First Person:
Jeff Rand

Building an Igloo

Not many people would deliberately venture into blizzard conditions, and it's probably not recommended practice

The weathercasters and newsmen were having a field day predicting the storm of the century. It was March 1993 and the storm that moved up the East Coast did eventually dump three feet of snow in some parts.

Because of the dire predictions, I had to change plans from a more distant trip to one close to home. Instead of my original destination, I traveled to Forestburg Scout Reservation in lower New York. Forestburg is Monmouth Council's camp and is known for getting much more winter than the council proper in Central New Jersey.

Friday night I made camp in the archery range on a foot of hard packed snow. I piled the snow and built walls around my tent to protect it from the wind. The storm started during the night and nearly buried my tent by morning. The predicted blizzard had arrived and conditions would be getting much worse.

Upon examining my accommodations in the morning, I realized that the increasing volume of snow would bury the tent and collapse the frame. Further, with hurricane force winds being predicted, I was hesitant to camp in the trees for fear of the wind blowing on down upon me. I should remain camped in the field, but a much sturdier shelter was required.

I decided to build an igloo. The snow was perfect and camp had the right tool. I borrowed a carpenter's saw that had rough teeth like a bow saw. The saw would cut the snow into blocks to build my structure.

I picked a flat area for my quarry and shoveled the fresh snow to expose old "bedrock" snow. In order to cut snow blocks proper consistency is extremely important. Powder snow is useless. Often, even old snow has a hard surface but crumbles beneath the surface. I was lucky to find a hard layer 9 to 12 inches thick, exactly what was needed for the blocks. I cut blocks in dimensions of 12 x 24 inches and 9 inches thick.

I prepared several blocks to lay the first course. I stamped out a 10-foot diameter circle and laid the first row closing the circle. I now had a wall about a foot high. While I never built an igloo or seen one built, I knew that they were not constructed simply by laying one row upon another. In order to do it right the first row needed to be cut as a ramp such that after the last block in the row was placed the first block of the second row would rest beside it. The necessity of this spiral approach would become apparent in the later stages of construction.

As the construction continued, I became adept at cutting block and soon learned to make the right angles for a snug fit. As the structure grew the blocks had to be laid inward to create the necessary dome. The spiral approach allowed each block to rest both on those in an earlier circuit and the side of the most recent block. Miraculously the structure held and eventually I had nearly completed the dome.

Early in the construction I worked from the outside, but eventually in was too far to reach the dome, which curved away from me. I cut a door opposite the wind and hauled the blocks inside. I was then able to work on what became the ceiling. As expected, the last block was the most difficult.

Examining my nearly completed igloo, I noticed snow blowing through the cracks. Now I believe Eskimos actually sprayed water on the dome to seal the structure. Not having liquid, I began a caulking process with snow. Also, I smoothed the structure to leave no rough surface. Blowing snow can actually ruin a wall through grinding action, but a smooth round surface fares quite well.

The main structure complete, I made the classic tunnel with larger blocks. Actually, this feature is very important to keep wind and snow out of the igloo. Properly made it should go down then up to your floor (made of snow of course). I sealed the tunnel and the structure was complete.

The igloo took most of Saturday to construct during a storm that dumped a foot of new snow with some fairly significant winds. I was quite happy to retreat to the shelter of the igloo.

I was surprised at the quality of Saturday night's accommodations. The space was much larger then the tent and completely devoid of wind. I lit a candle and was quite comfortable inside. Dinner consisted of homemade bread and backpacking food. I cooked in the entrance tunnel and had one mishap where the snow doused the stove.

Later in the evening I ventured out and was shocked at the conditions. The wind had grown to gale force and was blowing snow in a loud roar. Inside the igloo it was nearly quiet. The igloo was a beautiful site from the outside. The candle caused it to glow with a sense of warmth. The perfect dome stood strong against the wind and snow. I quickly retreated inside and had good night's sleep.

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