With the thermostat set at freezing, running ice water in every room, the sturdy snowhouse could be the answer to our housing problem. The catch is, only an Eskimo can build one

DARRELL deBOW December 15 1950


With the thermostat set at freezing, running ice water in every room, the sturdy snowhouse could be the answer to our housing problem. The catch is, only an Eskimo can build one

DARRELL deBOW December 15 1950


With the thermostat set at freezing, running ice water in every room, the sturdy snowhouse could be the answer to our housing problem. The catch is, only an Eskimo can build one


THE cheapest form of housing in the world today is still the Eskimo igloo. Lumber prices may soar and labor costs may go sky high but snow is cheap and an igloo today costs no more

to build than it did in 1900—and in 1900 it didn’t cost a cent.

As an amateur igioo dweller I would hesitate to suggest them as a solution to Canada’s housing problem, but it’s a sure thing my friends in the Arctic never worry about having a roof over their heads.

When the winds howl across the rolling snow-blown land which borders Hudson Bay, Peter Kasudluak, the hunter, and his brother

Davidi, who has ulcers because he was once an Eskimo tycoon, and Isha Kudluk, who is fat and proud of it, and old Innukput and their brothers and friends—all of them fold up their tents, unsheath their long sharp snow knives and set to work building the mushroom-shaped homes which are familiar to anybody who looks at cartoons in the magazines.

Most homes these days take a maddeningly long time to finish but Peter and Davidi and the others start building at dawn and by the time the early Arctic sunset reddens the sky they’re ready to move their families in. And while they’re building their own homes, their kids are out building play igloos and learning the business from the snow up.

Pretty soon the whole country north to Baffin Land is dotted with smooth, perfectly round igloos, each of which looks just like all the others, each giving off the characteristic cloud of steam through the air vent which always shows you they’re occupied.

On one trip from Port Harrison, where I was stationed as a government weather observer, to Povangne-

tuk, 120 miles farther north on the east coast of Hudson Bay, I passed a dozen or so abandoned trail igloos. They all looked alike to me but my Eskimo dog driver was able to name the builder of each at a glance. I still don’t know how.

Most people have a fair idea what an igloo looks like from the outside though many believe the Eskimo’s home is built of ice when actually it’s snow. But what’s it like inside? Until I went to Port Harrison four years ago I had only a vague idea, but since then I’ve visited and slept inside dozens of igloos. I wouldn’t want to make a regular practice of it, but when the temperature hits 40 below and the wind blows hard from the North it can feel mighty snug and comfortable.

First, though, I should explain how you build an igloo. Or how an Eskimo builds an igloo because, personally, I couldn’t build one if you gave me all winter to do it. Only a handful of white men have mastered the art. Even my friend Josephi, who is half Eskimo and half white, has trouble and has to get a full-blooded Eskimo to help him finish his igloo every winter.

I remember my first November in Port Harrison watching Isha Kudluk building his igloo. Isha introduces himself to everybody as “Mr. Paddy,” meaning “Mr. Fatty.” He is a polite and cheerful man like most Eskimos and when I went over and started sawing at the snow in an effort to give him a hand he raised no objection.

It looked simple enough: Isha was simply chopping out blocks of hard-packed snow as fast as his knife would cut them and slapping them in place in concentric circles. With some difficulty I cut out a block myself and handed it to Isha. He took it gravely and put it in place. When I turned he quickly crushed it up and replaced it with one of his own. My block had fitted into that igloo about as well as I’d fit into one of my wife’s dresses.

After that I tried building igloos Irehind the shed where I couldn’t be seen. But I never got past the first block or so.

Here is how Isha built his igloo: he

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looked for a sheltered patch of hardpacked drifted snow at least four feet deep. Then he took his 18-inch snow knife and began to cut blocks of snow which he fitted into a neat circle about 20 feet in diameter. He built his igloo in an unending spiral which meant that the first layer of blocks started small then grew larger and then grew smaller again as they doubled back over the original layer. Each block was flat but the igloo itself, of course, seemed to curve because the blocks were cut on a bias so that they tilted toward the apex. Also each block had to be narrower at the top than at the bottom. In fact every block in Isba Kudluk’s igloo —and there were hundreds—was a different shape from every other block. Isha judged each by eye and cut them effortlessly and swiftly without stopping. When his igloo was finished it was so free of cracks that it needed no snow for mortar as some igloos do.

Isha built his igloo standing inside the circle of blocks. He got his first two courses from outside the circle. When it got too high to jump over he started digging inside the igloo, cutting the snow away from under his feet. In that way his house grew upward and downward simultaneously. However, he left a two-foot square in thé centre until the very last. He used this as a platform to stand on when he put in the final keystone arch.

Over the front door Isha built a window. As always it faced north so that the light would be indirect. Isha knows all about indirect lighting. Under the window he built a little snow ledge to catch the sunlight and reflect it into the igloo.

To make the window itself he dug a hole at the nearest water source the size of a washbasin and then dug down from that to water. When the water filled the hole and froze to a depth of two inches, Isha cut out his ice window. Above it, on the face of the igloo, he cut a small air vent which he protected with another ledge directly above.

The average family-sized igloo like Isha’s is between 15 and 20 feet in diameter and eight or 10 feet high. Trail igloos, which can be built in about an hour, are never more than eight feet wide. A missionary told me of one exceptionally large igloo he’d seen on Hudson Straits which was 15 feet high and 35 feet across. It had been built on the orders of an Eskimo woman who was leader of the settlement. But this is most unusual.

