Illustration by Ryan Miller.


It is that I remember winters past imperfectly, somehow the blizzards were most numerous, the snow deeper, the nights colder and the car batteries were all six volt. The problem is I remember the igloos were too perfect. Not boy-built igloos that teetered and sagged and threatened to bury any kid underneath a pile of snow, but pristine Inuit precision, most excellent igloos that never teetered.

It was colder then, this how I remember, the snow came often and lay thick and for reasons I no longer recollect it was comforting. Remembering lies a lot, especially about winter for we do truly know if winter were put on a ballot it would be defeated. People don’t vote for discomfort or austerity. Winter on the ballot would be right up there with Harold Stassen, a nice enough man.

I remember igloos that we built perfect, perfect igloos of snow that looked just like those in the pictures. Every good Wisconsin kid once knew instinctively how to build igloos. How to judge the qualities of snow, the just-right snow for igloos. Surprisingly it was quite a science for perfect igloo snow is snow that has been frightfully abused. Igloo snow is best when it is wind-driven and smashed, broken to bits, ruined snow, piled in a convenient snowdrift. What arrived a perfect flake has been tumbled and shattered, the debris now piled shoulder high behind a box elder tree. You could determine high quality igloo snow by walking on it. Correct igloo snow is hard as an oak board. A dog can run on it, so can a kid, as for grown-ups, sometimes.

The igloo is a device everybody knows how to build including Buckminster Fuller, what a strange name, but then he was British with parents collectively guilty of child abuse for giving such a name to a kid. You could get killed outright by third grade with a name like Buckminster Fuller. Maybe Buckminster is alright by the time you’re 60 years old, even to have a distinguished sound, but yet to imagine a sober woman on the neighboring pillow in a provident mood leaning over and whispering “Buckminster, honey.”

Perfect igloo snow required the perfect igloo snow tool, to my memory a sheet of steel roofing served nicely. Snow shovels weren’t quite right, the plastic ones too slippery, but there was a cheap universal aluminum shovel that was fairly useless at shoveling snow if the very best at igloo snow. You can still find these shovels at auctions and rummage sales and they are invariably intact because nobody used them enough to actually wear them out. Sometimes a kid was lucky enough to have an igloo shovel stashed away in the back of the garage, hung on a specific and dedicated nail waiting the chance that igloo snow might occur.

In my recollection of famous winter we spent days building the perfect igloo, the sizing and shape of the snow blocks was intuitive to us, call it Wisconsin genetics. That exacting and correct angle to gain the arch of the igloo dome. A true igloo artist could do this free hand, block after block sliced out of the snow with that aluminum shovel. The core ingredient was to cut snow blocks out of the same quarry hole subsequently occupied by the igloo, in essence this cut the building time in half. The farther down you go the less you have to build on top.

This as it turned out was a contrary and ready method to defeat the whole igloo Buckminster geodome business, just dig a hole and cover it with potato sacks. To wonder why the Inuit hadn’t thought of this in the first place, if perhaps that potato bags might have been in short supply, hard to imagine as that is. They were not however in short supply in my childhood if I occasionally did wish not only they were in short supply but absent altogether.

Technically the perfect Buckminster igloo requires no support structure during construction, but this is for Leonardo. An average kid found a few boards and miscellaneous 2x4s did go a long ways in simplifying the construction of the perfect Inuit igloo. The mathematical precision of the cut snow block could be ignored entirely, rather than blocks cut to Notre Dame specification, crude rectangles served the purpose, held in place by an assortment of old boards. Blocks that when set in place were given a light spray from a garden sprinkler, sufficed to locate the block and freeze the lot into a one-piece igloo. Maybe not Buckminster style, if to guess about four times the efficiency of dimensional precision. Make that five times. End result, one nearly almost genuine close enough, approximate, sorta, vaguely, ballpark Inuit igloo. The construction period neatly fit between morning chores and evening.

The prevalent theory is that an igloo can be heated with a single candle. My field test of this theory suggests the theory is off by a couple hundred candle power unless by warm they mean something more than three layers of flannel shirts. One sterling memorable night of my childhood was spent in an almost original igloo, it was without challenge the longest night of my life. I have never before or since been so inured to the resident warmth of a cow barn as subsequent to that night in a nearly almost genuine igloo, powered by one candle, including the cooking of the main course. Make that thawing of the main course.

Years after when Farley Mowat wrote that the Inuit way of life was dying out in the Northwest Territories, the result of snowmobiles replacing the dog sleds, of tarpaper shacks replacing igloos…somewhere down deep inside was the ghost of a child rejoicing, that sleeping in a cow barn on a Wisconsin winter night wasn’t half as bad as the night in the igloo, even without the candle.