Keys to Freeze, Mile 6819: A Tiny Yukon Home That’s Way, Way Off the Grid

Squeezing solar power and repurposed glass for all they’re worth, an Arctic artist handcrafts one seriously sustainable home—strong enough to brave the Yukon winters.

Keys to Freeze, Mile 6819: A Tiny Yukon Home That’s Way, Way Off the Grid

We are making our way slowly through the Yukon Territory of Canada. Just above British Columbia, the region shares a border with Alaska, wherein lies the oil town of Deadhorse, our final destination. At this point, the Keys to Freeze cross-continental cycling team has been on the road for five months, our starting point of Key West a distant memory. A steady stream of eighteen-wheelers rush by on our left-hand side, punctuated only by the occasional RV and pickup.

In the midst of steady gas-guzzlers, a diminutive Smart Car whizzes by and issues several rather friendly honks. As soon as the vehicle passes, it turns around and pulls over on the shoulder in front of us.

While riding in the contiguous forty-eight states it was normal for cars to suddenly stop and have the passengers grill us about the trip. “Why are you doing something like this?” “Are you independently wealthy?” “Don’t you have jobs?” Other times, fellow cyclists driving their cars would hit the brakes and offer encouraging words, candy bars or even a floor to sleep on for the night.

We stop short of the Smart Car and the two passengers, a Canadian couple, step out bearing four exceedingly ripe bananas. After having eaten only Pop Tarts and granola bars all day, the browning fruits are greatly appreciated.

The driver, JP Pinard, is a tall man with a long ponytail concealed by a wide-brim hat. The passenger, Sally Wright, is a short, fiery woman wearing a breezy and colorful dress.

They’re thrilled to see us.

“We don’t always stop for cyclists, but we saw your matching outfits and we had to find out what was going on,” says Wright, referring to our Keys to Freeze jerseys proudly displaying our route on their backs.

We explain our mission to raise funds and awareness for the National Parks Conservation Association, and watch as their faces light up. They’re both environmental activists who insist that we come stay with them at their homestead two nights from today. Pinard and Wright warn that they live off the grid and have no running water, but insist we could all “get clean” in their hand-built sauna.

We jot down their directions, which include nary a street name:

“First, turn right after the Arctic Research Institute sign,” says Pinard.

“Do you think the sign is still there?” asks Wright.

“Yeah I think it is.”

“OK. Then go down the gravel road a ways,” Wright continues. “You’ll see a Post Office outhouse. Trust me, you’ll know what it is. Turn right there.”

“Go past the old hotel until you see a mailbox with a little bike and an old toilet by it,” Pinard picks up. “That’s where we’ll be.”

The directions, while odd, are perfect.

Wright’s original house on the property. It evolved from a simple garden shed.
Wright’s original house on the property. It evolved from a simple garden shed.

As we pedal through the property 48 hours later, the trees and bushes close in, claustrophobically thick around us. Out of the growth a series of buildings begin to appear. Noticing a small shed with a solar panel on it flanked by a rusted VW Bug and their Smart Car, we get off of our bikes, relieve our ever-sore asses, and begin to walk in search of our hosts.

There are several more buildings deeper in the woods, surely built by hand. An old wooden shack with a greenhouse and a fifteen-foot wooden tower catches our eyes. There are two rusted snowmobiles on the side of a trail; one of them, strangely, has several old Mac computers placed in a row along its bench. After a quick glance the arrangement could be disregarded as junk, but upon further inspection it’s clear the computers have been intentionally arranged. The old processors are perched and ready for a winter ride.

There’s no sign of Pinard and Wright, so we continue to wander deeper into the woods until we hear the sounds of a radio. We find another, narrower trail we had not seen, marked with a small wooden signpost that announces “The Snail House.” We follow the path. For the first time it occurs to me I do not have my bear mace and that this is probably the time I need it most. We are surrounded by berry bushes and I’d heard that there are many grizzlies in this part of the Yukon.

All roads lead to the Snail House.
All roads lead to the Snail House.

Just as these thoughts enter my head, they are forced out by the appearance of what must be the Snail House. Half work-of-art and half traditional home, it appears like a forest mirage: curved angles, circular windows, and wood log masonry. It would perhaps be more at peace in the Shire than in the Canadian wilderness.

We knock on the thick wooden door and receive a joyful greeting from Pinard and Wright. They cannot believe we are here, and, in hindsight, are surprised that we were able to follow their directions.

