If you've lived in Rochester for any length of time, you've probably muttered nasty words under your breath about the weather. And during the five months we call "winter," one of those words was probably "arctic."
You could go on complaining about this. Or you could embrace the opportunity that comes with being part of the Great White North for more than a quarter of the year. There's perhaps no better way to embrace the Arctic in upstate New York than the region's signature piece of architecture: the igloo.
Technically, says Rick French, the word "igloo" is Inuit for shelter, so you would be within your rights to apply it to just about anything, but here we mean the igloo of stereotype: a cozy little dome constructed of snow with a short tunnel for an entry. French, a co-creator of Pack, Paddle and Ski, a Rochester area outdoor adventure company, says he's made "tons" of the structures over the past few decades as a guide. Building the perfect igloo takes some practice, but French agreed to give us the streamlined version for beginners.
For starters, he says, you need to find some good snow. If you're not in the Arctic, that means stomping the snow down until you've turned it into what French describes as a "quarry" for compact snow blocks.
Once you're satisfied with your quarry, use a saw to cut consistent-sized blocks out of it. If you don't have a snow saw (although really, who doesn't?) a carpenter's saw will do.
After you've finished cutting your blocks, says French, stack them one high in a perfect circle. The larger the circle, the longer it will take and the tougher it will be to build. For beginners, French recommends a circle about five feet in diameter.
Next --- and this is the tricky part --- saw through the blocks that form the circle, beginning at ground level and finishing one block high. The result will be a slowly ascending circular ramp of snow.
Now the hard part's over. Construct the rest of your igloo by stacking the remaining blocks on top of the ramp, building upwards and inwards in a spiral.
The two main mistakes beginners make, says French, is accepting bad blocks and not giving the structure enough inward lean. That's what gives the structure its stability, he says.
Once you've mastered the basics you can experiment by adding fancy touches. Try installing a window made of ice or making a few igloos and connecting them with tunnels, French suggests.
Fancy or not, the structure you've just built could serve as a more than adequate shelter during the winter months.
"I spent a whole winter sleeping in one" in YellowstoneNational Park, says French, who calls igloos "toasty." Of course, he admits, "toasty" is a relative term; since igloos are made of snow they never really get above freezing. But if it's 20 degrees below zero outside, suddenly 25 above looks nice and warm.
Igloos also get "extremely quiet," says French, recounting a time where he and his fellow tentmates dug out their camping companions in the middle of a blizzard. His companions, camping inside an igloo, had no idea the storm was going on: "In the igloo it was dead quiet," he says.
Even if you don't plan on living in one for a winter, an igloo can still be a fun addition to the backyard.
For a more detailed set of instructions check out the latest outdoor newsletter from Footprint Press, publishers of Rich and Sue Freeman's popular local outdoor guides at www.footprintpress.com/Newsletters/newsletter62.htm.
Want hands-on instruction? You can attend a Pack, Paddle and Ski class on Saturday, January 14, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Harriet Spencer Park in Honeoye. The cost is $69 per adult and $49 per child and includes tools and lunch. 585-346-5597 www.packpaddleski.com.