Igloos this year have enjoyed a burst of popularity in the Midwest. Small temporary structures emerged in 2020 as a creative but logical response to pandemic social-distancing guidelines that limit indoor dining and drinking.
Today’s commercial igloos derive from the structures originally designed by indigenous people living in the Arctic, who made use of the available material — snow — to build shelter.
In past years, I had imagined igloos only as those snow shelters of the Inuit, winter yard projects for kids in the pre-video-game era, or insulated boxes in which people store Coors and Dr. Pepper.
But COVID-19 and social distancing led to the reimagining of the domed igloo into a plastic shell wrapped around a lattice of sticks in which a small group can imbibe and/or eat while relatively protected from the exhalations of possibly infected fellow human beings.
Businesses across northwest Lower Michigan have installed small temporary shelters, either igloos or tents, so they can serve customers during these interesting times. Robby’s Mexican & Spanish Cuisine and West Bay Beach, A Delamar Resort, are among local restaurants that offer dining in the socially distanced structures. Chateau Chantal, Traverse City Whiskey, and Iron Fish Distillery are among businesses that offer outdoor enclosures for on-site consumption.
Hop Lot Brewing Co. in Suttons Bay began offering winter igloo seating a couple of years ago, long before the pandemic began. Back then, the owners of Hop Lot installed its vinyl-over-PVC pipe igloos as novelty additional seating.
With cold weather upon us and indoor dining still limited, igloos or tents for small groups are a virtual necessity. State limitations on indoor dining generally have allowed small-group dining in separate outdoor structures.
In Michigan, igloos used to be just whimsical playthings. I remember several winters as a child when my siblings and I shared fun times making igloos in our yard.
We’d wait until conditions were right. This involved gauging the accumulated depth of snow. The most important factor, though, was the correct combination of the snow’s moisture content and the ambient temperature. While waiting for that to happen, we just got into other mischief until, usually sometime in January or February, we noticed that the white stuff under our boots was what we called “packing snow.”
That meant that it was just right for making snowballs that held their shape when being thrown but exploded at their destination with the correct combination of harmless impact and satisfying fragmentation. If you hit a tree trunk with enough force, half the snowball could end up stuck to the bark for days.
Packing snow also was the only ingredient needed to build an igloo.
Each of us would scoop up a handful of snow, pack it into a snowball, push it down into the snow and begin rolling it along the ground. If the snow consistency was correct, the ball would grow as it rolled. We would guide our individual creations toward a central location, then wrestle them toward each other until they touched.
The process was repeated until we had an almost-complete circle about six feet in diameter. Then we’d make more big snowballs in progressively smaller sizes, stacking them layer atop layer, curving the walls inward. Eventually, an igloo-like shape would appear. We always were careful to form the classic entry tunnel we’d seen in pictures of real igloos.
Setting the snow capstone to seal the center of the roof was a three-person job, our big brother outside to lay a sheet of crusty snow over the hole and my sister and I inside to try and prevent collapse. If we could find a suitable piece of ice on a nearby pond, we’d use that instead to create a skylight.
Our masterpiece of architecture complete, we’d stand back to admire the lumpy, misshapen heap of snow and congratulate ourselves on the successful completion of a major building project. Then all three of us would crawl inside and look at each other for perhaps a minute. Then my sister, coming to her senses, would retire to enjoy the intelligent alternative of dry clothes, a blanket and a mug of hot cocoa. My brother would last awhile longer before he also would abandon the cold Michigan winter.
Frequently I would end up alone huddled inside the igloo, thinking about my wild, wild life. I vaguely recall watching my frosty breath linger in front of my face, then studying the many imperfections of the interior snow masonry. Then I’d realize my arms and legs were frozen and begin thinking about logical alternatives to squatting alone in a dark cave of snow. I’d tough it out inside the igloo until I ran out of things to think about, then I, too, would stumble back into the house.
Each subsequent day after school, I’d crawl back inside for a moment of quiet reflection, sometimes joined by a sibling or two. But the visits grew less exciting until the igloo just huddled out there, abandoned and forgotten in the midwinter darkness.
Our igloos typically survived a week or two before succumbing to a thaw. They faded away without a tear from any of us.
Like everyone else, I am more than ready for the coronavirus to fade away. This been a cold, dark, introspective year. Many Americans have shed tears for lost loved ones during this pandemic.
My home is much warmer than those igloos of my childhood. It’s brighter and roomier and has WiFi. But I’m anxious for the pandemic to melt away. I want to crawl out of my house and enjoy the world.