Alpine Lady

Honoring the natural world through prose, poetry, music, sounds, photographs and musings.


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A Sod House Renovation in AKP

Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, lies along the continental divide in a valley of the Endicott Mountains of the Brooks Range, half-way between Fairbanks and Utqiaġvik (Barrow). It is where the last of the semi-nomadic Nunamiut, People of the Land, the inland Iñupiat, chose to settle along the major north-south caribou migration route and establish a community in the late 1940’s, soon with their own school, church and airstrip.

Fall time on the tundra nibbling “Raven’s Eyes” a small, mealy black berry.

Michael and I came to the community to be teachers in the early 70’s for Alaska State-Operated Schools.  He was to be the administrator and teach the upper fifth through eighth grades and I, the elementary wing, first through fourth. After the first year, we found ourselves house-hunting when he accepted an assignment to help plan the North Slope Borough School District in 1972 as its acting superintendent, traveling out of Barrow to the villages in the Borough. I took over the role as Principal-Teacher, still with the elementary grades, and awaited his replacement to share teaching responsibilities. That teacher would live in the teacher’s quarters.

August, 1971. John River to the north, the school on a windy plateau above the village. High winds took the roof off the school the school year before we moved there.

In the spring, we purchased a sod house but not the land from Zacharias Hugo. He had built a larger plywood house nearby and no longer used our sod house. With youthful enthusiasm and the help of our Nunamiut friend, Jack, we removed the old, worn sod and replaced the roof boards where it leaked, recovered it with plywood, then plastic and contracted out for a new layer of sod for the roof. Most of the old pieces of sod were incorporated into the existing side sod.

With Jack’s help we repaired the leaking sections, and put on new sod.

Old linoleum covered over the sod walls and floor. A willow stove made from a fuel barrel sits on the floor. It would be used in fishing or hunting camp.

Indoors , we removed ceiling and worn flooring, but left some of the old linoleum wall coverings. Everything got washed which was no small feat in that every drop of water had to be hauled from either the John River which flowed by the village in the spring but then went underground in dry weather and resurfaced a few miles south.

Our two, paned windows were of old glass and one was recovered with thick, milled plastic film. The other Mike removed and inserted a clear, thick plastic one to allow for more light, a view of the mountains to the south and the village laid out along the main travel route from airport to school which also passed by our bedroom corner.

A small entrance shed or wanigan on the west protected us from a direct blast of wind through the main door and provided a place to store kerosene, snowshoes, snow machine cover, tools, etc. and in winter, we stored frozen food out of the elements. Entrance to the sod house was through an, old thick, handmade door hung on leather hinges. It was held tightly closed by friction.

The sod house in the very early spring. Junior, our sled dog stands to the left of the tin wanigan which along with the snowdrift on the front added protection from the winds.

Mike was called away for important meetings and couldn’t help finish up. After scrubbing the walls, adding cardboard to fill in the gaps, I stapled wide burlap material to the ceiling and north wall. On the other walls I used adhesive-backed wall paper. The flooring was squares of stick-on outdoor carpeting. The house only measured 12 x 20 with ridge pole and support posts were hauled by dog team from thirty miles south of the pass. Michael is tall and could walk only comfortably for the six feet along the ridge pole as that was the tallest space in the house! Everywhere else he had to bend down, and I being shorter, had to bend my head only near the end walls.

Tallest space was aside this ridgepole for Mike to walk.

A studio-style propane range provided a means to cook and an small old oil stove, heat. Two kerosene lamps gave us light. Ventilation was all important from all the fuels and cooking fumes––stove oil, propane, kerosene. Sod houses were built with a “nose,” consisting of a boxed-in hole, open to the fresh air above. A small flap door on the inside, attached by parachute webbing for hinges and a parachute cord with knots holding it shut against a bent nail, made it quick and easy to use.  We also  could open the main door a crack.

We weren’t the only occupants of our household. We had two dogs, one was Junior, a large sled dog who spent his time outdoors and the other was Buffy, a Heinz variety and definitely an indoor dog. Oh, we also had mice but more about them later.

Using basic carpentry skills I learned in 4-H and from my mother, I built Junior a house and then used it in place of saw horses and work bench to cut 2×4’s and plywood to construct kitchen shelving. Our bed was a piece of plywood, with foam mattress, mattress pad and extra-warm sleeping bags. Furniture came from the extras up at school, from friends who shipped in chairs, and the ubiquitous furniture of bush Alaska, the Blazo box which at one time, contained two five-gallon cans of kerosene.

The kitchen and wash-up corner behind the small oil stove. The kettle was kept full of water for adding moisture to the air, for cooking and washing up. You’ll notice I used Blazo boxes liberally  for shelving.