We are served tea, and now the Keys to Freeze team has questions.

“How did you build this place?” Rachel gleefully inquires.

“By hand and over the span of seven years,” Wright says with great pride.

The Snail House.
The Snail House.

Thirty years ago, she worked and lived just a few miles down the road at the Arctic Research Institute. Over time Wright grew weary of dormitory-style housing. In search of more autonomy, she asked her now-neighbors if she could build a small residence on their property. She got the go ahead and built the first of six structures. With zero house-building experience she went to the local hardware store and bought a garden shed kit. At the time of its construction the “tower house” was only six feet by ten feet with no insulation, uninhabitable in the subzero winters of the Yukon. A greenhouse was added later and then finally the tower — a steeple Wright had salvaged from a local church that was being renovated.

“It’s called the Tower of Desire,” Wright says of their now-guest bedroom, letting out a burst of her contagious, crackling laughter.

While insulation had never been added to the walls, Wright covered the interior with hundreds of books. She figured it would keep the cold out, but the structure ultimately remained too porous for the harsh winters, prompting annual retreats to nearby Whitehorse.

Sally Wright showing off one of her most recent screens in her hand-built studio.
Sally Wright showing off one of her most recent screens in her hand-built studio.

Eventually Wright was able to save up money and buy the land she was squatting on. Soon, five more structures appeared. The tool shed was constructed and equipped with solar panels and an electric chainsaw to mill wood for future projects. Instead of a shower, a sauna was built from an old trailer, along with an outdoor wood-fired bathtub, followed by another shed, and then Wright’s studio.

She works as an artist, creating custom screen prints for businesses around Kluane Lake and Whitehorse. She also considers the entire property an art project — including that resting place for the obsolete Macs. According to Wright, The Snail House, which is the newest building of the bunch, is one of her finest works.

The walls of the Snail House are made from recycled glass and fallen pine trees.
The walls of the Snail House are made from recycled glass and fallen pine trees.

Seven years ago Wright decided she wanted to build a truly sustainable house that could stand up to the dark winter months. Pinard, an engineer, PhD and wind energy proponent, came along and helped design it. In an attempt to live as sustainably as possible, the Snail House runs entirely on solar power. It uses passive heating in the summer and, like all of the other buildings on the property, a wood stove in the winter. All of the utilized water comes from the lake and is hauled back with a bicycle. The walls of the house have the look of an adobe structure, but logs have been placed sideways into the recycled-glass mortar, the concentric rings showing the age of the dead trees found on the estate, all facing outward.

“The lumber from the property had been killed by pine beetles,” Pinard explains. “And we even milled all of the wood with the solar powered chainsaw.”

The interior of the house is lit by LED lights and glass bottles placed into the mortar. The sun shines through the Technicolor bottles and sends rays of red, blue and green dancing throughout the modest interior.

“It’s one of my favorite parts of the house,” Wright says. “I love the colors.”

The kitchen and living space makes up the single circular downstairs room and, up a log-hewn spiral staircase, lays the bedroom. Throughout the day all of the solar heat makes its way up the stairs, keeping the suite warm through the frosty night.

After the full tour of the property, Wright and Pinard insist that we leave the house and go to the beach on Kluane Lake. We walk slowly across an old, unused and forgotten section of the Alaskan Highway along with an airstrip that had been used to service it. We speak of sustainability and Pinard’s dream of creating an electric highway from here to Whitehorse.

The industrious JP Pinard in his solar-powered tool shed.
The industrious JP Pinard in his solar-powered tool shed.

“I want to be able to drive back and forth with an electric car,” says the man whose PhD work had been dedicated to studying the viability of wind turbines in the Kluane Lake area. “The whole highway could be powered off of wind turbines that would be placed all over the surrounding mountains.”

The four of us reach the lake and pause to bask in its beauty. It is already nine o’clock in the evening and the sun has not even begun to consider setting, perching itself above the nearby mountains and shining brightly off the lake.

Wright speaks of her thirty-year affair with Kluane Lake and the mountains. It becomes clear that all of the hard work and long hours put into building her homes, all of the effort to live off-the-grid in a harsh environment, all of the care put into creating shelters is secondary to her. The reason that Wright and Pinard live where they do, and go to great lengths to leave the smallest impact, is to spend the largest amount of time they can outdoors.

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Read more Keys to Freeze adventures on Narratively as our daring cyclist friends make their way from the Florida Keys to Deadhorse, Alaska.