It’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.
Clad 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.
Traditionally, 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.
When 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.
As 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
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