By Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter
Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Repairs near completion on the 70-plus-year-old Manitoba Cabin in the Summit Lake area of the Kenai Mountains earlier this month. Originally a mining cabin, the structure also has been a popular stopover for backcountry skiers, and now is available to rent through the Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Huts Association.
Two years of working through a governmental permitting process, months of planning, a $10,000 grant, an on-site specialty contractor working more often than not since summer solstice, plus thousands of hours of volunteer labor have gone into preserving the once-condemned, 70-plus-year-old Manitoba Cabin, to give it a future in keeping with its historic past.
And you’d never know any of that to look at it, passing by on the trail across Canyon Creek, just below the cabin in the Summit Lake area of the Kenai Mountains.
“Just walking up the road it’s like, wow, it looks exactly the same as it did back then,” said Pete Sprague, of Soldotna, who has been skiing Mount Manitoba since the 1970s, each trip passing by the squat, weathered wood structure sitting sentinel on a rise above the creek at the base of the popular backcountry ski area.
That’s exactly the point, say those behind the cabin restoration project, who are going to extra effort to make sure the cabin looks like it hasn’t had much work done at all.
“We wanted to salvage as much as we can and keep the historic nature of the building. We don’t want to put something here that doesn’t belong here. It’s a beautiful site, why not put together something that you’re proud of?” said Harry Hunt, the contractor leading the renovation effort on behalf of the Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Huts Association.
To clarify: The “back then” goal isn’t to keep the cabin looking as it has in the recent past — crumbling, decaying, succumbing to the inevitable conclusion of disuse, carpenter ants, encroaching vegetation and unchecked moisture. It’s to return the cabin to the days, 20 years ago, when it was still a welcoming destination for backcountry skiers, or even longer ago when it housed a series of miners hoping to tease glints of gold out of the creek below.
“As we renovated we tried to preserve its historic look and feel as much as possible,” said John Wolfe, president of the huts association. “Because of the history of the area and the recreational opportunity of the area, that’s what the heritage area is all about, so that’s part of why we’re trying to preserve the look and feel of this building and interpret its history.”
The cabin was built in the 1930s and was inhabited by a series of placer miners up until the 1980s, when the Anchorage Nordic Ski Club became its caretaker. The Manitoba area has been a popular recreational destination for about as long as backcountry skiers have been etching their serpentine tracks down the flanks of the Kenai Mountains. The grade of the double-humped slope offers the thrill of descent with little risk of avalanche. Access to the mountain is convenient from Mile 48 of the Seward Highway, with an old road leading about a half mile to a bridge across the creek at the cabin site, narrowing to a switchback trail that shuttles skiers up through the brush to the expanses of slopes and sky above tree line.
But while the area has remained popular with skiers and still holds active mining claims, the Manitoba Cabin fell into disuse and disrepair. The Nordic Ski Club of Anchorage started operating the cabin as a recreational site through a special-use permit with the U.S. Forest Service in 1982. Despite several repairs, the Forest Service deemed the structure unsafe for habitation and the ski club’s permit lapsed Dec. 31, 2001.
The cabin site had been part of federal mining claims administered by the Forest Service, with the state of Alaska taking control of most of the Summit Lake area through a federal-to-state land conveyance. Only a few privately held in-holdings remained as active mining sites. If and when those claims became inactive, the land lapsed into control of the Alaska Department of Natural Recourses, which didn’t particularly relish the idea of having to maintain cabins and associated structures.
“We heard that the state typically would ask the federal government to remove ‘trespass cabins’ that might exist (when claims lapsed and land transferred to ADNR) so that they didn’t have another thing to think about, another headache to manage,” Wolfe said.
But before the cabin was destroyed, the huts association began a permit process to lease the land from the state DNR and restore the structure. The site is a little outside the group’s original and primary focus — establishing a system of whistle-stop backcountry huts along the Alaska Railroad’s Anchorage-to-Seward route. But it was perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the organization to promote outdoor recreation by providing convenient communal lodging.
“That’s one thing that’s great about Manitoba Cabin, it’s kind of halfway between the Kenai-Soldotna
Manitoba Cabin is practically brand new following extensive renovations, but original materials were salvaged wherever possible to preserve the look of the cabin.
area and Anchorage and Seward, so it’s sort of a meeting point in the middle in terms of an outdoor ski area, and it’s pretty cool to get out and run into people from elsewhere. On a small scale it’s what’s best about huts everywhere. If you go to huts in the Alps or wherever, the very best thing is that you’re mixing with a bunch of people from all over,” Wolfe said.
The huts association had a romantic vision for the site — renovate the cabin structure, build additional housing and add some comforts and conveniences to create a warm, dry, cozy retreat for visitors to share a hot meal and their mutual appreciation for outdoor recreation.
“It’s meant to be a little bit different and filling a niche between your standard public-use cabin and your really high-end wilderness lodge. It goes toward the public-use end of the spectrum, but you don’t need to bring a tent, you won’t have to bring kitchen stuff. It’s supposed to be a little bit better appointed and require you to carry less stuff. That’s kind of the hut model in the world. Huts can be a lot of different things, but usually they provide the ability to do a multiday, hut-to-hut sort of experience with carrying not much more than a daypack, and so that’s where we’re heading,” Wolfe said.