, and where he still had so many of his old military friends. He’s not one for just sitting around watching TV, he says, so he was always busy doing something.
And then came the day that Kaya showed up on his deck.
From that first meeting flowed many adventures. Over the years, the two built birdhouses, and learned to play badminton. She knows his favourite type of golf ball — Titleist Pro V1x — and the one fact you have to know about him, which is that he hates yellow jellybeans. He taught her how to use a drill and a high-pressure washer, but not, in the end, a power saw.
"I wasn’t sure about that one," Kaya’s mother, Terena Caryk, says with a laugh.
The knowledge exchange went both ways. Kaya read Barriault stories, and tried to teach him how to dance, which is one of the things she loves most, along with art, but he didn’t prove to be as graceful a student as she hoped: "It didn’t work at all," Kaya says, shaking her head, but hey, can’t blame a girl for trying.
When the pandemic hit, that connection became vital. There were months, Caryk says, when Barriault was the only person Kaya was able to play with. And Barriault, now 64 — "Hey," Kaya protests, "you always told me you were 1,000" — doesn’t have grandchildren, and his adult daughter lives in Montreal; it was fun just to be around kids, he says.
Last winter, they built a snow slide that veered down off Barriault’s deck, but it was a little scary and a little steep, and one time Kaya crashed into a nearby table. So this winter, they decided to build something bigger, with a gentler slope, and from that plan came the spark of a idea: what about a giant snow castle?
Kaya, now a Grade 3 student, was delighted, and started imagining how her winter palace could look.
"He’s the builder, I’m the thinker," she says.
As soon as the first snow fell, Barriault started piling it up. When he told Kaya’s parents what he was planning, they were skeptical — "We were like, ‘We’re never going to get enough snow for that,’" Caryk says with a laugh — but then the snow came down in vast, fluffy mountains, so even the weather seemed to be firmly in favour of the plan.
By late December, the castle’s towers had risen about 4 1/2 metres high, looking over an 18-metre-long. slide that takes over almost the whole of Barriault’s front yard. There is a tunnel underneath, with plenty of room for a whole gaggle of kids to scurry inside, and a kid-sized doorway to the parapet, from which Kaya and her friends can survey the neighbourhood below.
Atop the parapet flies a flag, painted with yellow stars and purple and blue letters: "Kaya’s Kingdom."
If Barriault had to guess, the pair has spent at least 120 hours working on the castle, packing snow into bins to make blocks, using a saw to carve out the details. The project snowballed from its original design, partly because Kaya has so many ideas, partly because neither of them really want the work on it to end.
"It’s really fun doing it," Kaya says. "But when you’re done building you’re kind of sad, and then you’re also, ‘Oh man, I need to try this thing out.’ Imagine if there was no castle, it would just be a hill. But then you add all these things, it’s just amazing. It makes it even better."
"We had a lot of time and a lot of snow, so we kept building and building," he says. "But it’s pretty much done."
Overhearing this, Kaya perks up. "Whenever you say that, it’s not even done," she says, grinning.
After all, she still has plans. Last week, she made bright jewels to decorate the castle by freezing water and food colouring in balloons. She points to a mound of a snow she hopes to carve into a unicorn, though she thinks that if they try, it’ll probably just end up looking like a squirrel, so maybe if they try to carve a squirrel it will look like a unicorn.
And she’s proud of the castle, and the buzz that it’s made. Everyone in the neighbourhood seems to know the story, and lots of people stop on their walks to take pictures. As she chats with the Free Press, a passing kid calls out to Kaya, asking if they can come play in her castle. (A nearby sign notes that it’s closed when she’s not there.)
It’s more than Kaya’s family could have hoped for, when they first moved to the neighbourhood.
"It’s meant a lot," Caryk says. "There were lonely times for her during COVID, being the only child. Knowing that she could just walk outside the door and have a friend and grandfather figure in Mo, and have activities to do, and something like this to play on… it also just let us fall in love again with winter, and keeping healthy and being active.
"She’s always been a really happy kid, and that hasn’t changed. We’re really, really grateful."
So Kaya has learned a lot of things from Barriault, and her family has too. But what does she think he’s learned from her?
"How to be a kid," she declares, still grinning.
A few minutes later, the two settle onto a toboggan at the top of the slide, Kaya leading the way and Barriault bending his six-foot-two frame to fit behind. Then they’re off, laughing as they race down the slick-packed snow. When they land, Kaya jumps up and dashes over to a Free Press photographer to show off yet another of the castle’s wonders.
"I know I’m a little bit of the story for building the castle, but make it about her," Barriault says. "She’s truly a star. She always has a smile, she’s always happy to do things. It brightens my day every time I see her."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.