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How we survived a subzero night in a snow shelter

Posted March 03, 2015, at 5:53 a.m.
Last modified March 03, 2015, at 6:46 p.m.

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UNITY, Maine — Our night in a snow cave hadn’t even begun — heck, the cave itself hadn’t yet been shoveled out — when the first potential snag became apparent.

“The snow is so fluffy, it’s got me a little worried,” adjunct instructor Dianne Kopec told me and my BDN colleague, Brian Feulner, when we met in her classroom at Unity College.

Kopec’s wildlife ecology students had been outside that morning, she explained. They’d gathered up snow and analyzed it to make sure it possessed the qualities needed to construct a safe snow shelter, or quinzhee. The students collected a specific volume of snow, which was then weighed to determine the density of the snow.

And those numbers? They weren’t quite adding up.

“The density factors are off by a magnitude of 10,” she said. “[The roof] might fall on your head.”

Kopec promised that before she stuck Feulner and me in the quinzhee we planned to help build, her students would sample the snow again, and assure us that the snow cave wouldn’t turn into a snow grave during the night.

“But we’ll leave a shovel inside for you,” Kopec said, grinning.

As it turned out, the shovel wasn’t necessary: After testing the snow a second time, the students determined that a decimal point had likely been misplaced originally. The snow was denser than the numbers initially indicated. And in snow cave-building, a simple decimal point can mean the difference between snug-as-a-bug and … well … we won’t go there.

Do you want to build a snow cave?

Feulner and I had been invited to Unity College after I’d let slip that BDN editors thought sticking their outdoor editor — me — in a snowbank for a night sounded like a fine idea. Her students, it turned out, were studying quinzhee-building, and would do much of the heavy lifting, shoveling and engineering work.

Feulner and I? We’d document the event, pitch in where we could, and (eventually) sleep. Safely. Soundly.

That, at least, was the plan.

About 40 students, including some from an environmental journalism class, gathered on the college green Thursday morning and proceeded to create a snow pile that was about 8 feet tall and 20 feet wide.

After we arrived around noon, students got to work on the construction part of the project.

Elle Gilchrist, a freshman from Monroe, Connecticut, was in charge of gathering sticks. Those sticks, which were trimmed from trees in a nearby stand of woods, are pretty important in quinzhee-building.

“We stick them about a foot in, all over the top of the quinzhee,” Gilchrist explained. “[The pile of snow] sort of looks like a porcupine. We do that to gauge how deep we’re going to dig on the inside.”

It works like this: The diggers on the inside chisel away snow until they start striking sticks. When they do, it means the dome is about 12 inches thick. That, we learned, was ideal.

It didn’t take long before we learned that a small problem had arrived. Make that a huge problem.

The biggest dog you’ve ever seen, a great Dane named Moby, had tromped across campus with his owner to check out the bustling scene. Moby wanted to play. Moby wanted to help.

And Moby loved sticks.

For a short time, Moby plucked those sticks out of buckets as quickly as the students could place them in the snow pile. Eventually, freshman Nicole Velozo of Fall River, Massachusetts, kept the pooch occupied as the rest of her classmates worked.

A flat roof won’t work

The word “dome” is also important in snow shelter construction.

“We have to maintain the dome shape,” Kopec stressed to the assembled diggers. “We don’t want a flat roof, because that will encourage collapse. Which we don’t want to encourage.”

No, we don’t. Whether a shovel is left inside or not.

To some of us (including at least one of the journalists), the mere thought of “collapse” was intimidating. Feulner, who calls himself a human “steam shovel,” took regular shifts inside the shelter, which someone eventually named ‘Quinzhee Jones.’” Others weren’t so eager to crawl under tons of snow. Like me. And also like Bryanna Quigley-McCarty of Adrian, Michigan.

“Pull me out,” Quigley-McCarty yelled just seconds after burrowing into the cave.

Classmates thought she may have had snow fall down her neck, but the reason for her alarm was much simpler.

“I don’t like it,” she said. “Maybe after [the hole] is bigger, I’ll go in.”

Unity College President Stephen Mulkey visited the quinzhee shortly before construction wrapped up and explained that the project, while fun for students, had much deeper meaning.

“We try to add things like physics — there is physics in this — and cultural understanding, sociology, all kinds of aspects that can be developed into this device as a teaching and learning tool,” Mulkey said.

The quinzhee is of Athabaskan origin, Kopec explained, and is one of several snow structures used by native populations in Alaska. Winter campers crawl down through an angled entrance into the hollowed-out area, and snow bunks are constructed above floor level.

Heat rises. Cold air falls. And a trough below the bunks is where the coldest air stays.

The result, theoretically, is that campers remain snug on their bunks, as long as they do a few simple things. First, they shouldn’t lie directly on the snow. Second, they ought to have adequate sleeping bags. And third, they ought to make sure to close up the entrance with a big block of snow so that the coldest air stays outside.

“The changes in snow morphology that occur within the quinzhee also occur in the snowpack itself,” said Kopec, explaining the lesson that students are learning. “So by building the quinzhee we’re demonstrating to the students how the snow changes after it falls and how another environment is created that helps the animals survive the winter.”

A good night’s sleep

Feulner and I succeeded on two of those three fronts. Each of us slept on a cushion of straw, covered by a blanket and a sleeping pad. And each of us used the sleeping-bag-inside-a-sleeping-bag method that had been suggested.

As far as making sure the cold outside air stayed out? Well, I’ll blame our failure on my camping partner.

Remarkably, it really didn’t matter. Kopec and her class fixed precise temperature data loggers inside the quinzhee at different levels — floor, bunk and ground — and also left one outside to monitor the temperature. Those gauges took readings every five minutes throughout the night.

And while it got as low as 4 below outside, we were a nearly toasty 14 above in our cozy(ish) shelter for much of the night.

That’s not to say that our boots didn’t freeze overnight. And that’s not to say that we lingered in the cave after we awoke the next morning.

It is, however, safe to say that no fingers and toes were lost. I didn’t suffer any panic attacks in the surprisingly roomy cave. And one of us, at least, slept very well.

“You snore like a big grizzly bear,” Feulner told me the next day, admitting that he may have enjoyed better nights of sleep in warmer accomodations in his life.

Each of us agreed, however, that it was an adventure worth experiencing.

And most importantly, neither of us needed to look for the escape shovel in the middle of the night.

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