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Home Sweet Home at 50 Below
Many and varied were the homes occupied by the Stringers during their time on Herschel Island. Their residences included a sod hut, a whaling warehouse, and a snow house. Surprisingly, the snow house offered good protection from the elements.
Snow houses or iglo-piyoapk were made from hard, frozen snow. The intense Arctic cold and strong winds compressed the snow and gave it the consistency of slabs of fine grain sand. Using a knife with a blade about a foot long, the Inuvialuit cut uniform blocks of snow about a foot square and 2 to 6 inches thick. Two men worked together, one inside and the other outside. The blocks were placed in a circle and built up like bricks. With each tier the blocks were slanted inwards and the house took the shape of a beehive. Water, sprinkled between each block, froze solid to form a weld which made the shelter firm and airtight. The door was made by cutting out of a piece of snow about 2 foot square at the bottom of the wall. This block was reserved for closing the doorway at night. A low wall of snow was built around the snow house as well as a tunnel for added protection from the piercing wind.
Much of the inside of the snow house was reserved for sleeping. The bed was a low platform of hard packed snow covered by board or willow mats that kept the polar bear and caribou skins off the snow.
Today, some Inuvialuit still build snow houses.
Sod houses were made from driftwood that floated down the Mackenzie River and was deposited on the shores of Herschel Island. Four large vertical corner posts were joined at the top by smaller horizontal posts. These made up the frame of the house. Vertical logs were then placed against the frame. The smaller logs were laid across the top to form the ceiling. This structure was covered with sod, moss, dirt, and glazed with ice. The window, often in the middle of the ceiling, was made of the oily intestine from a bearded seal, walrus, bear or moose. The houses were partially submerged and whenever possible, built into the side of a hill which provided additional insulation.
A deep tunnel led from the outside to the house interior. The tunnel came up through a trap door in the floor of the house. This allowed the house to stay warm and comfortable and cold air, which does not rise, was trapped in the tunnel. The tunnel could be up to 20 feet in length and about 2 ½ feet high.
The houses, usually designed to hold two or more families, consisted of a central shared room and a sleeping platform for each family. One platform was at the rear of the house and the opposite end of the house. Each family had a separate heating and cooking lamp with a rack over it for drying clothing. The common area was for sitting and talking, mending clothes, making tools, cooking, and eating.
© Old Log Church Museum 2002