- Associated Press - Saturday, March 18, 2017

MINOT, N.D. (AP) - While most Minot residents were groaning under about 50 inches of snow this winter, Minot architect Michael Oakleaf was having the time of his life.

“This is the best winter I have ever had,” said Oakleaf, who believes in turning lemons into lemonade - or in this case, snow drifts into snow sculptures.

Oakleaf has entertained his three children, and his neighbors in the process, with the creation of various snow sculptures in his northwest Minot yard this winter. No sooner had the first snow pile formed in his yard at the end of November before he was on top of it to build a fort. Over the winter, he’s built a series of forts and slides - each more elaborate than the last - as repeated storms covered up earlier works. Given his professional flair for design and construction, these weren’t ordinary forts but rather proved to be kid-magnets for the neighborhood.

Oakleaf said he builds his snow sculptures with his children in mind.

“I generally have some sort of concept, if not in my head, at least on the marker board in the kids’ room. I try to have some support from them,” he said. He and his wife, Kelli, have three children ages 11, 9 and 3.

In February, Oakleaf built a snow Eiffel Tower over an existing archway base that he had previously built to connect forts on opposite sides of a sidewalk. His 9-year-old son wanted him to turn the arch into the legs of a huge man that people could walk under. That was Oakleaf’s original intention. Along the way, though, he decided to make a miniature Eiffel Tower as a replica of the one in Paris for his wife as a Valentine’s surprise.

“She’s been wanting to go to the Eiffel Tower for 16 years,” he said.

Oakleaf has envisioned even bigger projects, such as a huge snow elephant. As a kid, he would sometimes visit a store with a large elephant with a slide for a trunk.

“I wanted to make that for my kids,” he said. “We never got that far because it’s really hard to carve an elephant that’s that big. I am going to need the big equipment for that.”

The Minot Daily News (https://bit.ly/2n3Cpln ) reports his tools consist of a toboggan to pull snow, a shovel for shaping blocks and metal spatula for intricate work.

Growing up in Kansas, Oakleaf recalled there wasn’t much snow in the winter, although there was enough to build a snowman about 8 feet tall when he was 8 years old. He had to make a ramp to get the big snowballs into place.

He graduated from high school in Topeka, Kansas, and went to the University of Arizona to study architecture. Oakleaf said his career path was pre-determined for him. People had been telling him that he would be an architect before he was old enough to know what one was. He had loved to draw and build with LEGOs.

When he was 13 years old, his cousin married an architect and Oakleaf spent summers with them in Prescott, Arizona, getting to know the architectural field.

Oakleaf later owned an architectural firm in Arizona for 20 years, eventually losing the business after the economy tanked in 2008.

“I had plenty of people say, ‘Go to North Dakota,’” he said. It turned out to be good advice.

“North Dakota has been very good to us. I just love the people,” he said. “I can’t think of a better place to have a family.”

The Oakleafs moved to North Dakota at the end of 2011. Oakleaf was working for a Bismarck firm and was spending considerable time on projects in Williston. To enable his family to be with him, his wife started home schooling, which she continues to do.

In Bismarck, Oakleaf began developing his snow sculpture skills, which he continued after moving to Minot to join Hight Construction in December 2015. North Dakota didn’t offer much in the way of snowy winters the past few years, though. That changed this year.

“This is why I came here,” Oakleaf joked, although he doesn’t joke about loving snow.

“I am happy-go-lucky. I try to make the most of wherever I am,” he said, noting he’s experienced loss and sadness as everyone does. “You just have to pick yourself and make the best of it. That’s why I like the snow so much.”

Snow, though fleeting, can be turned into something beautiful. Just like life.

“You have to do the best with what you have before it is gone,” Oakleaf said.


Information from: Minot Daily News, https://www.minotdailynews.com

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