BEMIDJI, Minn. — In the midst of the season’s frigid temperatures, sub-zero wind chills and seemingly never-ending snowstorms, many Bemidjians might want to hibernate indoors for the next couple of months and wait out the winter.
Others, like the Thorsgard family, instead chose to embrace the harsh Minnesota winter by carrying on a unique family tradition — igloo making.
Tragg Thorsgard, his two younger brothers, Haakan and Brekt, and his father, Eric, braved the cold for four afternoons in late December and early January to create a 6-foot tall, 12-foot wide igloo in the backyard of their Bemidji home.
The family’s igloo-making hobby began about 14 years ago when Tragg, the oldest son, was a young child.
“My dad built one with us years ago,” Tragg said. “Every couple of years since then we’ve built one.”
While Tragg isn’t exactly sure what prompted the start of the tradition, he said his father has always enjoyed trying new outdoor activities with his children.
“My dad likes crazy outdoor stuff,” Tragg said. “He’s always been adventurous, and he likes inventing and making stuff.”
Eric’s love for inventing and his years of igloo-making inspired him to create a device that helps stabilize snow blocks while the igloo is being built.
“We have this PVC pipe holder that will hold (snow) blocks while you go get the next block as (the igloo) starts to dome in,” Tragg explained. “So the blocks won’t fall while you go get the next one.”
The snow block-holding contraption, Tragg said, was a contender in the annual Northwest Minnesota IDEA competition several years ago, a contest that offers training, coaching and funds to area entrepreneurs. Tragg said that while his father’s invention impressively made it to the final round, it didn’t end up winning the competition.
He added that one possible issue with launching the invention into mainstream success is that igloo-building is a fairly small market.
“It’s a cool idea for those who wish to build igloos,” Tragg said with a laugh. “But, there’s nobody that wants to build an igloo, so there’s nobody that will buy this.”
‘Perfecting the art’
For Tragg, igloo-making is a highly technical process that his family has adapted throughout the years to make it more efficient. The most important part, Tragg said, is producing the perfect snow consistency to cut blocks out of.
“The hard part is getting blocks of snow that are hard enough that you can lift them, move them around and cut them into shapes without them falling apart,” he explained.
Fortunately, the Thorsgards have it down to a science, determining through trial and error that the best way to create dense, igloo-making snow is to use a snowblower.
“If you put a snowblower straight up, it launches all the snow really high in the air and then it comes down heavy,” Tragg said. “It just packs the snow really good.”
Once the snowblower has created a deep layer of tightly-packed snow, the family uses handsaws to slice the solid snow into large slabs. Each block for the base of the igloo is cut to about 16 inches thick, and blocks for the top of the dome are cut slighter thinner, about 9-10 inches thick.
From there, it’s all about manual labor.
“It’s a couple people cutting blocks out of the snow and bringing them over, and a couple people fitting and shaping them,” Tragg said. “They’re really heavy.”
After finishing constructing the igloo, the family decided to give up their warm beds for a night to sleep inside their creation. Seven family members packed into the igloo Tuesday night, equipped with sleeping bags, pillows and blankets.
Sleeping in the igloo is a tradition that the family typically partakes in just once a season.
“One night we usually camp out there and that’s kind of good enough,” Tragg said with a laugh.
The dense snow blocks create a layer of insulation that causes the interior temperature of the igloo to rise. If the temperature outside is -10 degrees, Tragg estimated, the temperature inside the igloo can reach 25-35 degrees.
“I wasn’t cold,” Tragg said about his night in the igloo. “I have a nice sleeping bag, and there’s a bazillion blankets in there.”
Body heat also plays a big factor in the interior warmth of the igloo, Tragg said. If people are moving around and creating more body heat, it could be even warmer inside the structure.
When the Thorsgards aren’t using the igloo to take a long winter’s nap, Tragg said his younger siblings play in it throughout the season.
“It’s kind of nice to have for the winter because the kids can play in there with their friends. If we kick them outside to go sledding at least they’d have shelter," Tragg joked with a laugh.
The family’s dogs like spending time in the igloo just as much, if not more, than the children do.
“Every time I call them, they run out from the igloo,” Trag said about the dogs. “Every time we put them outside they go hang out in there.”
The Thorsgard tradition of igloo-making is something that Tragg hopes the family can continue improving on in years to come.
“There’s a lot of trial and error,” Tragg said. “We’re pretty close to perfecting the art of igloo-making.”