I’m inside my quinzee (a Finnish igloo). I built it myself. Outside, it’s minus 12C.
It’s midnight on the Arctic Circle, and I’m asleep on a lake. Beneath me is a thick sheet of ice, an inflatable sleeping mat, and a sleeping bag as thick as an insulation batt. It’s minus 12 degrees outside, a blizzard has finally blown itself into exhaustion, and I’m as comfortable as can be inside this tiny house of snow I built myself.
To the rest of the world, my home might be called a snow igloo, but here in Finland it’s known as a quinzee, a snow shelter that’s now conversely protecting me from the snow that falls over Oulanka National Park.
I’ve come to Oulanka for a week of winter activities with adventure tour operator Exodus Travels – snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, dog sledding, ice climbing and, this day, building my own quinzee.
“Snow is a really good building material,” guide Henri Suopanki assures us. “But the day is very mild, so the snow will be heavier”. Mild? On a minus 4 degree morning, there are disbelieving looks in the group around me, but soon enough I’m down to a single layer of clothing as the effort of shovelling warms me from within.
Building a quinzee is a simple, but not necessarily easy, process. Through the short winter day, with an Englishman named Simon, I will shovel and scrape together two tonnes of snow. Once done, we’ll proceed to shovel back out about one-and-a-half tonnes of that snow.
We begin in perfect conditions, the sky bruised with a dawn light that lasts here for hours. Across Juuma Lake, snow mounds begin to materialise like mushrooms as each group constructs their quinzee – build them up, stamp the snow down with your feet, then pile them up again. Repeat ad nauseum.
Finnish winter hikers such as Henri will hike through the day and then shovel together a quinzee as a night-time shelter, but for rookies like us, building a quinzee takes most of a day anyway. It’s lunchtime before we’ve even amassed our two tonnes of snow into a mound about four metres wide. It’s been like building a sandcastle of snow.
If we feel intrepid and adventurous, we need only turn around to be reminded of the comfortable reality. Up the hill from the lake, just a few minutes’ walk away, the rooms of our lodge are strung through the pine forest. Tonight we’ll bravely sleep in the quinzees, but we can always bravely retreat to the warmth of our rooms at any point through the night.
Snow is falling heavily by the time we break for lunch to let our hillocks of snow settle. Through the afternoon we’ll hollow them out, tunnelling an entrance – a squeeze hole through which we’ll enter our quinzee at night – and then slowly digging towards the centre, widening as we go until finally there’s room to move elbows then kneel as the snow begins to take shape as a dome-home.
Building the quinzee is part of a larger ambition for the day, as Henri guides us through a selection of winter survival skills, from wilderness first aid to lighting a fire with only flint, the papery bark of a birch tree and, most unusually, a tampon.
“Every hiker should carry a tampon,” Henri assures us. Cut it open and the cotton serves as perfect kindling to start a fire.
I spend most of the afternoon, however, inside my quinzee, scraping back the walls, DIYing in the Arctic. By the time I emerge, darkness has long descended.
This is Finland so once the quinzees are complete, there’s time for a sauna (followed by the requisite roll in the snow) before the fateful test – a night sleeping inside my home of snow. A blizzard has descended, briefly blocking the entrance to my quinzee, but when it clears as I head for bed, the night sky is awash with stars and the smudge of the Milky Way.
In minutes I’ll be asleep, with ice below me and snow above. If it’s in any way uncomfortable, I’m unlikely to notice. I’ve shovelled more than three tonnes of snow today, after all. I’m due a rest on this literal lake bed.
Finnair flies daily to Helsinki from Sydney and Melbourne, connecting through Singapore or Hong Kong. From Helsinki, Finnair flies to Kuusamo, 50 kilometres from Oulanka National Park. Phone 1300 132 944, see finnair.com
Exodus Travels runs an eight-day Finnish Wilderness Week trip, based in Oulanka National Park, costing from $2465. See exodustravels.com/au
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of Exodus Travels.