NEWFANE — On winter camping trips in his 20s, Mel Martin would, in lieu of using a tent, dig caves in the snow.
“I think, to some degree, it probably might have started there,” he said.
Some 50 years later, the Newfane resident, who turned 74 this week, transformed mounds of snow in his yard into a multi-chamber snow cave. The wintry mix that fell on the region provided him with the right combination of soft and hard snow to build a cohesive structure.
“I was looking at it, thinking, I got to do this. I got to do this,” Martin said.
The three-room snow cave was enjoyed by several youngsters, including his 9-year-old grandson, a friend’s 4-year-old granddaughter and another friend’s 10-year-old daughter. He measured the cave at almost 30 feet long, with points as tall as 5 feet and as wide as 7 feet.
He dug the cave himself, using three shovels.
“It’s better than working out in a gym. I’ll say that any day,” he said with a laugh. “Trust me, you come away sweating.”
At night, he added candles to light the way through. He said the project gave him new insight on the sense of place.
“It isn’t just making a hole. It’s, how do you relate to it in terms of shape and light? It’s all very rewarding in some way, shape or form,” he reflected.
Kimona Hall of Brattleboro and her 10-year-old daughter, Zawadi Long, learned about Martin’s ice cave after meeting Martin and his wife, Pat Howell, outside the Brattleboro Food Co-op. Zawadi was playing on a snow bank, and caught the older couple’s attention. Martin befriended the mother and daughter, and invited them to explore the cave.
“Zawadi thought it was amazing,” Hall said. “It was her first time being in a cave.”
She said her daughter marveled at how the ceiling remained solid and did not collapse.
“It was a fun thing to do in the wintertime,” Hall said. “Just, the whole COVID situation and everything, not being able to do much inside or outside, that was a very good change for me.”
For Hall, born in the island country of Jamaica, it was also her first time seeing a snow cave. She said she and her daughter visited Martin twice, and the second time they visited, Martin had added an additional entrance to the cave.
Hall said Martin tasked Zawadi with naming the cave, and gave her supplies to make a sign. She named the cave “Precious.”
Hall added that her daughter described the snow cave as “very Mel” — “because Mel is very creative,” Hall said.
When asked if he considers himself an artist, Martin said a “creative” would be a better label. For over 20 years, he and Howell ran a marketing agency. His passions include photography, writing and what he calls “driftwood art.” On his Facebook profile are photos of driftwood he arranged into a sculpture on a Costa Rican shore. Before the pandemic, Martin and Howell traveled to Costa Rica each year for over a decade.
When none of those muses call him, he tries to solve problems, “a creative endeavor we all have to face.”
A second winter creation happened this year by accident.
Martin and Howell keep a 5-gallon bucket of water in case of power loss. The water recently froze part of the way, leaving a hole about 3 inches in diameter down the middle — just the right size to fit a candle.
He used the “ice lamp” to decorate the snow cave, at one point bringing it inside the largest chamber.
Upon seeing the cave, Martin said a friend told him, “You’ve rediscovered your inner child,” to which he said he replied, “Who said it was ever lost?”
Both the cave and the lamp have been on the decline due to recent warm temperatures. Still, when asked if he is ready for spring, Martin said, “Oh, yes.”