Building an igloo – harder than it looks?

Large igloo under construction for a winter festival in Montreal. Photo: Abdou W., Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Igloo under construction. Photo: Abdou W., Creative Commons, some rights reserved

It’s been an eventful winter, weather-wise, so far. This time around the Ottawa region is not getting the big snowstorm that’s pummeling the U.S. northeast.

But we’ve got the same cold temperatures. (It’s a frigid -27 C, or -17 F, as I write this on a sunny Friday morning. Plus wind chill.)

Last night a friend down in snowy Connecticut sent me an email with an article about building an igloo, sub-headed “Hey, sometimes you just need to be prepared.”

It included a clip of a classic ten-minute film on the same topic from The National Film Board of Canada, made by Douglas Wilkinson in 1949: “How to build an igloo”. While somewhat patronizing in narrative tone, it’s a good visual tutorial.

My friend sent it all as a jesting tribute to the weather. But it turns out we’d both remembered seeing films about making igloos in our childhood and that both of us find the whole concept fascinating.

A safe dwelling in such harsh conditions in less than 2 hours? Made with just what’s at hand? How amazing and cool is that? I gather from the article and film that the key element (after finding the right snow!) is carving a slope on the first row of square blocks set in a circle, and then ramping a spiral upward off that incline. (What looks like a simple dome expresses all sorts of geometry and architecture.) Custom fitting each block with bevel cuts matters too. It’s funny how life turns out sometimes. I first saw those types of “educational films” in the open-air cafeteria of Kahului Elementary School on Maui in the 1960s, never imagining I would someday live in winterland myself.

Since moving to Ottawa over a dozen years ago, I have occasionally tried to build an igloo. Many winters the snow pack has not been deep enough. On one of the better opportunities I cut some blocks and left them to season (as I’d read should be done – somewhere). That didn’t work as the weather turned and the chance was lost.

But this winter is looking good. There is lots of snow, it’s over knee deep in many places in the back yard. Some of it is going to have layers of ice left by freezing rain and (apparently) that might be bad. But I think it’s worth another try.

The 1949 film showed the igloo being built with a wonderful-looking tool, an ice knife in a similar shape of the machetes we all had and used in Hawaii to trim brush, only much thinner and slimmer. What modern tool comes closest to the functionality of an ice knife? I might try a Japanese-style sickle. It’s not the right shape, but the blade seems about right.

I know some readers have built actual igloos and even more have made snow forts. Emergency snow caves are generally accepted as useful backcountry measures, though they can be dangerous too and require a degree of knowledge and care.

Care to share stories or tips? This might be the winter to dust off igloo-building skill sets, or to learn some for the first time.

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