Mike was restless and Alex was bored. They were both up at their parents' place over Christmas and were itching for a challenge. In their youth they had built many an impressive snow fort but now Mike introduced the idea of building a bonafied inuit shelter: that's right, an igloo. He had seen on TV how a single inuit man could build his own igloo in a matter of hours, all by himself, by precisely cutting snow blocks and fitting them into a spiral pattern. Armed with this tid bit of knowledge and a few blunted garden implements we decided to build our own igloo.
The first and most important thing you need to build an igloo is the right kind of snow. Fortunately there had just been a warm spell over the previous few days so the lowest layers of snow had melted and fused into something similar to firn, which is packed snow that is on its way to becoming ice. We chose a remote location, out on the four acre bush lot we purchased 3 years ago, not because the conditions were ideal, but because we figured it was the place most in need of a snow shelter.
Alex cuts large snow blocks with a scythe blade hockey taped to an old hockey stick.
We began by pacing out a rough circular outline in the snow where we wanted out igloo to stand. The ground wasn't entirely even, but there were few cleared areas on our property and this one was the most central to a large supply of snow. Then we began placing block next to block along our outline and then spiralling upward over previous layers.
The walls begin to rise as Alex places the blocks and mike fits them tightly.
The process continued more or less the same as we spiralled upward, except that we began to lean the blocks increasingly inward in order to start to form a dome shape. Our diameter was about 10 feet, which seems small but it's a large distance to span with nothing but snow: I admit I was a bit skeptical of our chances of success.
We begin to lean the successive tiers of snow blocks inward.
The strength of an igloo's design is in its spiral shape. As we began leaning blocks further and further in it became more and more apparent that it was not the block beneath that supported it in place but rather the block next to it that bore its weight. This meant that the inuit were free from using complex scaffolding and support beams in their igloo construction while supposedly more advanced societies relied on these crutches in their dome construction.
Mike peeps out from inside the igloo. Note the strong spiral shape that holds the structure up.
Eventually the walls became so high that Alex could not lift the heavy snow blocks over anymore. The time had arrived to cut a door! This involved no complex engineering strategy: Alex simply took his scythe-tool and cut a simple arch out of the south side of the structure. By this point the surrounding walls are clearly strong enough to bear the extra load from above.
Alex cuts a door.
As the igloo gets taller the tiers of blocks really start to taper. The trick is to shape the blocks so that they fit reasonably snuggly, but a perfect fit is not strictly necessary. The structure actually becomes stronger the more the blocks lean on their neighbours (i.e. the tighter the spiral).
The walls begin to really lean inward.
The spiral closes in! Precarious as the blocks may look, they are actually quite stable, making this part of the job safer than it appears.
The blocks of ice lean ever inward, but miraculously stay aloft.
It was getting late and Alex was soaked to the bone from sweat and melted snow. He wanted to call it a day, but Mike refused. Pa, who had come out to take pictures one last time, mentioned casually that real Inuit would have to finish their shelter before nightfall or freeze to death exposed to the arctic elements of the tundra. Of course then he high-tailed it back to his nice warm house for the evening. But not us! Masculine honour on the line, Alex pulled up his socks and fitted the last ten or twelve blocks.
As the light wanes the dome of the igloo nears completion.
The next day we returned to take pictures of the finished product. Here Mike raises his arm over his head to demonstrate the full eight feet of clearance beneath the dome! Granted a smaller igloo would probably have been more practical in preserving warmth, but this one would certainly be more socially comfortable for people used to their own personal space.
Mike demonstrates the height of the finished dome.
The finished igloo stands magestically in the forest clearing. The final dimensions were roughtly eight feet of height (inside) and ten feet diameter (again inside). We never actually counted the blocks but we estimate it took about a hundred and fifty. In total the project took two strapping young lads about five hours -with breaks and chatting roughly eight man-hours. Alex was a little sore from lifting those heavy blocks awkwardly over the sloping walls from the outside, but then he's old. But that is the sum cost of the project: not bad for a shelter that will last until April!
The completed igloo the next day.
Alex and Mike pose with their respective blunt garden instruments in front of their creation. They estimate they could sleep four men comfortably, or -according to the tent standards that nobody can figure out -at least eight men! What is next for this daring duo? The possibility of a winter camping expedition has been bandied about, but who knows what the future might hold....
Alex and Mike stand proudly in front of their finished creation.