As the frozen conditions improve, Kugluktuk High School students will engage in a fifth season of iglu building in the coming weeks.
Among the people dotting the snow-white landscape will be Grade 12 student Coral Newman, who learned the skills in previous years. She’s become so adept that she can build an iglu by herself.
“I go hunting a lot. It helps to know that I can rely on (natural) things around me and not just on what I have to bring,” she said of her iglu-building ability.
Those are the sorts of words that “warm up the blood” for Jorgen Bolt, who, along with his father Charlie, has been teaching iglu-building to the high school students for the past four years.
“I like when kids’ eyes light up when they learn something new, especially with our tradition,” Bolt said. “I like to pass on the knowledge.”
Bolt remembers going out on the land, starting around age eight or nine, and learning survival skills from his father: navigating by the moon and stars, hunting, and building shelters.
“He taught me how to go about selecting the proper snow for building iglus,” he recalled. “It has to be quite packed. It can’t be loose snow. It has to be consistent through for at least a good 18 to 24 inches. You can feel the layers from different storms… If you select the wrong snow and then the wind comes up, your iglu is just going to cave in.”
An experienced builder can complete a small iglu in 90 minutes to two hours, Bolt noted.
Based on experience, Newman said she knows that the base of the iglu has to be perfectly round and that every block of snow should face the centre of the iglu. Mistakes can be costly.
“The first time that I tried it, the base wasn’t round enough. To fix that, we took it apart, took off all the blocks, and made it more round than what it was,” she said.
Another important consideration is to avoid having the entrance to the iglu facing the prevailing winds because it will eventually get blocked by drifting snow, Bolt explained.
Traditionally, being able to construct a snow shelter was a requirement for young men, Bolt said.
“You have to be able to provide shelter for your family,” he said. “If you can’t do it, you’re not going to be able to survive in the cold winter… That’s just the way a young man was supposed to be brought up. He was supposed to be able to build an iglu and be able to hunt.”
Building an iglu in inclement weather once saved his dad’s life, Bolt said. Today, many Inuit carry canvas tents but it’s still valuable to know how to make a snow-block shelter around the tent in strong winds, said Bolt, who has been a wildlife guide for most of his life.
Haydn George, Kugluktuk High School’s principal, said the iglu-building program exists because of student demand.
“It started because of students wanting to become more proficient at one of their traditional Inuit skills,” George said, adding that hundreds of pupils have been involved over the years. “It’s really the students that drive it and they want to learn.”
Although the program, largely funded through the Department of Culture and Heritage, is voluntary and extra-curricular, academic credits can be earned through participation, George noted.
The iglu building has also become a source of family bonding as relatives sometimes come out to assist with the projects, and the structures are also a point of interest for visitors to the community, said George.
Senior administrative officer Don LeBlanc said he is thoroughly impressed with the iglus and he reiterated that the word has been spreading among tourists.
“We have people from down south who come up to our hotels and stay and ask to be taken out,” he said.