Igloo building for beginners

It’s all in the snow


takeoff_tileIt’s late March and I’m trudging over the windswept, snowy surface of Hudson’s Bay with five friends, following Inuit guides Joseph and Mary Kidlapik who are teaching us how to build an igloo.

Inuit ManClad in Arctic-weight parkas, boots, toques, sunglasses and mitts, I pretend we’re explorers searching for the perfect igloo-making conditions. I ask what constitutes igloo snow. “Compact,” says Joseph as he periodically prods the drifts with a long piece of copper tubing while conversing with Mary in Inuktitut.

To me, it all looks identical and, when he lends me the tube, I’m hopeless at discerning differences. Nevertheless, we learn snow must be fine-grained, not wet, and that there is roughly half a metre of it on top of the frozen surface of Hudson’s Bay.

Stopping suddenly, Joseph draws a circle around himself with the copper tubing, defining the circumference of the igloo’s walls. We then get lessons in carving tapered, smooth snow building blocks: larger ones for the base, more subtly angled, smaller ones for the top, to create the dome.

Building IglooTraditionally, Inuit used part of a whale’s jawbone or knife made from a caribou antler to cut snow. Employing a metal knife resembling a slender machete, Mary says, “Cut the short ends first, then the longer sides.”

We start constructing an igloo, the winter shelters used by Canadian and Greenland Inuit. The name igdlu means house – and I hope to sleep in the one I build.

The tricky bit is nudging the blocks out of the clinging snow. “Be careful,” cautions Mary. “Keep the blade flat so the block won’t break.” I manage to gently pry most loose without damage.

We laugh while we work because our bulky clothes sometimes render us helpless: We can barely bend in our layers, let alone lift and carry the 7kg or so blocks of snow with our gigantic mittens.

Joseph chuckles at us while adroitly heaving, then snuggling, blocks into position. The layers spiral upwards – an ancient architectural design that inherently lends structural strength to the building. Meanwhile, we assist Mary who’s sealing crevices with snow.

Igloo InteriorWhen the walls are almost shoulder height, Joseph cuts an arched doorway and we take turns wiggling into the igloo on our bellies, giggling like little kids. Once inside, we fill more cracks and help Joseph complete the dome, all the while marveling at the breathtakingly magical blue-crystal world of filtered sunlight.

Finally, Joseph carves an air hole near the top and declares the igloo finished. We stack caribou hides inside to make a cozy base for sleeping bags and head off to nearby Dymond Lake Lodge for a dinner of Arctic char. No sooner have we begun our meal and toasted our great success at igloo building, when I hear Joseph exclaiming, “Katharine! Your igloo collapsed!”

Though torrential rains dashed my dreams of sleeping in an igloo beneath the shimmering Aurora Borealis, I remember that tonight we’ve been promised a fleeting glimpse of dog sleds as they compete in the arduous 400-km Hudson Bay Quest, a four-day race from Arviat, Nunavut to Churchill.

DIY IglooAs we sit outside in komatiks (traditional Inuit sleighs) weathering the unusual winter rainstorm, we glimpse shapes looming out of the dark. Shadowy figures of dogs speed past followed by the sled with its Inuit musher.

Just as quickly, the night swallows them and we are forever left with an indelible image of life in the Arctic.

Building an igloo and watching the Hudson Bay Quest dogsled race is part of the Fire and Ice package offered by Churchill Wild, an outfitter based in Churchill that operates Dymond Lake Lodge. For information, go to churchillwild.com

For more info: travelmanitoba.com

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Igloo building for beginners

  1. Interesting story, points out a way of life almost wiped out in Nunavik through out of control substance abuse & selfseving politicians.

    One correction in your story ( an honest mistake no doubt, believe.) in the 3rd last paragraph. It should have read “Shadowy figures of dogs speed past followed by the sled with its “INUK” musher “.

    Inuk = person

    Inuit = people

    Other than that short but interesting article.

