Alpine Lady

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


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




The Alchemical Magic of Vermiculture

Worm-composted herbal and floral gardens.

Worm-composted herbal and floral gardens.

To most people who use worms to breakdown household kitchen scraps and especially to experienced vermiculturalists, a seething mass of healthy red, squirming compost worms delights the eyes. It means our efforts to utilize  compostable vegetative waste has been successful, and there’s a rich treasure of soil to help raise healthy plants. To me it’s akin to alchemical magic, transforming waste into black gold.

Ideal for the gardener who has a small to medium-sized garden and no real access to bountiful plant waste to make a  regular compost heap, the worm compost provides even an apartment dweller with rich soil for containers and flower boxes. Worm composting is simple to set up although I find its maintenance requires more attention to assure minimum odors if done indoors. If done outdoors, it is still a good habit to keep odors under control so as not to attract raccoons and rats. There is a plethora of videos, books, and websites that show and explain their construction so I won’t be going over that. This article is to share my journey and what has worked for me.

I grew up on a rural farmstead in north Idaho in the 50’s and 60’s. My family raised a variety of animals over time, adding their manures in the fall and spring to enrich and enliven the garden and orchard soils. Most of our household scraps were tossed to the chickens who dutifully did their duty of turning them into manure which we added to the garden. There was also a compost pile surrounded by railroad ties stuck off to the side into which stalks, weeds, etc. were piled and occasionally turned. No thought at the time was given to the leaching of creosote out of the bin but only that the ties wouldn’t deteriorate. The material in this pile served as a source for earthworms as bait for fishing expeditions and when there was enough broken down to have produced soil, it was tossed around the trees in the orchard, under the raspberry bushes, or under the shrubs in the flower gardens.

When Michael and I moved to Alaska, I was told you couldn’t compost so being the person who likes to take on a gardening dare, I found you could if you used a shredder first and turned the pile often and sifted it before applying to the gardens. I also ordered worms from the “Outside” and added them to our greenhouse beds each year. The worms froze during the severe freezes of winter except for a few worms I found one spring. We had a garden down below at the old, ramshackle homestead for a couple of summers which was hand watered from a nearby pond, before building our own place by hand with new gardens and greenhouse along with house, sauna, dog lot, etc. above the road. Quite the endeavor!

Compost and hand watering made for a magnificent garden at the old place.

Compost and hand watering made for a magnificent garden at the old place.

Our food compostables were fed to a flock of chickens we raised each summer which had to be penned up because of the foxes, weasels, owls, wolves, bears, coyotes, etc., that would have done them in. We butchered each fall and the feathers, offal along with additional kitchen wastes were shredded, too. Of course, the bins were outside, well secured, turned often, and kept meticulously clean so as not to attract critters, especially the bears. With the long days of summer and with water hauled from the lake or gravel pit or collected during rainfalls, our gardens and greenhouse which incorporated drip irrigation were spectacular, if you don’t mind my saying so.

Compost, hand watering and love.

Compost, hand watering , drip irrigation, and love paid off.  We raised cucumbers, tomatoes, herbs, and flowers in our new greenhouse.

Moving back “Stateside,” I found living in town to require a different approach although we tried building regular layered composts which needed to heat up in order to kill the disease organisms and weed seeds. Eventually, worms started to invade from the bottom up as it cooled down and in order to save time and energy to pursue our gardening and herbal chores instead, we incorporated composting worms or red wrigglers with a large starter mass from a friend who owned a restaurant and was using worms to break down his compostables including copious amounts of coffee grounds.

We went through several incarnations of compost bins which Michael made including one in which a panel at the bottom of the bin allowed us to access the rich soil that eventually accumulated.

Glorious vermiculture gold!

Glorious vermiculture gold!

Over time we settled on stackable bins where we could add vegetative parts including household scraps, leaves, weeds, coffee grounds, etc., and the worms could do their duty. After the materials gained a certain height, they were turned and piled into another set of stackable bins, back and forth until they were almost totally broken down. I found the worms were most productive by this method if carefully turned and thus exposed to the new territorial food sources. To separate the worms at the end, I’d put in a rich wad of fresh kitchen wastes at the top and a good amount of worms migrated to begin “eating”  through the scraps. This was then taken out and stored until I sifted the finished compost and then the whole process was started again.

The Alchemy of Vermiculture

The Alchemy of Vermiculture

First we’d pile a layer of rough weed stalks, then some of the composted soil full of healthy organisms which I collected and set aside before sifting, the wad of worms and new scraps, etc., allowing the worms to work their way upwards as the wastes get tossed in and periodically turned.

Our gardens also received copious amounts of birch leaves collected in the fall which went through a leaf shredder and then turned into the beds by hand. Additional fish emulsion and some manures were added, as well, to enrich the soil but always side-dressed with compost.

Sifted compost ready to put into the garden and flower beds.

Sifted compost ready to put into the garden and flower beds.

Worm-composted basil and Italian parsley.

Worm compost side-dressed basil and Italian Parsley.

Our medicine wheel herbal and floral garden.

Our medicine wheel herbal and floral garden.

In Hawaii, I simply took my kitchen scraps across the street and threw them into the jungle where they magically disappeared overnight and seemed to keep the vermin away from our side.

The jungle across the street where I gifted my Hawaiian compostables.

The jungle across the street where I gifted my Hawaiian compostables.

Moving to Sequim, WA, because I didn’t want to waste the scraps from our lovely organic produce we are able to procure, I started a small wormery in a plastic storage bin which we had many of with our recent move from Hawaii. Michael drilled holes in the sides for ventilation because worms are living creatures who require food, air and space to grow.

Plastic bin worm compost operation. Excess moisture drips down into collection bin.

Plastic bin worm compost operation. Excess moisture drips down into collection bin.

The bin was stacked on top of two, upside down flower pots in another bin to collect the occasional moisture that dripped through due to the plastic nature of the bin and all the moist food the worms ate through. The bin has a secure top because we have a family of raccoons living close by and although they never have bothered it, there’s no reason not to think one night they might investigate.

I got a few starter worms from friends and it wasn’t long before I had a plethora of wrigglers which I started giving away to a friend who has an orchard, gardens, and much larger compost pile. I couldn’t use all the compost my worms produced for our container gardens so decided to harvest the worms often and she uses all the worms I breed to help breakdown their ever-growing garden wastes. She also takes my excess kitchen scraps and adds them to her pile.

For me it is a delight to open the bin and investigate what’s happening in the worms’ world. Having raised and lived with so many generations, I swear they know me and I get these messages of when to come visit, what to add, and when to add it. Sometimes they want something sweet such as fruit, other times I add protein-based fat such as beef fat off the bone broths. I especially find this request coming at a time when it turns cold. The sweeter contents are tossed in when the worms are actively breeding and producing eggs. All is covered with brown paper before topping with a secure lid to keep out raccoons.

Getting the bin ready for a fall rest after having harvested the latest crop of compost worms for a friend.

Getting the bin ready for a fall rest after having harvested the latest crop of compost worms for a friend.

So I do  hope you find worm composting to be an effective way to turn your kitchen scraps into gold and enjoy the process involved with their bountiful gifting efforts.

Solomon sea grown in a container is side-dressed with worm compost and worm compost tea.

Solomon seal grown in a container is side-dressed with worm compost and worm compost tea.