Inherent with living in this particular geographic position in the Brooks Range, and with its quirky winds capable of shifting between north or south within minutes, it could perplexing and challenging at the same time. In other words, winter could be cold, cold, cold if its bluster came off the arctic ice 250 miles away. This wind bringing in the fine snows would drift tightly on the south side and cover over a good share of that wall, adding its bulk for protection. The house would be warmer inside with a south wind so we had to be careful to check our lanterns to make sure they didn’t soot up. If those interesting globs of carbon were attached to the white filmy mantle of the Aladdin lamp, we’d quickly open the nose for ventilation and let the orange tones of glowing carbon burn off. Another challenge: the oil stove might blow out from a sudden wind gust leaving a sooty oily residue and stink throughout the house. Again, open the nose and ventilate.

We dealt with a similar but more complex event the winter before in the old school and house when all stoves blew out from record-setting gusts of wind and coupled with the fifty below zero cold forced us to close school. Michael climbed on the roofs and braced himself against the wind to take off the chimney caps. Our few house plants got stuffed in the oven, the only safe and warm spot in the buildings until everything was cleaned and aired out.

School, teacher’s quarters, generator shed, and Presbyterian Log Church. Aug. 1971

Because we had no electricity and no refrigeration in the sod house, in the fall and winter I relied on cold spots in the kitchen corner to store the perishables and only in winter, did we put freezables out in the wanigan. I got quite good at ordering through the mail to a bush-friendly grocery store in Fairbanks, “Lindy’s.”  I seldom ordered fresh salad greens in winter due to the possibility of a weather-delayed flight. We ate lots of canned and dried items supplemented by local fish and meat.

During the summer, we stored extra meat (a skinned caribou leg and a few packages of bacon)  in underground rooms or cellars dug in the permafrost adjacent to the graveyard, a few miles from AKP . We descended a pole ladder to the coolness and fortunately that kept the mosquitoes and black flies at bay but which continuously spiraled above the entrance opening waiting for us to come out!

Entrance to underground storage cellars dug into the permafrost to keep frozen items cold. Notice mosquito net on my head!

Village noises surrounded us but were somewhat muted by the sod: dogs barking and howling, hunters leaving the village by snow machine, laughter, voices as people walked or rode by on their bicycles, the all-important airplane bringing in mail, supplies and passengers. Inside except when we turned to the battery-operated cassette player or a transistor radio for music, to get the Armed Forces bandwidth for news and sports or KJNP at North Pole tuned into “Trapline Chatter” with important messages to trappers, villagers, travelers, etc. in the outlying areas or Bush, it was just household chatter and banter with few sounds but the wind blowing around the house and over the nose or the sounds of lit lantern and stove flames. This was the rhythm we grew used to hearing and knew something was off, if it didn’t sound right.

Our dog Buffy standing behind her favorite seat, a sheepskin-covered chair.

Oh, those mice? If we left the village for a few days, the mice came out of hiding since Buffy wasn’t around to keep them at bay, and invade the kitchen carting off rice which they stuffed into shoes, boots and over the course of a one week when I was off to a conference, filled up a hairdryer blower stuck under the bed. Our fault for not securing the rice in mouse-proof containers. Lesson learned. And during the winter, they’d take to running above the bed in the cardboard and roofing buffer zone, keeping us awake before descending into the crawl space between the linoleum on the walls and sod covering. Argh!

In the spring, the sod mosses soaked up the snow and rains and began a slow process to cover over with grasses, sedges and wild flowers like the tundra from which it was cut. In the not-too-distant past, when this happened and the house thawed and it got wet inside, many people went to spring and summer camps until everything dried out. When we lived there, only a handful of sod houses were occupied but still any chance for the villagers to get out once the sun returned to the bottom of the Pass in late February, we went to the willows for tea and picnic and to let the kids run off their energy. A delightful time.

Picnic and tea in the willows with Judy and Rhoda. A good getaway time for everyone!

The summer’s heat and breezy conditions were not kind to the sod roof which dried it out so we placed weights on top to keep the pieces from blowing off. It would take awhile before the sod pieces grew together and formed thick turf. The grasses in the front of the house grew tall and fireweed proliferated, its beautiful pink spires in full blossom right outside the window taking advantage of the protection of the house and wanigan.

It wasn’t fancy but was a good arctic home for over a year before we moved to a homestead at Salcha, in the interior of Alaska, east of Fairbanks. There we began building outbuildings, garden, sled dogs, sauna and lots of trails, wild animals and challenging journeys.

Forty years after we left, a friend sent this photo of our sod house. This is what is left. Now along with memories so graced by the majestic mountains, skies and the tundra’s beauty it lies vacant…except for some critters, I imagine!

Until, our next journey stay safe, seek peace and offer beauty. ~ P