Campout in the Quinzee

Last week my son and I built a snow cave, more precisely a snow hut or quinzee, in a massive snowbank near our apartment building.

digging the snowcave    snowcave

Then, we spent the night in it!

snowcave    inside the snowcave

We had been waiting for a low temperature of at least ten degrees, and Tuesday was the mildest forecast we could find – it never went below fifteen, with most of the night in the twenties. A neighbor had started the entrance to the cave and we finished the excavating in about an hour, with dimensions just large enough to hold our air mattress.

snowcave mattress    snowcave mattress

Our supplies:

  1. A lot of snow – In our case, a parking lot, plowed by a backhoe. The snowbank was at least eight feet tall and maybe twenty wide.
  2. Shovels – We used a regular old digging shovel to break the snow free, and a small flat snow shovel to scoop it out.
  3. Air mattress – You’d think it would be colder than a regular sleeping pad, but the air makes for nice insulation.
  4. Sleeping bags – My son was in a Kelty Mistral zero degree adult bag, with synthetic fill. To keep him from squirming out (a problem on our last campout) I cinched the drawstrings around his neck and head. And to keep his toes warm I folded the bottom half up as an extra layer and tied it in place (empty sleeping bag space is cold space). I was in a Lafuma Warm n Light twenty degree down bag.

We both slept like babies, toasty warm from 10:30 PM to 5:30 AM. However, the mattress had deflated slowly through the night, and I woke up feeling more like Benjamin Button. It was a great time – definitely worth the trouble, especially for my son. Every night since he has asked if we can go “camping.”

Some notes:

  1. If it’s your first attempt with a kid, plan the campout close to home so you can abort in an emergency.
  2. Use a snowbank or drift if possible, otherwise budget at least three hours for completion.
  3. Building a quinzee from scratch you’ll want at least a six foot mound – one to two hours of shoveling. Aim for wall and ceiling thickness of at least a foot.
  4. Any ice crystal precipitation will do. All the shoveling, mixing, and tossing will get even the most powdery snow to harden, or sinter, once it’s piled.
  5. Start the entrance downwind, and keep it as small as possible.

Next time we’re trying an igloo.

Merry Christmas

Our first nuclear Christmas! That is, our first Christmas as a nuclear family. Our first winter break without a trip home to CA to see the extended fam. No hangin with Mr. Cooper, grandma and grandpa, the auties, uncles or cousins. No tennis, soccer or frisbee, no campouts at the beach, and no free babysitting.

This December we’re keeping it simple, we’re laying low, and we’re saving some Gs on airfare. We’re also mixing up the nativity scene reenactment.

barbie nativity
Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes

A merry multicultural non-discriminatory Christmas to all!

How to Build and Indoor Swing


The Minnesota winter is upon us and kinderclaustrophobia is setting in. I guess it’s not really a phobia, more like a hysteria, resulting from prolonged exposure to rambunctious children in a confined space. Either way, what we need is a swing in our living room.

I’m not talking about a traditional swing, the kind at the playground with two ropes, the one-dimensional kind that only moves forward and back. Even better is the tire swing type – with a single connection point up top you get a second dimension, swinging and spinning in all directions.

It gets better. By inserting a trampoline spring or two you can swing in the third dimension: vertically. Three dimensional swinging, indoors.


  1. Stud finder
  2. Large hook screw(s), 5/16″ x 4″ works well
  3. Carabiner(s)
  4. Trampoline spring, max load should be above 60 lbs
  5. Rope, 1/4″ is perfect
  6. Dowel, 1 inch thick, a foot or two long
  7. Drill with 5/16″ bit
  8. Sand paper

Indoor swing materials   More indoor swing materials


  1. Find a stud – First, I used the cheapskate method, knocking around till my knuckles were raw, then hitting a nail through the sheetrock until it stuck into something wood-like, which it never did. After many nail holes in the ceiling, I bought a $10 stud finder at the local supercenter.

  2. Stick in the bolt – A friend gave me a solid loop bolt thingy that he found at Ikea – they sell a little indoor swing kit for pretty cheap. I put that one in the living room. In the kids room I used the hook screw, which is cheaper and just as strong.

    Indoor swing bolt   Indoor swing hook screw   Lots of indoor swings

  3. Rig up the trapeze – you can cut the dowel to any length, but I made mine about two feet long, enough to sit on, or dangle from by ones knees. Drill a hole in each end, just wide enough for the rope to pass through, and tie some knots. PVC pipe also works, but you’ll need some grip tape. This twisted clove hitch works too.

    Indoor swing dowel   Indoor swing dowel knot   Indoor swing pvc handle

There you have it – in about 30 minutes, a flippin swing, in your house. By nature, kids need to put in a certain amount of acrobatics every day. Now, the ninos can release their wiggles without dangling from the curtain rods or the chandelier.


A simple rope swing works nicely, but my kids don’t have the grip strength to hold on. They can stand all right on a huge knot tied in the end, but one of those disc seats would be perfect.

My 1 year old was jealous of her older siblings so I grabbed a bucket seat for $14 at Menards, a hardware store in our neck of the woods. They had a nice build-your-own-playground section with plastic slides and outdoor swing kits, vinyl seat with chains. Home Depot had nothing of the sort, though they were the only place with springs.

