One of my favourite Christmas memories have to do with just being outside in the winter weather with my friends and playing in the snow. As a young boy in a house full of eight siblings, two parents and at one point our grandfather, I had lots of reasons to want to head outside. In our home in Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast, our three bedroom home was constantly full of people and as children, we were more than happy to want to head outside to be on our own.
We didn’t need much to keep us occupied in the cold. When we weren’t playing hockey or watching a game at the local outdoor rink, we went to work on either building or piling snow for some reason. If it was a good year of snow, we didn’t have to venture far as drifts of the white fluff would build up against our homes to the eaves of the building. All we had to do was dig sideways into the mounds to construct our caves and tunnels around the yard.
When we felt that our forts and caves were finished in one spot, we moved to other locations. One of the traditional activities we were taught as kids was in pulling little miniature toboggans or sleds on a string and stick. This was a simple activity to mimic the adults who went out on snow machines with heavy sleds to head into the wilderness. As children, we used our toboggans as an excuse to make trails to a friends house, or across the neighbourhood or into another section of town. As we journeyed through the snow, we would stop and build caves to keep warm and dig tiny tunnels, passages and ice bridges for our sleds.
I still head outside once in a while these days to get a bit of exercise and to recall those times as a boy when I played in the snow. Every year now, I do my best to build two snowmen on my front yard. The only trouble I’ve encountered over the years is that there is a very specific set of conditions in order to create a perfect snowman. The weather has to be that special temperature of just around zero degrees where the snow is solid enough to stay, yet soft enough to be sticky so it can easily be formed into shapes. If it gets too warm, everything becomes wet and slushy. When it gets too cold, the snow crystallizes and can’t hold its shape for long. When the conditions are just right, those are the times when you can actually roll the snow into giant round balls that can be piled into snowmen shapes.
Recently I did some research on how to build a snowman. I found some useful information posted by an internet sculptor from Waterloo, Ontario named Matt Morris. He has popularized a method of snow building and snow sculpting using a scientific method called snow sintering. The method makes it possible to take any kind of snow in colder temperatures and turn it into a building material. The basic method is to use a simple plastic bucket, fill it with snow and pack it down with your hands. Once the bucket is filled with packed snow, you simply turn it over and carefully remove the container to leave behind a perfectly formed cylinder shape of packed snow. You leave this packed snow for an hour or two to freeze or ‘sinter’ so the snow crystals are packed together, bond, then freeze to form into a solid, strong mass. It’s the same process that snow groomers and snow machines do to the ground as they pack down layers of snow to form a solid track or ice road surface. Once you have your bucket shaped mound of snow, you can sculpt the one block or you can make multiple blocks that you can use to build something larger ... like a snowman.
I missed my window of opportunity of perfect snowman building weather this year and I was only able to build one snowman. I used Matt Morris’s method of sintering snow to make many blocks or cylinders to construct a second snowman and it worked well enough for me to build an eight foot tall sculpture. Once I was done, the sintered snowman turned into a solid mass of crystalized snow that I am sure will last the winter. If you want to find out more about Morris’s tutorials, you can find his videos on Instagram at snowbankproductions or on YouTube at mattdjmorris
So if the Christmas rush is getting to you and you need a break from running around indoors either in your house or in public spaces, why not head outside to build your snowman? Once you have your blocks of sintered snow, you are not limited to building a snowman. You can use your imagination to create whatever sculpture you want. So, take that break and create something wonderful from the snow. It is an economical and meditative activity that will stay in place as long as winter hangs around.