By Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter
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
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.
But the rose-colored vision needed real dollars for the plan to see the light of day. In May, the project was bolstered by a $10,000 grant through the Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area, to be matched in volunteer labor, and contributions from the Alaska Forest Products Program of the University of Alaska. Thus, work could begin.
To head the restoration and construction, the huts association turned to cabin-building expert Hunt, with H&L Construction, who also built the cabin at Serenity Falls at Eklutna Lake.
“I like to build, I enjoy creating things with wood, it’s as much a hobby as a vocation,” Hunt said.
“He understands the hut idea pretty well, I think,” Wolfe said. “He’s used to these remote construction projects and understands the aesthetic and he’s really easygoing and willing to work with volunteers, and all that is great.”
Hunt began demo work at the site on June 23. The cabin was in pretty poor shape. The ceiling in the northwest corner had caved in, an infestation of carpenter ants had taken its toll, and with the structure being built on grade, the floor and foundation had long since succumbed to the inevitable disintegration of creeping vegetation and seeping moisture. Even when “new,” in the 1930s, the original structure had been cobbled together from various other buildings already at the Manitoba site, and the structure has had various sheds, lean-tos and other additions cobbled onto it over the years.
Only the 18-by-24 main room survived Hunt’s demolition, and that structure was raised 18 inches off
the ground and resettled onto a new foundation. The entryway on the east side of the building, facing the trail, was torn off and reconstructed with an additional 9-by-12 room, meant as hut keeper’s quarters, adjoining the entry/gear storage room. An addition on the north side widened the main room, and a new entryway was added on the north side, complete with a peaked overhang roof supported by posts Hunt fashioned out of rustic logs. New windows, doors, roof and floor were installed throughout.
Now the cabin is bigger and more functional for its communal-living purpose. Previous furniture had been a giant spool for a table, rounds of wood for stools and wood platforms for beds. Now the main room has a wood stove for heat, a propane oven and range for cooking, an equipped kitchen with pots, pans, tableware and mugs, a washbasin, drain and pipe to a submerged gray water disposal tank outside, a kitchen peninsula and countertop, a workbench and plenty of tables and seating.
And yet, even though the majority of the structure is now new, it’s all built to enhance the effect of
looking like the same old cabin. Hunt salvaged materials wherever he could — reapplying existing exterior siding, extending rafters by adding new wood where it wasn’t as obvious and using lengths of the old rafters where they would be seen. Salvaged materials — including old flooring planks stamped with “K D Co. Moose Pass” were used to make the doors, countertops and other indoor features. New windows were selected to mimic the look of the originals.
“We have some lumber inside that’s all salvaged. We haven’t bought much of this exterior stuff — it all came off of the structure and we reused it. Even those doors, I made them from some old wood we had on site. So we’re trying to reuse, regurgitate the building, take it apart, reassemble it and use as much of the old components and possible,” Hunt said.
“That’s the eco-friendly way of doing it. So there’s quite a bit of effort involved. And it isn’t that you’ll notice it that it’s done like it is. But if we didn’t do it that way it would be glaring. Nobody will notice it unless you realize what went into it, but if you did it the other way it would be an eyesore. It wouldn’t be in character of the old cabin,” he said.
Still, there are some obviously new additions. To the north of the cabin sit two 16-foot-diameter yurts
for lodging from Nomad Shelters in Homer. Each can accommodate eight campers on built-in bunks. The nearest to the cabin, Spirit Walker Yurt, is built on a 60-square-foot, wheelchair-accessible platform, and has a propane heater. The farther is Toba’s Yurt, on a 160-square-foot deck with a wood-fired stove for heat. The outhouse is an old meat-drying shed, placed with help from the operator of a nearby mining claim.
Mike Goodwin, huts association board member, said the organization has made an effort to establish positive relations with the neighbors.
“We collaborated with the miners here to make sure this is going to be a compatible arrangement as best we can. They’ve helped us out and they’ve given us some volunteer time. This has got a lot of mining history, so we want to make sure we keep good relationships with them,” Goodwin said.
“When we first applied for the permit there was some skepticism and comments submitted to DNR worrying about how this was going to work,” Wolfe said. “By and large I think everyone that we’ve met is pretty happy that the cabin is being saved. And I think it’s kind of cool that the miners seem to have a soft spot for the historic cabins in the area.”
Eventually the huts association would like to do historical interpretation of the cabin and the Manitoba area, highlighting both its mining and recreational history.
“We hope to build into that over time. We’ll learn more, talk to the miners and tell the story of the area,” Wolfe said. “Right now all the focus is on this building, but the huts association is a nonprofit because we want to do education in a hut environment and we want to build this sense of community. So that’s an important part underlying what we’re doing. It gets lost a little bit when we’re focused on the immediate construction of the first cabin, but that is the ultimate goal.”
Eventually, Wolfe said he’d like to see the cabin site used by school groups, university outdoor leadership and recreation classes, and youth camps.
So far, though, use during the construction phase has been limited to huts association members and the crews of volunteers coming throughout the summer and fall while out working on the site. At the end of September the huts association hosted a gathering to celebrate National Public Lands Day and the installation of the new wood stove in the main cabin. The Bluegrass band High Lonesome Sound played for the festivities, and about 30 people came by to help clean up the cabin site, chop wood and work on the yurts.
“It was a lot of fun,” Goodwin said. “We had a great night after a good, hard day’s worth of work. That’s kind of the way it’s been going, and that’s how we’d like to see it continue — folks having a good time getting outdoors. We’re all about getting people outdoors, giving folks another opportunity to do something different in the winter.”
Goodwin said the project has enjoyed great volunteer enthusiasm, directed onsite by Hunt.
“We’ve had thousands of volunteer hours, and this is great progress, thanks to this guy,” he said. “Harry’s the meat and potatoes of this whole project.”
More work is planned for the future, possibly as soon as next summer, including digging a new latrine, building a pole barn for storage and maybe even adding a sauna. In the meantime, the cabin site is opening for use by the public beginning Thanksgiving weekend. The first winter season will be a bit of a trial run, to familiarize the public with the cabin site and its huts philosophy, and work out any kinks that may arise. An online reservation system is planned for February 2013. In the meantime, reservations can be made by calling huts association board member Michael Henrich at 907-632-6440.
“We’ve got to pay the bills so we’ve got to make sure we do that, and hopefully everything inks out,” Goodwin said. “Because we’re a nonprofit this is just kind of a labor of love. It’s not about making money, it’s just about providing people an opportunity to get outdoors.”
Manitoba Cabin rental information
The Manitoba Cabin site is open for rental by the public. Two yurts, each sleeping a maximum of eight people, may be rented by groups. The main cabin area is for cooking, gathering and common usage, with no sleeping allowed. However, the attached hut keeper’s quarters, sleeping two, may be rented midweek when not in use by a volunteer hut keeper.
Rate per night Member rate
One yurt $150 $125
Hut keeper’s quarters $85 $70
Entire site $375 $300
The state of Alaska charges a $2 per-person fee in addition to rental fees.
Day use of the main cabin is available for $5, to be deposited in the lockbox on site.
After this first winter season, rates are expected to increase.
An online reservation system is expected to be available Feb. 1, 2013. In the meantime, reservations may be made by calling huts association board member Michael Henrich at 907-632-6440.
For more information, visit http://www.alaska.huts.org.