Olivia Gatewood, age eight, popped her head out of the three-foot mound of packed snow.
Her cheeks glowed red and snow caked the ruff of her blue parka. She grinned as she crawled through entrance. Her sisters, Julia Gatewood, age nine, and Sophia Gatewood, age eight, with garden spades in hand, encouraged her to keep moving. They wanted a turn at hollowing out the pile of snow.
The girls were making a quinzhee (pronounced kwinzee), which is a shelter made entirely out of snow. Two days earlier one of the naturalists from the Eagle River Nature Center, had piled snow from the meadow in the valley below the visitor center into three mounds. Letting the snow sit helps it pack. Saturday afternoon, children and their adult chaperones, usually Mom and Dad, showed up for the fun part of digging into the mound to make a livable shelter – a skill that could come in handy during Alaska winters.
Several twigs protrude from the mounds.
“They said we had to stop digging when we came to a stick,” Sophia said.
The sticks marked the thickness of the walls, creating a measurement to protect the strength of the shelter walls.
Quinzhee is an Athabascan word. The Quinzhee, usually meant for short term winter camping or as an emergency survival shelter, is different than an igloo, a more permanent shelter. The Quinzhee does not need a particular type of snow. Even powder snow will work, as piling the snow changes its structure for bonding. Think of shoveling powder snow from your driveway into a pile. Shoveling the powder is easy, but try moving the pile a few days later and you will find it more compact.
The shelter class is a part of the Junior Naturalist program offered most Saturday’s at the Nature Center. The program is designed for families with children in Kindergarten through the sixth grade. Kids can earn their Junior Naturalist Badge by attending 12 programs.
Ava Streeter worked on a quinzhee with Rebecca Mouritsen and Rebecca’s sister. After Ava finishes their quinzhee, she will have earned her Badge. Her Dad, Shaun Streeter and a bundled-up relative from Florida watched and occasionally helped as the girls crawled in and out of the shelter, removing more snow with each trip.
Ron and Doris Gatewood moved to Alaska from Virginia a few years ago “for things like this.” The Gatewood girls, in addition to attending the weekend classes, participate in the Center’s home school programs.
Ron Gatewood grabbed the larger snow shovel, “do you want me to dig some out with this shovel?”
His daughters, out of breath, nodded their heads and backed up. Dad shoved a blue shovel into the entrance and brought out a pile of white stuff the sisters had loosened. Two shovels full and the girls wanted back in.
“It’s my turn,” one said.
“Okay, but I’m next.”
The girls worked as a team, taking turns, encouraging each other and eventually hollowing out their snow shelter.
The program, sponsored by Conoco Phillips, is free, but most classes require pre-registration. There is a $5 required parking fee. Registration is available at the Nature Center’s website, www.ernc.org or by calling 694-2108.
Editor’s Note: Gretchen Wehmhoff is an ECHO News writer and the former journalism instructor at Chugiak High School.