066 | Life Lessons from Building an Igloo

I decided to build an igloo. In my head I thought this would be a fun family project. This episode I will share the reality of my winter adventure building an igloo and several important life lessons that came with it.

As many of you know the Midwest is the land of cold and snow the months of January and February.  I love the midwest and all 4 seasons.  Typically we spend most of Winter on our skis checking out the midwest version of mountains on our downhill skis or some other frozen treasures.  However given that my daughter had 2 broken arms it seemed our adventures might need to be more subdued this winter so I decided to build an igloo.  In my head I thought this would be a fun family project.  I thought I would use this episode to share the reality of my winter adventure of building an igloo and several important life lessons that came with it.  

First this will be an episode where you will want to jump over to the episode website at some point to see the blog post with pictures.  It will help give context to the building process.  I found how to build an igloo from a youtube video in the later part of winter 2021 but by the time I had all the stuff the weather warmed up and I realized I was doing everything wrong.   I used those lessons to shape what I learned and have better success (read more than 12 blocks of ice) in building an igloo.  

  1. Bigger is not always better – size of the igloo, blocks of ice, too much mortar.  When I saw the video of igloo it had several rooms and youtube makes everything seem so simple.  Last year I started with pans that were too small.  I ordered bigger pans this year but they weren’t deep enough.  The ideal size pans are 9×13 half size disposable baking pans (Note Link to pans on Amazon).  They should be filled ⅔ full with water.  I had my vision set on making an igloo big enough that we could either eat or sleep in it.  I am tall, almost 6’ so I also didn’t want to be getting in and out to be a challenge through the doorway. This turned out to be much larger than needed and ultimately making the project a challenge to complete. 
  1. Geometry matters To create the initial pattern I grabbed a cross country ski pole to be my protractor and mark the circle.  My son put his foot through the handle of the ski pole in the center and I walked along the tip, shuffling my feet to mark the full circle.  Let me remind you that a 5’ radius is only half the diameter which meant I was creating a 10’ wide igloo.  Spoiler alert, I did not fully finish the igloo before it melted, but given how big I made it, I am not sure how I would have finalized the top.  I also should not that having angled pans of ice were helpful it wasn’t as big of a deal as I imagined it would be.  Which I’ll come back to in an upcoming lesson.  However, making a round object with square blocks does take some creative maneuvering and I am not macgyver.  The trick was using broken pieces and staggering the blocks as much as possible.  I loved math as a kid and this project seemed like the best challenge to fit pieces together and have something come to life in ways you didn’t expect.  While not 100% relevant to detailed geometry lessons, it got my wheels turning about how might we teach our kids differently using experiences like this to teach traditional education concepts.  
  1. Color makes everything more fun.  $1 washable paint from the Dollar Store worked much better than food coloring.  Not only was it cheaper it washed off.  It truly was the color of the ice that made me smile when I walked outside each day.  I strongly encourage you to add a pop of color to your life.  You might be surprised how much you notice. 
  1. There are many elements outside of your control The most critical factor to my success was temperature and time.  The best time to work on the igloo was after 6:30 PM when the sun set and the temperatures dropped.  It also required consistent days below 32 which start and stopped a lot of my momentum.  Because we were having challenges with the pans freezing to the ground, my husband created a freezing station.  4 construction horses and 6 8’ 2×4 were the best solution to house and freeze roughly 20 pans of ice each night. We created the ice and the majority of the igloo in a shaded side (which would be the north side of the garage) to protect it from as much sun as possible.  However if temps didn’t stay low enough during the day, we’d lose and entire day and round of ice making.  We strategized ways to make more ice faster, but without a factory sized freezer, this was just one aspect we could scale for greater or faster production.  
  1. Ice can break in ways you don’t plan We worked hard for each pan of ice. It was slightly devastating when they would break coming out of the pan, or if one would slide while you were laying the blocks to create the walls.  Sometimes we needed to intentionally break ice to fit in small spaces or reinforce an area that is not 90 degrees.  We tried to make this methodical, my husband even attempted to cut a block of ice with a jigsaw- he could not cut through it which thoroughly surprised us.  Maybe TMI, but there were times when an ice block broke and it felt like I dropped a bottle of breast milk.  You worked so hard to get that block of ice what you needed it to be only to lose it.  I was pretty scrappy and picked up and repurposed what pieces I could.  Smaller pieces were also used as carving stones to crack away at bumps or major impurities to make the blocks smoother and easier to meld together.  
