Snow Statue Building: An Insider

By Jennifer Donovan | Published

West McNair's prizewinning snow statue, "Clifford, the Big Red dog."
West McNair's prizewinning snow statue," Clifford, the Big Red dog."

Jillian Schwab—a second-year undergraduate, a student intern in University Marketing and Communications and a resident of West McNair Hall—shares an insider’s view of snow statue building. Her team’s statue placed first in the residence halls month-long category.

After several long nights of stomping snow into blocks, a frozen tower is finally finished. At more than 20 feet high, it stands out instantly against the bricks of Wadsworth Hall. Boys climb the scaffolding to start on the next task, shaping the top into a snout and droopy ears. Tonight this is just a pile of blocks of snow and ice, but when Winter Carnival starts, it’ll be a giant snow dog.

The first floor of West McNair Hall banded together to attempt something residence halls rarely do: entering the Winter Carnival month-long statue competition. Usually residence halls build a small All-Nighter statue, leaving the huge, more elaborate constructions to the fraternities and sororities. But by joining forces as a floor, we decided we had the manpower, creativity and dedication to attempt to build one of the giant statues for which Carnival is known.

The theme of Winter Carnival this year is “thousands of pages unfold in the bitter cold,” so we felt we should base our statue on a book. After much discussion, we settled on one that most of us loved growing up:  “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” by Norman Bridwell. Statues are judged partly on the purity of the snow, however, so Clifford will have to be the big white dog this time.

All our equipment is laid out: wooden boards to form the snow into blocks, several shovels and buckets to move snow, a hose to bring water from the spigot, machetes and hatchets to carve and shape the snow blocks and a residence hall floor of people eager to take on the daunting project.

The bulk of a snow statue is built in blocks. First, a wooden form is set up. Snow is dumped into the form while water is added to allow the block to freeze solid. Somebody stomps the slushy mixture down, so the block can be as dense and sturdy as possible. Once it’s filled, a form is left to sit and freeze into shape. Then the boards are removed, and another block is made.  The smaller, more detailed parts of a statue are sculpted out of slush. Most of the detail work is saved for the All-Nighter, since even a short warm spell can mean doom for detail work.

“We’ve got a lot of good people out here doing good work,” John Kinzinger, the Resident Assistant spearheading the West McNair statue, says as he yells to motivate the team. “I’m proud.”

The statue is starting to take shape. What was just a small pile of blocks only days earlier is beginning to look like a dog. The temperature is dropping as the wind picks up around us, but the team’s spirits are only rising. The closer we get to finishing, the more excited we become to see the culmination of all our hard work. The Winter Carnival statues are famous, and it feels great to know we all had a part in one.

Ben Ellis takes a break from carving out a paw of the huge snow dog. “It's interesting how we can't build snow people that well, yet we can build these enormous monstrosities of snow and ice,” he remarks. “It takes a lot of work to put these things up, but once they’re done they look amazing.”

Ray Kemmer nods, propping herself up with a shovel. “I like working on the statue;  it’s something to do with my hands—and feet and back and arms. So much of what we do at Tech is done with the mind that doing physical labor is a good and needed thing. And statues are awesome. They’re massive, pretty and taller than I am!”

Kinzinger surveys the site below him as he carves away what will be the head of a massive snow Clifford. “I've gotten used to going out to statue every night,” he observes. “It's hard to believe that it's already almost over.” Everyone nods in agreement. Whether we’ve been out every night or just for a couple hours here and there, it’s hard for everyone to believe that Winter Carnival is upon us. It’ll feel strange not spending our evenings shoveling, carving, stomping and passing buckets, and nobody is looking forward to watching the statue melt little by little as the rest of the semester passes. But while that statue stands, we’ll all be able to smile as we pass by, knowing that we were each a small part of one of Michigan Tech’s greatest traditions.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.