Much more than a snow fort

MARQUETTE – Think of a quinzee as the longer-lasting snow fort you made as a kid, which was fun to make but rarely had a life span of more than a day or two before another kid knocked it down.

MooseWood Nature Center and Northern Michigan University have been teaching the fine art of quinzee-making, with this winter providing plenty of raw material for the structures.

What is a quinzee, or quinzhee (the alternative spelling)?

“It’s meant to be a temporary snow shelter,” said Andrew Bek, MooseWood executive director. “It’s not an igloo.”

The Athabascan Native Americans of Alaska perfected the quinzee, but outdoors enthusiasts who want to stay warm in cold weather make them as well.

A snow fort – depending upon the enterprising kid who made it – probably was nothing more than a wall of snow. An igloo, on the other hand, typically is made of hard snow blocks.

A quinzee is somewhere between the makeshift snow fort and the more permanent igloo.

“It’s really easy to build,” Bek said of the quinzee.

Bek said the first step involves piling snow in a heap and letting it sit. Then a doorway can be dug out, with the snow then being hollowed out from the inside.

(This might not be easy for the claustrophobic. However, in case the structure collapses, Bek had this safety tip: “You should always have someone with you.”)

Bek uses an “e-tool,” or entrenching tool, to carve a quinzee.

“It’s a piece of military hardware,” he explained. “It works great for this.”

Making a quinzee also is a prime winter activity, especially for someone with a snow blower, Bek said, because all a person has to do is hollow out the snow bank.

The quinzees in the field by MooseWood were built by students in Immerse, a science program for home-schooled kids run at the nature center. The quinzees were constructed during the Feb. 13-15 Winter Carnival, taking only three hours to build.

In fact, quinzee-making at MooseWood was taken to the next level, with a piece of lake ice used as a window.

Not every quinzee needs this amenity. But, as with many skills, practice helps.

“The more you do it, the easier it gets,” Bek said.

Once the quinzee-builder gets inside the structure, that could make for a serene, if not spiritual, experience.

“It’s almost silent in there,” Bek said. “You can hear your heart beating.”

Lindsay Bean, an adjunct instructor in NMU’s Outdoor Recreation Leadership and Management program, led a Jan. 2-10 course, RE 346 Wilderness Stewardship, near Tahquamenon Falls State Park.

And if anyone needs reminding, it’s been pretty cold this winter, and that stretch in January was particularly frigid.

“Quinzees are useful because of the insulating properties of snow,” Bean said.

Tents or other shelters made from fabric, including nylon, are thin and don’t hold in a lot of heat, she pointed out. Tents also tend to be cramped, with drafting and condensation collecting in them.

“When condensation collects inside tent walls, it freezes, and then when you move around inside or the wind blows, it essentially snows inside the tent,” Bean said.

That’s not what a camper wants in cold weather.

Quinzees, on the other hand, can be built big enough for several people to move comfortably and sleep without touching the walls or ceiling, Bean said.

“Because the snow walls are generally a little over a foot thick, they block wind, sound and most light,” Bean said. “Therefore, they are quiet and cozy. I have definitely overslept in a quinzee because I didn’t realize it was light out.”

Bean said once a snow pile is made, there should be at least a one-hour wait so the snow crystals have to rearrange themselves in their new configuration. After all, they’re forming new bonds to the nearby crystals, which is called “sintering,” Bean said.

A tap or two with a shovel all the way around the quinzee will help ensure there are no big air pockets, Bean said. Also, sticks can be put in the sides to show how far to hollow out the snow, with walls optimally being 16 to 18 inches thick.

Bean cautioned against leaving the top too heavy, which can result in a collapse. Also, she said the snow has to be completely set because settling is common.

“This is a terrifying moment when a weak layer of snow somewhere near the ground gives way and the whole shell moves a couple of inches,” Bean said.

An even excavation will allow the quinzee to withstand this shift, she said.

Bean also recommended that after the digging is finished, some snow can be used to make a raised floor.

“I like to carve an entryway, so that I can come inside, sit down an then take off my boots,” Bean said. “Luxury compared to a tent.”

Not everyone will need to make quinzees to bivouac when caught in a blizzard. However, making quinzees can be just plain enjoyable, bringing back the snow fort-buildng days of yore.

“You can sleep in them,” Bek said. “They’re very comfortable and they’re just fun to make. It’s a good, healthy, outdoor thing. And you don’t have to be an engineer.”