Log Cabin Chronicles

Royal Orr

On building snow forts
and avoiding quinsy


There's a drift that runs along the east slope of a hill in our pasture where the snow piles up at least four feet deep, blown in for miles, I imagine.

You can cut the hard-packed snow into solid blocks and stack them up as you dig down to the dried grass below. The walls go up really fast that way.

A couple of times I've tried to build a dome on top of the fort using igloo-building techniques. But getting that rising inward spiral of snow blocks to support its own weight and curve as it goes up, that's an art that I'm not even close to mastering.

So instead, I cheat and build a snow hut. It's nowhere near as elegant as an igloo, but then I'm nowhere near as elegant as your average Inuk.

Start your hut in a good-sized patch of snow that's at least two feet deep. A crew of friends helps at this stage because you need to shovel all that snow into a big circular pile at least six feet high and twelve feet across. The truly lazy (or ingenious) will be tempted to use a snow blower.

Let the stack of snow set for half an hour if it's really cold, longer if temperatures are mild. Then take a bunch of twigs and push them in about three inches deep all over the stack. The twigs tell you when to stop digging as you hollow out the centre.

If you're depending on one of these huts to keep you warm overnight, you want to build your entrance so it dips down below the surface of the base of snow and comes up into the hut. Personally, I find this kind of entrance almost sick-making it's so claustrophobic. I dig a big, wide entrance myself.

Dig out the insides, making sure that you get close to the tips of those twigs, especially above you. That's a lot of snow up there and you don't want it coming down on your head (or your face if you're sleeping inside). Carve a small air hole as big as your fist right at the top of the dome and you're done.

It's nice inside one of these constructions - surprisingly quiet and amazingly warm. In fact, you're tempted to build a big one and have a party in it. Okay, maybe that's just my own fantasy.

But what do you call your snowy abode? Years ago, I heard this method of snow construction described on the radio. I remembered that it had a funny name that started with "quin" or "quim" and ended with a long "e" sound.

I built one of these snow domes last weekend and told my seven-year-old that I thought it was called a "quimby." I figured that maybe it was named after some English snow-hut architect.

My son went to school and told his classmates about it in show-and-tell. Sue Bennett, who teaches computer skills at North Hatley Elementary, helpfully sent home a photocopy from a scouting manual describing this form of winter shelter. The manual identified it as a "quinzhee," which my son says she pronounced as QUIN-ZEE. It's an even odder name than what I remembered.

That sent me to the dictionary because I had a vague recollection that the word (or one that sounded like it) meant something else. Well sure enough, there is a word that's close -- "quinsy," which is an acute inflammation of the tonsils. I suspect there's a good chance you could end up with quinsy if you sleep overnight in a quinzhee.

Now, I wouldn't question the scouting organization on this one, but "quinzhee" isn't mentioned in any of my dictionaries, even the ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary, which you think would be up on terminology for buildings made of snow.

But there's certainly no "quimby" either, even in the dictionary of biography that I checked, although there was a fictional character named George St. John Quimby on CBC radio years ago, a plummy-voiced Brit who delivered a newscast made up of bizarre yet true news stories.

Anyway, thanks to Sue Bennett for setting me straight and my apologies to Mrs. Christiansen's Grade 1 class for leading them lexicographically astray.

Royal Orr is a writer and broadcaster living in Hatley, Quebec.

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