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How to Build an Igloo

How to Build an Igloo
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Illustrations by Gil Martinez
Illustrations by Gil Martinez

Have you ever wondered how to build an igloo? Dr. Norbert Yankielun shares the importance of “the appropriate snow for the appropriate shelter,” tips on technique, a small village of surprisingly elegant igloos, block shelters, slab shelters, and snow caves rises in gleaming white around us.

It’s a perfect winter day in the Upper Valley–clear, bright, cold but windless–and I’m inside an igloo. It’s nice. The muffled sounds of shouts and laughter filter in from outside, while sunlight works through the blocks of snow in a greenish-blue glow. And, although it’s not exactly toasty, it’s comfy enough that there’s a twinge of disappointment when a door is finally cut into the dome’s bottom (I’ve helped finish the structure from the inside), and it’s time to scuttle out and let others have their turn. “Others” being the large crowd of kids and their grown-ups that have come for the annual igloo-building event at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, Vermont.

The workshop is led by engineer Norbert E. Yankielun, D.E., who, as author of How to Build an Igloo: And Other Snow Shelters (W.W. Norton, 2007; $15.95), has literally written the book on constructing with the white stuff. It’s his 17th year leading the igloo build, but Dr. Yankielun’s enthusiasm is still fresh and infectious. As he stresses the importance of “the appropriate snow for the appropriate shelter,” encourages “good sharing,” and offers tips on technique, a small village of surprisingly elegant igloos, block shelters, slab shelters, and snow caves rises in gleaming white around us.

The annual igloo workshop is just one of many events offered every week by the Montshire, a family treasure nestled alongside the Connecticut River. Housed in a building that is itself an exhibit–with a see-through elevator shaft, an outer “wind wall” that makes air patterns visible, and exposed beams and timbers offering a view into its construction–the museum takes full advantage of its gorgeous country setting to educate and entertain.

Three floors of interactive exhibits engage visitors in learning about the flora and fauna of the Connecticut River watershed, not to mention the basic scientific principles behind, among other things, trajectory, rhythm, flow, and light. Exhibits range from the high-tech, including a video camera with which visitors can track a teeming colony of leafcutter ants, to the beautifully simple, such as the ball chain suspended from a bicycle rim. (Tug on the chain and it snakes and coils to demonstrate wave formation.)

Nature lovers may watch as young salmon swim against an in-house current, and thrillseekers may become intimately acquainted with centrifugal force on the human centrifuge (think Disney teacup). Tired of manipulating the wind to form drifts at the Aeolian Landscape? Sit yourself in front of a heat-seeking camera and watch your personal hot spots projected onscreen. Perfected your knowledge of various local frog sounds? There’s a whole room devoted to blowing bubbles! In the end, just like the strange and wonderful interior of an igloo, the Montshire reveals the natural world to be an extraordinary place.

MONTSHIRE MUSEUM OF SCIENCE. 1 Montshire Road, Norwich, VT. 802-649-2200; Open daily 10-5. The 2012 igloo-building day is scheduled for February 25.

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Updated Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

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