  2. Technically, the author did not experience “life in the Arctic” as Hudson Bay is south of the Arctic Circle. It appears, too, that the author was given the “tourist” version of igloo building. As a pilot, in the RCAF, undergoing survival training many years ago, my course mates and I had to build our own igloos. Before going to the Arctic, our first week was spent in Winter Bush survival near Jasper, Alberta, where we had to build our own lean-tos and survive out in the open for a week. We thought that was tough and cold – little did we know how much harder the second week was going to be.

    For the second week, we were flown to Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island, the second northernmost community (600 km north of the Arctic Circle) in Canada and one of the coldest inhabited places in the world. There, I spent the coldest week of my life. We had to build our own igloos and sleep in them for the week.

    The igloo pictured here and described in the story is nowhere like a real igloo. A real igloo does not have an arched door at ground (snow) level. Nor is the inside floor flat and on one level. Inside an igloo there are two levels. One is the sleeping bench and the other is the cold well. The sleeping bench occupies 1/2 to 2/3 of the circle. The remainder of the circle is dug out, down a couple feet. This is where the cold air will accumulate, thus keeping the warmer air up where the sleeping bench is.

    Outside the igloo, a trench is dug perpendicular to the igloo. As the trench approaches the igloo is becomes a tunnel, which penetrates into the cold well. This is the entrance to the igloo. Two snow blocks are then cut. One is cut to the size of the opening where the tunnel and the cold well join; this becomes the removable door. The second snow block becomes the overnight urinal. With the door below the sleeping bench, thus being in the coldest air, there is less chance of it freezing shut and with it inside the tunnel there is less chance of it being drifted over on the outside.

    The igloo proved quite comfortable (relatively speaking) and is really a necessity if one is to survive in the Arctic. We each had a small kerosene burner (much like a Bunsen Burner) and a ration of kerosene for light, melting snow to drink, and for minimal warmth. (This was to simulate the blubber oil burner called a Kudlik, used by the Inuit.) Temperature in the igloo, though, had to kept below 32ºF at roof level or the igloo would drip from melting. The cardinal rule in the Arctic is — never get wet! This includes sweating. When building the igloo we would have to stop periodically if we thought we were starting to sweat. Getting wet is fatal! The evaporation of the moisture lowers the body temperature severely. At night, even though we were tempted to keep our clothes on in the sleeping bags, we had to strip to our underwear for sleeping and hang our clothes to let any moisture freeze. Then, in the morning, the clothes were shaken to get the frost out.

    At the end of the week, we were told we could destroy the igloos if we wanted to. No matter how many of us jumped on them and kicked at them, we weren’t able to dent them one bit, let alone destroy them. The snow blocks and the snow chinked in the cracks had become as hard as cement.

    To emphasize the virtue of building an igloo rather than using a tent, we were forced to spend the last night in a large tent made from a parachute. Even with 20 of us in the one tent with all our burners going, using up every last drop of our kerosene, nobody slept that night. We had to stay awake and active to avoid freezing. Every time the wind gusted the parachute tent acted like a billows expelling any warmth out the top and then sucking cold air back in. In the morning we were told that the chill factor was minus 90ºF.

    At the temperatures we experienced, even a 1km/h wind can cause a serious chill factor. I personally experienced the effect. One particular day we went on a hike to look for wildlife. There appeared to be no wind, so I didn’t wear my balaclava. I received serious frostbite, to the extent that my entire face turned dark brown, just like a bad sunburn, and eventually peeled off in large sections several layers deep. As a result I was unable to use aftershave lotion for many years later.

    The Arctic is a very unforgiving environment, but it is survivable if one is trained and prepared. It was an experience and adventure that I’m glad to have had, but have no desire to ever repeat.

  3. Please excuse me, but I have one more pedantic point. The name is not Hudson’s Bay. The correct nomenclature is Hudson Bay. It’s a mistake often made.

  4. An old pilot : Yours is one of the best and most accurate and detailed description I have ever read of Igloo design and use. You were obviously there and know what this particular subject is about = thank you very much. I would love to have experienced what you did … well except the tent part that is.

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