How to Build a Snow Hut



Community of igloos. (Illustration from Charles Francis Hall’s Arctic Researches and Life Among the Esquimaux, 1865) Wikipedia


In order to obtain a correct idea as to how a hut should be built in the most approved style, we will pay a visit to the master-builder, Atikleura. He is standing just below the summit of the ridge beckoning to Nalungia to intimate that he has found a suitable spot and that she is to bring him his snow-shovel. A glance at the site he has selected shows that Atikleura is a practical man as well as a man of taste. The position is well sheltered to the north, east, and west and the crest of the ridge at the back will prove a barrier to the biting north wind. Towards the south the prospect is open and will have the full benefit of the sunshine. Close by there is a small lake or pond which will supply the most delicious drinking water for the family. The country hereabouts consists mainly of spacious plains and beautiful lakes.

Meanwhile Nalungia has arrived with the snow-shovel. This is made of a wooden board which Atikleura has obtained by barter from tribes dwelling farther south, as there is no wood in Nechilli, nor does the smallest piece of driftwood ever find its way to these latitudes. The shovel is made in a very workmanlike manner, and excellently suited for its purpose as long as the snow is loose. For hard snow, of course, our iron spades would be preferable. It is strengthened at the lower end with reindeer bone.

Now, the first thing Atikleura does, is to shovel away the upper loose layer of snow, in the circumference within which he had planned to erect his hut. He does so with a true eye, as the large number of huts he has built in his lifetime has given him good practice. Then he draws out the knife which has hitherto been suspended by a loop on the bone peg at the back of his “anorak.” It is quite a monster knife, enough to frighten anyone who had not seen it before. The blade is as large as that of an ordinary good-sized butcher’s knife, and is made of iron, which has also come from the south; the handle is about a foot long, and is of wood or bone. Taking the handle with both hands he commenced to cut out his ice-blocks for building the hut. These are cut out to a size about eighteen inches wide, twenty-four inches long, and four inches thick. If cut out in this way, the building site itself will yield sufficient material for the whole construction.

It is a pleasure to see how a good builder cuts each block so that it just fits where he sets it. Atikleura is a veritable prodigy at this work. Not one of his blocks ever breaks in pieces, although he appears to cut them out without any particular care. Just a cut here and there, then a kick, and the thin neat block stands separated from the mass of snow. All the blocks from Atikleura’s hand are so exactly equal in size that they look as if they had been accurately measured. The hut is built up in spirals in the form of a haycock or beehive, so that one layer of blocks rests on the previous one and extends a little farther inward. In joining the blocks the sides must be fitted to each other so that the walls are perfectly tight. The builder’s skill can be gauged by the tightness of the hut: but even with Atikleura’s skill it is impossible to avoid some few small chinks here and there. It is Nalungia’s task to fill up these chinks. For this purpose she works the shoveled-up, loose snow until it is as fine as grated sugar, for it is only when it is in this state that it can be used for making the joints tight. It is thrown up against the blocks as soon as they are placed in position, and fills in every little hole and crevice. The walls of the hut rise quickly. As the blocks are cut out, the ground is cleared downwards; and as they are set into their places, they serve to increase the height of the walls of the cleared site. Atikleura looks as if he had been standing on his head in a flour-tub; he is covered with snow all over; his clothes, hair, and beard are white as chalk. His long gloves prevent the snow from getting into the sleeves of the “anorak.”

Building the roof of such a snow-hut is a very complicated affair to the uninitiated. Many a snow-block did I get on my head when I essayed this work. The snow blocks have to be set back gradually inward, and when the work is nearing completion, the last blocks would appear to be literally suspended in the air, without any base or support. The last block (or keystone) which closes the roof in the center is quite small, and in most cases triangular. To fix it in its position from the outside, it must first be juggled out through the hole which it is eventually to fill. This looks impossible, but the .Eskimo achieves the impossible. With one hand he raises his block to the outside, through the hole at the top, and while holding it he cuts it into the shape of a wedge with the knife he holds in the other; and when he lowers it into the hole, it fits it as if it had been molded for the purpose.

