How to build your own magical snow fort with tips from the experts

Every winter when Manitoba's cold climate lays a blanket of snow across the province, a well-trained eye can see the potential.

Get off the couch and get creative with a snow fort, sled run or ice creations this winter

Architectural intern Julie Kusyk built this series of snow structures in her yard in East St. Paul last year. (Submitted by Julie Kusyk)

Note: This story was originally published Jan. 6, 2018.

When Manitoba's cold climate lays a blanket of snow across the province every winter, Julie Kusyk sees a clean slate.

In her yard in East St. Paul, the architectural intern has created snow forts, quinzhees, igloos and ice palaces, some aglow with tea lights in frozen lanterns, others with panes of translucent ice embedded in the ceiling, and one with a chandelier dripping in icicles hanging from the ceiling.

She's been doing it since she was a little girl.

"There's something so graspable, because it's just inside your front yard. And all it takes is to freeze something in the ice or just to carve a tunnel and then put light under it, and it just transforms," she said.

"In the winter, you have this huge material sort of at your grasp, where you can really imagine into it and then build it. I think that sort of stuck with me."

​In architecture school, many of her projects revolved around snow and ice. In her professional life, she's worked on designing an Arctic research facility in Churchill, Man., and recently returned from a residency aboard a ship in the Arctic Circle.

This winter, she's building an igloo for Falcon Beach Ranch in the Whiteshell, complete with horse-related objects frozen into the bricks.

She still wouldn't call herself an expert on snow forts, but she says you don't have to be to build something exciting. The key is just to get excited about creating, she said.

"It's very accessible and it's quite easy to do.… You can experiment and have so much fun with it that it's worth getting into," she said.

"And it shouldn't be daunting for anyone, child or adult."

Quinzhee with flair

The easiest way to get started is with something you probably already know how to make, Kusyk said: a no-nonsense quinzhee. At its most basic, you can just pile snow into a small hill, let it harden and dig into the centre. Kusyk advises making sure somebody's watching you or knows where you are in case of cave-ins.

To make digging easier, Kusyk likes to stick foot-long wooden skewers into her snow piles from the outside before she starts digging so she can tell how thick the walls and ceiling are from inside.

From that simple form, you can get creative. Kusyk's favourite way to experiment doesn't actually require any snow — just water and cold temperatures to create ice in whatever shape or colour she wants. Sometimes she sticks household objects inside to see how they freeze.

Kusyk likes to experiment with freezing objects in ice, including flowers and clocks. (Submitted by Julie Kusyk)

"I really like freezing things in ice. I never get bored of that," she said.

"Frozen pineapples, frozen books, frozen chandeliers, adding colour and trying to make different formworks.… I can make a formwork in the snow and then put poly [plastic sheeting] down, and make these big arches out of ice."

An easy experiment you can do at home is to freeze water in a pan and use it as a windowpane in your structure, she said.

Kusyk also creates "ice globes" — just fill a balloon with water and stick it outside. Before it freezes all the way through, remove the balloon and dump out the water in the centre to create a hollow cup, which Kusyk likes to fill with a tea light.

"The way the quality of the light in the ice … it's sort of glowing, and you're in a quinzhee — it is extremely, extremely cozy," she said.

Icy creations in progress at Kusyk's home. (Submitted by Julie Kusyk)

Snow mountains and sled runs

If you want to move beyond the quinzhee approach, you can follow in the footsteps of David Neyedli. He's been building enormous snow creations in his front yard in Winnipeg's Wolseley neighbourhood for the better part of a decade.

He wasn't always a fan of winter, but says he was inspired when a young family moved into the lower level of his duplex on Home Street. Since then, he's built the structures every year he can get enough snow, and neighbourhood kids keep coming by to play in them.

"It's just basically like, 'Here it is.' Instead of avoiding it, go out and embrace it. It actually does become, you know, pretty fun," he said.

At their tallest, his structures have been nearly as tall as his two-storey house. At their widest, they've covered all of his yard and the yards on either side of him, and they usually incorporate some kind of sled run that he ices down with tap water left outside in pails to get cold, and then transferred to a watering can.

Neyedli recommends starting by creating giant snow "boulders" and building in layers.

David Neyedli says his cat loves sitting on his snow forts every year. (Submitted by David Neyedli)

To make the boulders, he pushes snow in piles up against the side of his house or against a fence, lets it harden and then uses a carpenter's saw to hack out large bricks.

You can use snow from windrows built up on the side of your street, he added. If you don't like the look of the dirt and salt in there, you can put that snow on the bottom and save fresh, clean stuff for the top.

He arranges the bricks in a group on the ground as a foundation and dumps snow over top to fill in all the cracks, using it like mortar between bricks.

"Then all of a sudden, bang. It solidifies and you've got layer one," he said.

Neyedli stands on a snow fort he built in 2016. (Submitted by David Neyedli)

Outside the box

You can also get creative with non-traditional shapes and ways to build, even if there's not a lot of snow on the ground.

Kusyk recommends draping a wet sheet over a chair to create bizarre frozen shapes.

Chris Beauvilain, the man behind the Frosty Face project — which encourages Winnipeggers to post photos of their own frosted faces as they enjoy outdoor winter activities — uses newspaper, cardboard and plastic to create free-standing frozen arches in his yard. He says the theory behind the structures is the same as what drives Frosty Face.

"One of the things I really wanted to do was make it, a) approachable and b) fun. And to make it approachable, it has to be easy, it has to be cheap, and it has to be accessible," he said.

Chris Beauvilain's son Hugo demonstrates how strong the ice arches can be. (Submitted by Chris Beauvilain)

Beauvilain uses old tent pegs and cardboard to build an arch, then covers it in a sheet of plastic in his front yard. He covers the arch with wet newspaper, papier-mâché style, lets it freeze and then removes the cardboard.

His vision is to scale the arch up and build it on the river, using shredded cattails in place of newspaper. 

"Instead of being cooped up for the winter months, you get outside, you get healthy, you get happy," he said. "I think Winnipeg is going through a transition and we're starting to approach the city in a more authentic manner, and we're recognizing that we are a winter city."

If you're going to try building with ice, Brent Christensen advises using lined rubber gloves to make your life easier, and choosing your site carefully to plan for run-off.

Each of Ice Castles' constructions are handmade by a crew of up to 60 people. This colourful fortress was built in Midway, Utah. (Ice Castles)

The California-born, Utah-based owner of Ice Castles is a professional ice builder. This year, his travelling ice exhibits are set up at The Forks in Winnipeg, as well as in Edmonton and six U.S. spots.

He couldn't share the trade secrets behind Ice Castles, but Christensen said his ideas were born out of experimenting with snow as an outsider — moving to a cold climate in adulthood.

"As a Californian, I feel extremely lucky and really honoured to be able to do something … in Manitoba," he said.