  1. Never underestimate the power of a LIttle snow and water.  The most awe-inspiring aspect of this process was making and attaching the blocks of ice together with snow-water slush.  The consistency of shave ice if you are familiar with the Hawaiian slush consistency.  On a cold night the blocks would freeze into place almost effortlessly and with small handfuls of the mortar.  To my point earlier, more is not better.  After years of working alongside my husband tiling I ran my mittens over the seems to smooth out each joint and remove excess mortar.  Everytime I tried to fix a block that was slipping with more mortar, it actually turned out worse.  Usually the problem was the ice was too slippery or wet yet, I needed to wait a little longer to let the ice firm up or let the outer edge be completely frozen.  
  1. Melting reinforces the structure overall.  My assumption going into this was that the mortar would melt first and the blocks would become unstable and topple.  The opposite was actually true.  When the structure warmed up the blocks of ice melted and dripped down over the layers below reinforcing the bottom layers each day.  A great lesson for life, sometimes when we feel like we are falling apart we are simply reinforcing our foundation.  
  1. Ideal conditions are the exception not the norm Ideal conditions for me were cold, but not windy.  Enough fluffy snow to make mortar mixed with water.  I think over the 60-day project I had 3 ideal days.  I worked on the project almost every day.  I had 2 weekends that we were gone and the final weekend while we were gone led to the igloo’s demise.  Other days I did not work on it were because the weather was actually too warm, but I didn’t complain about that.  As in life, we always hope things will go according to plan, but they rarely do.  It will take longer than you think Always an optimist, Youtube made it look like the project was done in one snowstorm, or at best a few weeks.  I worked every day that I could and I still didn’t finish it.  As in life, what you see online is seldom the full story.  Given my points above out things like temperature being outside of your control, there is a cause and effect from warm weather and igloo building. 
  1. Many hands do not always make the work lighter As I alluded to in my intro, I thought with my daughter’s accident and the absence of other adventures this would be a fun family bonding project.  The rest of the family wasn’t as excited about this as I was.  My daughter didn’t have use of her hands, so she would sometimes wipe the excess mortar off the blocks, or stir the color into water to make the ice blocks, but there aren’t a lot of activities that many different people can do.  Often the kids would be off playing and exploring outside while I was building the igloo walls.  It was helpful when my husband would run out 5 gallon buckets of water from the tub to make the pans of ice, or be willing to get a ⅓ bucket of water to make more mortar.  On average I would go through 2 buckets of mortar each night.  The kids would sometimes help bring more snow to improve the consistency of the mortar if it got too wet.  Once the walls were up to chest height and we were working at a significant angle it was helpful to have someone hold the blocks of ice while the other slobbered on the mortar.  
  1. A project with a purpose is so much more fun. I am not a person that starts a project and has the tenacity to see it through.  It was late February when someone was complaining about the horrible winter we were having in Wisconsin and I really didn’t know if we lived in the same town.  I thought it was a delightful winter.  Every night we were playing outside. It was a fun routine after supper and before bed to sneak in at least an hour of time outside, and we could all see the progress we were making.  I said when I embarked on this project that I wanted to make people jealous that they didn’t live in the cold and have several friends from Florida ask if they could come up for the weekend.  Well, even though I didn’t have the grand prize igloo and the idyllic experience with lights inside illuminating the colors while we enjoyed a winter snack it was still worth doing it.  One the fateful day in February as Iggy rolled over while basking in the sun, my sons still enjoyed one last pleasure of crashing up the blocks of ice.  We eventually loaded up the big pieces in a sled and hauled them out the woods to add to the potential pool of water near our garage.  The colors of ice in the woods still brought us joy.  

As I am practicing how to slow down and enjoy the everyday adventures on the path to our next big experience, projects like these that take a few months are a fun way to offer experiences and purpose.  While we weren’t sitting in the magazine image igloo singing kumbya and drinking hot chocolate it was worth every ounce of doing, fixing and trying again.  Spending time outside in Winter in Wisconsin feels like an accomplishment I look forward to again next year.  Who knows, maybe we’ll even host an Ordinary Sherpa adventure family winter meet up and build igloos :)

As we look forward to spring all of my energy is in the final stretch of getting my book published.  Beyond Normal: A field guide to embracing adventure, exploring the wilderness, and designing and extraordinary life with kids will be available at the end of April.  If you are interested in stories and learning that made Ordinary Sherpa, want to support us in this additional chapter, or just want some behind the scenes into the book publishing process consider joining our book launch team at ordinarysherpa.com/read 

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