Nalungia, aided by Errera, has perseveringly plastered over the outside of the hut with fine snow, so that it simply looks like a snow-heap. The outlines of the blocks are now quite concealed under the snow. But the hut is perfectly tight, as the fine snow works itself in wherever there is the slightest hole or crevice. The master-builder himself is not yet visible; he is still busy in the interior of the hut, where he is now completely built in. At last his long-bladed knife protrudes from the wall of snow, and with a rapid movement he cuts a hole just large enough for him to creep through. I am surprised to see how high up the wall he cuts the hole, as in all the huts I have hitherto seen, this entrance hole was quite down to the floor. Now Nalungia creeps in through the aperture, and I follow her to see what she is going to do in the way of further internal arrangements. I am at once enlightened as to why the aperture is made so high up; Atikleura has cut it on a level with the sleeping-berth, to expedite the work of “moving in.” He has constructed the sleeping-berth as follows: He has first divided the hut by a row of snow-blocks into two compartments, of which the inner one is twice as large as the outer. He throws all the loose, refuse snow lying in the hut, into the inner compartment, until it reaches the level of the row of blocks, and there you have the “bedstead” quite ready. At the opposite end of the hut is another small erection, made of two blocks, set on edge, and a third laid across them, like a table slab.

Now commences the moving in, through the aperture above the sleeping-berth. Large quantities of skins are thrown in and slung topsy-turvy upon the sleeping place. Next comes all the furniture — a drying grid, water bucket, cooking pot, blubber lamp, provisions, blubber, meat and fish; and lastly the women’s personal belongings — which I dare not specify more fully. Now it looks as if all were over and Mrs. Nalungia casts an inquiring look at me, as much as to say: “Are you going to creep out?” I have no idea what is about to happen, but my curiosity prompts me to remain, thinking that anything much worse than I had seen before was hardly likely to occur; but I certainly was a little taken aback when the hole over the sleeping-berth was suddenly blocked up again from outside and I was alone, with one lady, in a closed-up hut. However, as Nalungia did not seem to mind it in the least, why should I trouble? Disregarding me, she set to work with a will. The heavy blubber lamp was first raised upon the little snow-table near the wall opposite the sleeping-berth. This lamp is made of a kind of stone they obtain from the Utkohikchyallik Eskimo; it is carved in the form of a crescent, and is heavy and clumsy. It is placed upon three pieces of bone inserted in the snow-slab, so that the inner edge of the crescent is turned towards the interior of the hut, while the outer edge is towards the wall.

The blubber bag is now brought out and a piece of frozen blubber taken from it; this is beaten with a specially made club of musk-ox bone until it is quite soft. Now she produces, from one of her repositories, a little tuft of moss, which she carefully soaks with seal oil — ugh, I remember with horror those mysterious “light pastilles” — and then she sets to work to get a light by rubbing pieces of wood together. The” pastille” soon sends out the most dazzling rays; the crushed blubber is put into the lamp, and a wick of moss is laid along the whole of the straight inner edge; this is sprinkled with seal-oil and ignited by means of the burning tuft of moss. The whole wick is now blazing, and a brilliant flame lights up the roomy hut. I ask myself what in the world she wants with this brilliant flame, as she has now finished arranging the hut, and I am almost on the point of upbraiding her for this waste of precious oil, but I refrain, as I remember that an Eskimo never does anything without good reason. In fact it soon becomes apparent that here, too, my judgment is premature. Gradually an oppressive heat spreads from the mighty flame, and now I understand that her object is to cause the newly built hut to settle well down at the joints. As the result of the heat thus produced, the snow blocks gradually close up till they may be said to form one single continuous wall.

This piece was excerpted from The Search for the Poles ed. by Eva Tappan ©1914. It’s an old piece, but the process of building a home from the snowpack is still in use today.

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