Large family igloos may have as many as four “cells” smaller igloos attached in line to the main one and joined by entrance holes. (Igloos, of course, vary in some details in different parts of the Arctic.)

I stayed a night in the four-cell igloo of Innukput, an Eskimo patriarch who was leader of a small settlement about 60 miles from Port'Harrison. Other igloos of two, three and four cells were grouped around the main igloo.

Light Inside Is Good

I entered the igloo on hands and knees, crawling down three or four steps and into a small opening. The opening was shielded from the wind by a snow porch whose position was changed daily as the wind varied. In the first cell, still on my hands and knees, I was told to knock the loose snow off my clothing. The dogs' harness was kept in this cell and on cold days the dogs themselves were allowed in

Then I crawled through the door into the second cell. The Eskimos with me didn’t crawl, incidentally. Being squat and supple they just seemed to squeeze through like toothpaste.

In this second cell we left our trail gear and outer clothing. We opened the packing case door into the third cell and moved past the cartons of flour, baking powder, tea, dog food and seal meat stored here, then into the door of the large igloo which formed the main living quarters.

To do this we went down another set of steps and then stood erect in a square well about eight feet across, surrounded on three sides by a snow ledge which was two or three feet higher. This was the Innukput’s sleeping and cooking platform.

On the left side, by tradition, Innukput’s mother had her cooking area; on the right, his wife worked. At the end, farthest from the door, was the sleeping area.

Mrs. Innukput worked under a frame of light wood latticework, supported by pegs driven into the walls, from which hung a good deal of wet clothing and a tea kettle. Under the

kettle on a packing box sat the igloo’s only source of warmth and light the seal oil koodhik (pronounced “koodlie”).

This was a deep saucer-shaped receptacle full of seal oil which had been rendered down by the sun In it floated a skin wick. In the daytime the light inside the igloo was good enough to take pictures with a good camera. At night the koodluk supplied enough light so the Innukputs could read their Bible, which was bound in skin and occupied a place of honor on a packing case near one wall. The Bible is the only book translated into generally understood modern Eskimo. All Eskimos take their religion seriously and almost all of them can read from the age of eight.

We carefully removed the last traces of snow from our feet even wiping the soles of our moccasins then sat down on the sleeping platform which serves as furniture in all igloos. It was covered by a mat woven out of willow brushes; over which caribou skins were st retched

As soon as we were seated Innukput offered us the inevitable cup of tea. Eskimos drink it almost continually. Innukput didn't throw out the tea leaves but simply kept adding more together with slices of snow chop|S'd from a block brought in by one of her sons. We also accepted a piece of Eskimo bannock, a concoction of flour, baking powder and water, fried in deep seal oil and tasting rather like a dough-

The Innukputs eat raw fish, raw

game birds and raw seal blubber. I didn’t. I had my own grub along.

When it was time for bed the Innukputs, like most Eskimos, slept naked inside individual hide bags. I peeled down to heavy woolen underwear which 1 wore inside my sleeping bag.

The temperature inside the igloo was close to freezing. If the temperature rose above 40, the roof would start to drip and the snow would cease to “breathe” and lose its insulating qualities. In spite of this low temperature the lack of draughts made the interior quite comfortable.

They’re Mad on Rummy

The average life of an igloo is two months. Some Eskimos build a new one every month (chopping a hole in the old one as they leave—why I don’t know). Old igloos have dripping ice patches on the ceiling and I’ve waked more than once to the clammy “ping!” of ice water on my forehead.

Igloo life is simple but not monotonous. Besides his Bible the eastern Arctic Eskimo I met enjoys a series of parlor games. He is a first-rate checkers player and he gambles at the most ungodly form of rummy with .22 shells as stakes. He also plays a form of “puzzle peg” with a soapstone board and ivory quills; he’s also moderately fond of Chinese checkers.

The igloo often contains a gramophone and old records, an ancient alarm clock and the occasional calendar. But there are no pin-ups—the Eskimo would consider them indecent. He’s a highly moral man who doesn’t drink or steal.

In spite of its utility and cheapness an igloo wouldn’t solve the white man’s housing problem. Few white men are rugged enough to live in them for long.

The stench from seal oil and drying clothes and the stale air are almost unbearable at first—though you can get used to it. The ventilation is primitive. The bed clothes are always damp. Small wonder the Eskimo has the highest TB rate of any race.

But he is not encouraged to live indoors in the white man’s fashion. If he did he could never go back to igloo life. One winter our maid Caroline froze her heel and spent the winter at a hospital in Cochrane, Ont. Her young daughter stayed in a house in the settlement. Next season they tried to go back to igloo life. They lasted just one month. It had become too rigorous for them. Now they can never live in an igloo again.

This will not greatly bother Caroline, who makes her living as a domestic, but the majority of Eskimos are hunters and a denial of igloo life would be disastrous for them.

One other thing would be disastrous for an Eskimo: if his igloo caved in. 1 have seen igloos burn—or at least their interior has burned and ruined the igloo—and I have seen them melt away in the spring. But I have never seen or heard of an igloo falling apart because it was jerry-built.

The Eskimos are merciless kidders. If one of their number was that careless about his igloo he’d have to leave the Arctic. ★