IN THE SNOW: Building a quinzee (and making more soup, of course)


Following my last post about enjoying the winter – and following a promise I made to CG members some months back – the sudden arrival of snow on Saturday night was a good opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. So while the rest of the capital slowed to a standstill, we got to work building a quinzee.

A quinzee is a type of emergency snow shelter, designed to help keep someone out of the wind and cold (should they be caught out in the snowy open), basically involving pilling up snow and then hollowing it out. If that sounds ridiculously simple, it is easier said than done. For a start, you have a shovel a pile of snow at least four feet tall, and the more snow you shovel onto the pile the further you then have to walk to get some more and carry it back. Any person who has done any kind of sustained shoveling or digging work will know that it is one of those jobs from which you can quickly tell the doers from the talkers. Also, you need to pile the snow reasonably lightly, without packing it down which would create layers within the snow that weaken the overall structure. This can be done by literally throwing the snow onto the pile, which takes yet more shoveling action. Instead of piling snow from the ground up, it is useful to find a bulky item like a rucksack or (in our case) some buckets that you bury under the pile, saving you a lot of shoveling and later digging, and giving you a central space to build on.

Once you have built a suitably big pile of snow you need to let it sit for a few hours, allowing the snow to settle and crystalize together (if you bury your rucksack, make sure you take out your essentials first). For us at CG it was a good time to boil some water in the rocket stove and prepare some soup, using the cabbage leaves from the garden and adding some carrots and parsnips that Tim had kindly brought along. The snow had caused all of the netting to collapse onto the crops, so we had to delicately remove the nets without damaging the plants. In the case of the cabbage, however, it was just a case of ripping off the nets before ripping off the leaves for the pot. Having planted these cabbages in October, it was about time we used them. We drank a little blueberry gin to warm us up before eating the delicious and hearty soup. Then, it was finally time to finish the shelter.

Tim tries out the makeshift snow shelter


We dug our entrance into the snow pile until reaching the buried buckets, then gently digging around them until they could be removed without collapsing the whole structure. Tim then started digging out the inside space, being careful not to pierce right through the wall. Ideally one needs to plant sticks all over the snow pile, pushing them in by about a foot, allowing the person hollowing it out to know the thickness of the wall, stopping when they reach the end of a stick. With the snow available we had only managed to build a small pile, so we didn’t bother with the sticks, only aiming to create some kind of space to know it works. Call it a test-run for the real thing.

The results, though not perfect, were surprisingly good. The space in the shelter was slightly too small for an adult (good for a child or dog, though), and yet it still offered some shelter, feeling surprisingly warm inside. We then completed the quinzee with makeshift door, made from a disc of ice we took out of the rain barrel. It should be noted that if used in such a way, the quinzee would require a separate air hole added to the top or side opposite the entrance, unless you really want to find out how airtight (and deadly) snow can be.

And then it’s my turn to try it

It may not look like much more than a pile of snow, but we were proud of our quinzee, especially after working in the cold and wet to build it. There is something so real, so great about working in the snow; while so many people take refuge indoors, it felt good to not only work in the cold and snowy outdoors but also to make soup in the middle of it all just to make it look easy.

Adding a see-through door just to be flash

It is easy, too, once you know how. All you need is a little bit of knowledge, a little bit of resilience, and the will to do it. Just because the snow prevents us from gardening doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty more to learn in the outdoors. I’ve long wanted to build a decent sized quinzee, and thanks to the space in the garden and the kind help of fellow CG members I’ve finally had my wish. The best reward of all is the knowledge of a day well spent, doing something different and memorable, learning something new and burning energy doing it. I shall sleep well tonight . . . in my bed, that is, not in the quinzee.


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