My buddy Tim-o, who inspired this project, installed a series of swings in his living room. That’s right, a series. The handles are PVC, each about six inches long, and a few feet apart.

Canoeing the Minnesota River

In my three years as a scoutmaster our small troop has gallivanted all across Minnesota, traversing sections of the Superior Hiking Trail and the St. Croix Scenic Byway, and making a ruckus in a dozen or so state parks. Of all our journeys, including our 20-mile hike, uphill both ways on our knees, none was as adventurous or life-threatening as our canoe trip down the Minnesota River.


Our scurvy crew consisted of four gung-ho boy scouts and three fearless leaders, distributed in three heavy canoes with an assortment of hiking packs and duffel bags full of clothes and food, a few fishing poles and tackle boxes, a 5-gallon water carrier, and a variety of last-minute items tossed into plastic grocery bags. Most importantly, we had sunflower seeds of all flavors, including dill pickle. Our waterproofing consisted of wrapping everything in black garbage bags. The scouts were certain that no amount of water could penetrate a Hefty bag with a triple granny knot.

We budgeted four full days of paddling to complete the 70 miles of waterway from the north end of Lac qui Parle to Vicksburg County Park 2. With the river flowing at about two miles per hour, even if pirates stole our paddles we could float the distance in about 8 hours per day were it not for the dam portages, which cost us a couple hours each. Portages are sections of a water trail that you cover by foot to reach a different waterway, or in our case another section of the same waterway. We had three portage points and, fortunately, there weren’t many pirates.


Our biggest challenge, besides staying afloat while defending ourselves from the ravenous insatiable mosquitoes, was finding shelter. When the Department of Natural Resources says that they maintain the free campsites interspersed along the river, what they mean is they’ve abandoned them all to overgrowth so that you couldn’t find one if you were standing in it. There’s a good reason they’re free – they don’t exist.

Our first night on the river, as the sun disappeared and the zombie apocalypse mosquitoes attacked, we parked our canoes on the only piece of private property we could find. Another leader set off to ask, or, if necessary, beg the owner to let us camp on his shoreline. Our only other options were to continue paddling, in the dark, until the next imaginary DNR campsite, or bushwhack through the overgrowth with our pocket knives. Either way, we wouldn’t be roasting mallows or telling ghost stories around a campfire.

But Randy, the owner, saved the day. In addition to not chasing us off with shotgun a-waving, he welcomed us and even offered us his stash of firewood. We thanked him profusely and later marveled at how his simple kindness had saved us from a sleepless night with much blood loss.

As expected, the challenges continued. On day two the current slowed to nothing and no matter where we turned we always had a head wind. Each of us was certain he was paddling more than his weight. We all wanted a break but were too proud to admit it. During our longest portage, carrying canoes, gear, and our tired selves through the town of Granite Falls, Betty from the VA insisted on buying us pizzas and soda. The scouts consumed the pizza instantly, and we rested in the shade for an hour and shot the breeze with some classic war vets. Also in town, we accepted three watermelons and 24 ears of sweet corn from an insistent fruit stand owner. A scoutmaster couldn’t ask for better examples of generosity.

Day 4, the Last

Despite the exhaustion the scouts were optimistic and things worked out well, at least until the last day of the trip – I had returned to the Twin Cities the night before, so the details from here out are all second-hand.

With one fewer person, one fewer bag, and only a day’s worth of food, the group had consolidated all the gear and people into two canoes – the third they towed, empty, with a rope. This worked out well until the current picked up and they came to a section full of debris. In the most treacherous spot downed trees obstructed much of the river, and though the towing canoe made it through safely, the towed one did not. It snagged on a tree and couldn’t be shaken – the only option was to cut it loose!

Unfortunately, as soon as their canoe was freed it lost balance and was flipped by the current. The two scouts and one leader capsized. The remaining canoers paddled upstream with all their might and rescued one scout and the leader, as they struggled to hold on to nearby trees. The other scout successfully body surfed through the rest of the chaos and was collected a quarter mile down river.

In Conclusion

No serious injuries, but what a disaster! I regret not being there to help. A gear bag, tackle box, two fishing poles, some clothes, and many sunflower seeds were claimed by the river that day, along with the empty canoe. The DNR campsites were also never found.

Yet, despite all the trouble and suffering the trip was a success – the scouts earned their sea legs and two merit badges, we met some of Minnesota’s finest, and we got really tan. Most importantly, we immersed ourselves in the wilderness, took a serious thrashing, and came out on top, humbled but empowered. That’s what outdoor adventures are all about.

Here’s a text file of the itinerary, created by one of the scouts.

Adventures in France: Some Photogs

This weekend I uploaded a couple dozen photos from our ridiculous 4-month trip to France. It was our most ambitious family adventure ever – all others pale and then shrivel up in comparison. Details to come in future posts…

I’ve organized the pics into the following categories:

  1. Skies – stratospheric and celestial phenomena
  2. Creatures – non-human lifeforms, mostly repulsive ones. Creatures not photographed include decapitated birds (the work of our cat Sila), the rolly polly infestation in our shower room, and the centipede habitat under our couch
  3. Home – our physical dwelling, a renovated shepherd’s cottage, and the surrounding regions