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Shelter from the storm 

Winter skills

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

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

In This Guide...

  • Winter Guide 2006

    City Newspaper breaks it down for you
    In this year's guide to the winter season, we've focused on things to do. Much like the government's odd, grammatical anti-obesity campaign ("VERB: It's what you do"), City wants you to get out and get moving.

  • City's winter choices

    City's winter choice: dancing There are plenty of ways to raise your body temperature this winter and have some fun doing it (i.e. you don't have to use words like "cardio," "reps," or "ow") That's right, you should be dancing. Many local groups and venues offer dance nights in their genre of choice, often at low cost and with some sort of basic instruction.

  • Play

    Spanking new year, same old story: we all peer outside from the warmth of our homes for a couple weeks and then, realizing that winter ain't going anywhere anytime soon, concede that if we want to stave off cabin fever, we're going to have to make with the bulky coats and really unattractive boots. So when you finally achieve acceptance (the final stage of grief), there are a number of activities you can participate in to make the cold-weather months tolerable, and possibly even enjoyable.

  • Hear

    Yup, it's DVD, CD, and fireplace weather for the next few months. But if you live alone, you might get a little lonely.

  • Frozen in pictures

    Winter Guide photo contest
    Our inaugural Winter Guide photo contest has been a success. We had great response to our call for photos of winter in the Rochester area.

  • Listen

    Hear that? Because so many local organizations and institutions go all out planning them for this slow time of year, winter is a great time to attend lectures.

  • Celebrate

    The heartiest and most enterprising souls among us realize winter can be not only a time of fun, but a time of tourism! Why not get the people out of their huts and into the open, they reason, if only for a brief while?

  • Applaud

    Here's an outline to plan your ticket-foraging with. Scatter a few of these evenings through the season like little culture outposts and absorb some of the talent --- both local and bussed in --- at hand this season.

  • Look

    After some brief holiday downtime, local galleries and museums are back in full force. So you have an array of culture to choose from, if you're into that kind of thing.

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