I had originally scheduled snow houses for February, but when we got a huge amount of snow in January I figured I’d better strike while the iron was hot. Right after the first big snow, I went out to start an igloo.
Originally I envisioned cutting blocks of snow, but since the snow was dry and light, rather than wet and heavy, this wasn’t possible. A mold seemed like a much better idea, so I used a plastic cheese drawer I found lying around. By packing snow tightly into it, I found I could form bricks. The bricks, however, were shorter than I would have liked, and having only one mold made for slow going, so I switched molds. At my old house there was a barn full of treasure, by which I mean abandoned junk, and in it I had discovered the metal fruit and vegetable drawers of an old-fashioned refrigerator. I came inside, hastily emptied these, and brought them outside with me. They did make larger blocks, but because the mold was deeper, I found that I had to cut around the edges of the blocks with a knife before they would come out, rather like loosening a cake from a cake pan. I also found that if I let the full molds sit in the sun for a few minutes, the bricks held together better.
I made the igloo just big enough to lie down in. I based my methods on a few different igloo recipes I found on the internet. The brick making and brick placing process gave me a lot of time to reflect critically on what I was doing.
I’ve heard that Inuit peoples have hundreds of words for snow, describing different characteristics: wet heavy snow, dry crumbly snow, light drifting snow. These are the categories I imagine. It occurred to me that people who live in very snowy places would probably wait to build an igloo until a good igloo snow was falling. I thought about this as I pounded the powdery snow into the mold, only to have it fall apart when I removed it a few minutes later.
Unfortunately, the Northeast is no longer a place where big snowstorms can be counted on. When we got the big one that inspired me to start the igloo, I realized that this might be one of the few big snows of the year. Down here I didn’t have the luxury of waiting for good packing snow, so I figured I might as well get started.
That first day I completed 3 layers of bricks. Here is the basic method I was working with:
Make a circle of bricks with a small opening on one side.
Slant each brick slightly inwards, so that the structure will gradually move inwards.
Also, spiraling the rows, rather than setting circle on top of circle, is helpful.
When you get a few levels up, place a large brick as the frame over the open space you left. This will later be the door.
You will need help holding the bricks on from the inside, as you get to the steeper part of the curve. Complete the curved top, a chimney can be cut later. Consensus seems to be that holes should be cut after the dome is complete, because the curve provides the strength and integrity of the structure.
Build a tunnel that leads up to the door. Starting low, creating a rise in the tunnel, then having it dip back down again, will block wind. When you get to the door, widen the hole if it needs it.
Fill in gaps between bricks.
During all this, get as much snow out of the igloo as possible! Once you close the top, excavation will get a lot harder!
Also, a good technique for building any domed structure is to find the exact center on the floor and affix a string the same length as the ceiling height you want. As you build up the walls, pull the string taut to where you are working. Your wall should be built where the string ends. This will keep you on track for creating a dome.
Because the universe works in wonderful ways, immediately after I started building an igloo, two people who had expertise in building igloos happened into my life. The first, the girlfriend of a dear friend of mine, is from way up north in Canada, and is a goat herder. She shared with me a different method that she had used- brickless! (Very smart!)
Make a pile of packed snow the size you want your igloo.
Collect a bunch of sticks, and mark on them the width you want your walls (say 1 foot).
Stab the sticks into the pile, so that they each penetrate 1 foot in.
Cut a hole and start excavating! Dig dig dig until you can get inside, then hollow it out from the inside. Stop when you get to the sticks!
Then you could build a door tunnel, add a chimney, et cetera.
Only a few days later, another igloo expert waltzed into my life. This one, Jeff, was also the significant other of an old friend of mine, and they came to visit me for the weekend. Jeff used to work (as a trash man, a profession near and dear to my heart) at a research station in Antarctica. When he wasn’t dealing with trash, he and the other workers were trained to do things like build snow shelters. Jeff shared with me a further labor-saving variation on the stick-stabbing method:
If you are traveling and need an igloo, take all your gear and pile it in a heap. (If you aren’t traveling and have no gear, I bet you could find some other object to replace it. Nothing too large!
Pack a pile of snow over the pile of gear, at least as thick as you want your walls.
Stab the sticks in, as above.
Make a hole for yourself and burrow until you reach your gear. Then remove it, piece by piece, through the hole.
Add a chimney hole if desired, and the door tunnel mentioned above, which will create a heat sink in the igloo (wind can’t come in, heat will escape less easily).
Thank you, igloo experts!
Today I finally got back to the igloo. It has snowed quite a bit more since, so I had to brush a heap of snow off the walls. I felt a little like an archeologist, uncovering the distinct brick shapes. It has been bitter cold, and it quickly became apparent that this snow was even less suited for bricks than the previous snow was. After a few tries, I decided to build something with a material I did have- Ice!
Because of our recent snow/ice/sleet/thawing/freezing pattern, several inches below the snow there was a sheet of ice about an inch thick. I discovered that with strategic shovel chopping I could harvest pieces of this ice. I couldn’t help but feel very New England-y, since ice harvesting used to be a major occupation in this region back in the day.
I built a tiny enclosure with packed snow walls dug into the surrounding snow, and then harvested a couple of large pieces of ice to use as the roof. I also placed smaller sheets of ice on top of the snow wall, layering them before the two big pieces went on top. I felt a little like Andy Goldsworthy making one of those giant stone pinecones. It is my hope that these smaller pieces will act as counterweights, more widely distributing the weight of the two larger pieces. We’ll see how that goes. I tried to take pictures, but the sun was so bright on all the snow I couldn’t really see the camera screen, so results may be mixed.
Snow structure building has always been fun (as most of us who grew up in snowy climates know) and snow structures can also be very cozy. Depending on the amount and quality of snow I have to work with, I plan to finish the brick igloo, and perhaps try another igloo, of the brick-less, gear-heaping, stabbed-with-sticks variety.
An ironic side note: I am claustrophobic, and would probably not enjoy spending extended periods of time in an igloo, or hollowing one out from the inside.