Feb 02 2012

Kyle and the Quiggly Hole

Published by at 8:53 am under Expeditions and Experiences

My name is Kyle. I live in the Inland Northwestern United States. I am on a somewhat different path than Torjus and Thomas. I have not achieved the dirt time or the craftsmanship these two have. I am nonetheless very passionate about primitive living.
 As a teenager I spent some time as hunter/gatherer in the steppes and forests of my region. Those experiences were more powerful for me than anything I’ve encountered since. As and adult, I’ve worked to curb the trajectory of my modern existence toward the sanity and dignity of the hunter/gather lifestyle. And I’ve wanted to do it in a way which is gradual, reasonably comfortable, and replicable by others.My plan centers around my relationship with the land. I’ve played the modern game to win land I can call my own; twenty acres, above the confluence of the Kettle and Columbia Rivers. Here, I am working to foster an optimal human habitat, a forager’s paradise. I want to create a lifestyle here which is healthy and human. It’s an experiment, but then, so is modern civilization. I think we need more experiments!

In the fall of 2009 I built this pit house.

My then partner and I needed a shelter for the winter, and I’d always wanted to build one. We were broke, so the pit house was actually one of the best options available to us. It didn’t cost a dime to build. All the materials were gathered on site.

Pit houses, also called earth lodges, kekulis, or ‘quiggly holes’ were the traditional winter dwelling of my region, the Plateau. Similar structures seem to have been used circumborealy. Pit houses of are of archaeological interest because they indicate a transition to more sedentary lifestyles. They were used by sedentary or semi-sedentary fishing cultures, also by farmers.

The pit house is a brilliant solution to the age old shelter problem. As many northern mammals know, a burrow in the earth is relatively dry and remains at a steady moderate temperature. When hides, or suitable tree bark, isn’t available, round timbers and earth are the next best covering. Before the saw, only easily split woods like cedar could be used for boards. I suspect thatch only became popular as as populations rose and forest products became scarce.

My design is not a traditional one. It is kind of a hybrid. The traditional house for my region was round, and had an overhead smoke hole which also functioned as the entrance (a ladder was used). I wanted a ground level entrance, similar to what some Plains and Subarctic cultures used. I also opted for a squarish design, and twin smoke holes in the gable ends, after a photo I saw of a Scandanavian ‘earth lodge’ replica. I did this because I didn’t like the idea of snow falling down the smokehole, and because I was unclear about how some crucial parts fit together in the traditional round design. I now wish I had used a more traditional style. I’ll explain why further on. It took over three weeks to build, with some help from my partner. I also had another big guy help me move and set the four large uprights. All the work was done with hand tools. Skinning all the roof poles took the most time. The floor is 12″x12″.

This was our home for the winter. It never dropped below freezing inside, even when we were away, despite outside temps in the negative teens F. Taking a hint from the old ones, we burried a storage cache in the floor- a garbage can full of gleaned potatoes. We were also given a whole sheep, by a kind friend, which we kept in a toolbox under the snow outside.

Unfortunately my experimental design had some major flaws. The vertical smoke holes turned out to be a particularly bad idea. Smoke drainage was terrible. Because of this, we had fires only briefly to cook dinner. We used a sheep fat lamp, and often hid in bed for heat. We also found that our covering  of fir boughs and sandy soil imperfectly shed rain and melting snow. Moisture gradualy soaked in, a problem exacerbated by lack of fire. Mould grew. I know some groups used a simple brush and soil covering like ours. With clay soil, in a cooler drier climate,  that could work. But I’ve since learned that the local villagers used a layer of cedar bark shingles. I’ve also seen good photos which clearly illustrate how thier round design was fit together. Live and learn. I also wish we’d have used a better floor covering, since our things tended to get filthy.

In any case, we survived. We certainly kept warmer than we would have in a tent or similar open air shelter. We were eager to move back into the tent in the spring. But then, so too were the natives, who spent thier summers in well ventilated tule mat lodges. This winter, I stayed in the tent while at home. Being single now, I’m less concerned with comfort. Also, I’ve developed an ironic allergy to the mould in the pit house. I use it for a tool shed and cellar.

I think I could fix the smoke problem by cutting back the roof poles to make one long overhead vent. I could also fix the leakage by pulling off the earth covering and installing cedar bark shingles. I don’t have cedar on my land, so I’ve have to truck it in. For now, this isn’t a priority.

In an age when people are breaking their backs for rent and mortgage payments, the pit house is an excellent alternative. It can be built with no money, in matter of weeks, with on site materials. If you plan to use an open fire, I recomend the traditional local design. A pit house could also be adapted to use a woodstove. The book “The Fifty Dollar Underground Home” illustrates how to use the same basic concept, and plastic sheeting, to create a functionaly modern, low cost, energy efficient house. See http://www.richsoil.com/wofati.jsp

Here’s a link to photo of a traditionaly designed pit house: http://www2.canada.com/vancouversun/features/fraser/storyimage.html?id=601baa24-d77c-4293-a47e-b8e0df37f68e&img=fc78ad1d-96bc-4bba-bca4-70e7ea22e733&path=/vancouversun/features/fraser/

There are some amazing pit house replicas built by native groups in BC.  I think one of the most impressive is the Sinixt pit house in Vallican, BC. It is the gold standard in my eyes. I can’t find good pictures of it now. One day, I would like to build a proper pit house like this one.

