Chicago has dealt with record-breaking cold, but Jostein Alvestad’s biggest problem this year has been a late-January warm spell. It almost doomed his winter project.
Since the first week of January, the Elmhurst firefighter had been building an igloo—a rainbow-colored beach ball of an igloo—in the backyard of his Lemont home.
It was the latest obsession of an easily obsessed man. Each night he would set on his porch 32 plastic buckets of water to freeze into bricks the color of Jujubes. Once a sufficient stockpile built up, he would slide them into place and use a slush slurry of snow and water for mortar. Finally he would coat it all with water from a garden hose to form an icy exterior. (Frequently the hose froze solid and had to be brought indoors to thaw.)
His fiancée sometimes chipped in. His sons, 8 and 12, were good for shuttling bricks back and forth. But mostly it was just him, hours at a time—until that near-calamitous week in January when there just was not enough cold. No cold, no ice. No ice, no bricks. No bricks, no igloo.
“We were about to lose the whole igloo because it started melting when I was halfway and it got paper-thin walls,” he said. “I was on the brink of giving up the whole thing. Then I looked at the forecast and we had like 10 days of below-freezing temperatures. We’re checking the forecast at work and all the guys are thinking, ‘Oh, another cold day,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Yes! Another cold day! This is good for the igloo.’”
Spoken like a true, cold-blooded Norwegian. (Which he is, I should point out. I should also point out that Alvestad and I are acquaintances from the world of competitive cycling, where I’ve always known him to be, like his igloo, colorful but hard as nails.)
Once the warm spell subsided and the water started to freeze again—“Fifth-worst blizzard, they said. No, I said, fifth-best blizzard!”—Alvestad resumed construction and Tuesday evening, more than a month after he started, he finally topped out.
The first order of business was planting a Norwegian flag on top. He expects up to 10 people can fit inside, so next week he’ll have friends over for a pizza party inside. First he has to go to Wisconsin to compete in the famously grueling American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race. Because of course he does.
“You’d actually be surprised how warm it gets in there. You’re using candles and it’s totally insulated inside, and your body heats it up, so it’s much warmer than outside.”
Inspiration first struck during last last winter’s project: a large snow cave (with an attached luge track for the kids). “I was like, yeah, I’d much rather build an igloo than a snow cave. An igloo, it’s very special. And not many people in Illinois have said they’ve actually built an igloo and slept in it.”
Aside from a few Internet searches for inspiration, Alvestad made it up as he went along. “I didn’t use anything other than what an igloo was like in my mind. You know, a round thing with a tunnel in. I sort of figured it out as I built it up… It seems to work out.”
At night, lights from inside give the structure an other-worldly glow. Alvestad hopes it will last through March. He plans to regularly sprinkle it with water to reinforce its outer shell.
This isn’t Alvestad’s first experience with arctic architecture. Prior to moving to the States in 1999, Alvestad served in the Norwegian Army—“The King’s Guards,” he is quick to point out—where weeklong winter maneuvers had him creating his own shelter from snowbanks. “We were the guys in the white camo who disappear for a week up in the mountains.”
And who has the harder winter? “It’s definitely Norway. You can’t really compare.”