Building a structure like this gave me deep appreciation for the ingenuity and industriousness of the natives. Building a full sized pit house, with stone tools, would take expert planning, huge amounts of labor, and a considerable food surplus. These were obviously not the work of starving savages. Rather, the existance of pit houses is a testament to the affluence and organanization of past societies.





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10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Kyle and the Quiggly Hole”

  1. Deus Ex Machinaon 02 Feb 2012 at 2:57 pm

    Excellent commentary. You did a fantastic job on your pit house. I, too, have found that the real learning occurs during the active “doing” phase and not the “research and reading phase”.

  2. Markon 02 Feb 2012 at 4:09 pm

    Did a double take when I saw the word quiggly come across the feed reader! My heritage is the Chilcotin area of B.C. and the first peoples there used them also. The holes are a lot smaller than your pics, it’s a harsh and long winter there and guessing the smaller size was easier to keep warm.

  3. Kyleon 02 Feb 2012 at 8:18 pm

    Thanks Deus.

    Mark, I’m glad to know of another primitivist in the region. I think I smaller hole also saves a lot of labor. One reason mine is the size it is is because I’m over six feet tall and I didn’t want my head bumping against the ceiling.


  4. Thomason 03 Feb 2012 at 2:30 am

    hey Kyle,

    great to see you posting here!
    Really enjoyed reading about the “Quiggly hole”…
    It reminds me of the “den” – a shelter at a camp called Mashkodens where I was staying this past summer. It’s an underground structure designed for winter use with a long entrance tunnel (similar to an igloo or a snow cave), and even in -20F conditions the lodge temperature was still around freezing. There is no fire pit since it’s meant for sleeping so smoke was not an issue…mold on the other hand became a challenge in the second or third winter. After a few unsuccessful attempts to take care of the mold through smudging the lodge a few opened up part of the roof to let it air out for some time and potentially replace some of the materials. Here are some pictures of the construction phase:

    As you said, the Natives usually had very good reasons why they build their shelters in a particular way which may not be obvious right away…
    all the more I appreciate the energy you put into figuring what works and what doesn’t 🙂
    best wishes from the northwoods,


  5. Kyleon 06 Feb 2012 at 8:35 am


    I’m glad you shared those photos of the ‘den’. I’m curious to know what inspired the structure. Is there any traditional basis for it? Keeping the tempertature “around freezing” without fire, in your climate, is very impressive. That’s summer sleeping bag temperatures! With a covered space for cooking/crafting outside, that might not be a bad way to go.

    I’ve been wanting to build and test a one man debris lined ‘burrow’ for some time now, as a survival shelter. Coyote style.

    I have this curiosity about the feasablility of living at an ape’s level of technology. Fireless shelters would necessarily play a big role in that. I’d also like to expermiment with weaving chimpanzee nests.

    It’s fun to be involved here. I’m glad you and Torjus are letting me play.


  6. Thomason 29 Feb 2012 at 5:28 pm

    hey Kyle,

    in some ways the “den” is like a year-round snow cave…and snow caves are pretty amazing at keeping you warm without additional heat sources (besides body heat). I’m not sure if the Ojibway people in this area actually used structures like this, I didn’t come across it in the literature, but then again, although they’ve been studied comparatively well, there are a number of things that didn’t get recorded (especially regarding pre-contact lifestyle).
    That burrow sounds like a great idea. Seems like every other species besides us two-leggeds seems to get by just fine without large shelters with multiple rooms and fancy gadgets 🙂 To be fair though, I doubt us humans would have colonized the colder regions without fire and furs, so the ape-technology level seems to apply more to warmer regions. The Aborigines of Arnhemland in northern Australia are reported to have had (one of) the simplest levels of technology of human cultures at that time – hardly any tools, no clothes, and they rarely used any form of (natural) shelter.
    Good to have your perspective and experience here,

  7. bryan fryon 31 Mar 2012 at 8:12 pm

    Hello my name is Bryan Fry.I live what most would consider an alternate life style.I hunt,trap,and forage most of my food and live a fairly nomadic life style.Me and my wife are looking for a permanent community that share our values.some place to put a permanent shelter.this is a big deal only because we do not feel that you can own land and also do not use money.Is there any idea as to what can be done in are situation.Since we only earn money through trade and teaching at rendevous.I really see no way of ever getting land and have thought of going all rogue and heading for some mountain valley and hoping We never get found . We have also checked intentional community sites but most do not share our belief in a totally nature based path.And want you to buy into the place something we can not do.We have heard that homesteading is no longer an option.So for now I guess we will continue to travel.We always travel from washington to wisconsin and back.If you have any Ideas please contact me at bryanfry1982@gmail.com

  8. jamiyaon 04 Dec 2012 at 1:27 am

    i luv this since i am doing this for a grde 6yao my teacher is awesoe ia cgdhswiwhcf

  9. breville water kettleon 20 Apr 2013 at 7:04 am

    Finn breaks down the different girl-drunk archetypes for drunk Rachel: Crying – Santana, Angry
    – Lauren and Quinn, Stripper – Brittany, Happy
    – Tina and Mercedes, and Clingy – Rachel. But his usage of the term
    also annoys me because obviously Handley has despised Gorski and his position
    for years, so declaring a blog that’s nothing unusual for Gorski his “jumping the shark” moment is laughable. Waterfire is certainly a worthy stopover for summer travelers in the area looking for an uncommon and spectacular sight.

  10. bobon 22 Sep 2015 at 9:36 pm


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