Category Archives: Hut systems

Vermont Huts Association Building First Hut

Vermont Huts Association Update – strategy, new hut, partnerships and campaign

by Sam Demas, November 2017

The recent Launch Party of the Vermont Huts Association (VHA) was a gala presentation of the strategy, partners and progress of the nation’s newest state-wide hut association.  Following is a quick sketch of VHA after its first year of operation.

VHA Mission & Strategy: Connectivity

Vermont Huts Association

Phase One strategic focus: Trail Towns, courtesy Vermont Huts Association

As an organization based on partnering, the VHA mission statement  includes: …collaborating with our partners in recreation, we will enhance existing trail networks, expand connectivity, and create a four-season hut network across the Green Mountain State to strengthen local communities and foster a deeper appreciation of our natural environment.

To create a cohesive network of accommodations, this emerging non-profit will eventually identify 20-30 zones across the state with potential sites for huts that will connect existing accommodations infrastructure on the state’s extensive (more than 900 miles?) trail system.  Their approach is to fashion a year-round “multiple modality” system including hiking, biking and skiing.  The focus of Phase 1 of their strategic plan is on the Route 100 corridor in central Vermont, which is rich in trails, trail towns, and accommodations that can be connected. The goal is to work with a wide range of organizations and agencies to fashion a state-side recreational network out of existing trails and infrastructure.

Yes, this is an ambitious undertaking; but it actually seems achievable due to the remarkable outdoor recreation community and ethos of cooperation in Vermont.

State-wide Context: Collaboration and Community

Since 2008 Vermont has experienced a surge of engagement with backcountry skiing and biking.  This has stimulated efforts to create a robust community of interest around Nordic skiing and other forms of recreation.  This grassroots movement is indelibly stamped with quintessentially Vermont common-sense driven cooperation.  It is within this broader context that VHA was born and operates, and that lends confidence that its promise will be realized.

A few quick examples: It is remarkable how quickly the Vermont Backcountry Alliance and a number of independent community-based initiatives found common cause and became local chapters of the Catamount Trail Association, which operates a 300 mile North-South trail traversing the state North-South, purportedly the longest Nordic ski trail in North America.  The Vermont Land Trust contributed to the development of backcountry skiing through preservation of 1,161 acres of ski terrain in 2011, which was donated to the existing 44,444 acre Mt Mansfield State Park. The Vermont Mountain Bike Association, with 28 chapters statewide are building an extensive network of trails, most going East-West, is an avid collaborator.  And add to this rich mélange the legendary expertise and leadership of the Green Mountain Club, with its North-South Long Trail, and the recreational and conservation experience, vision and lands of the Green Mountain National Forest and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. They all appear to play well together.

These are just some of the most obvious players creating a remarkable milieu in which huts might flourish as part of a state-wide strategy to pursue increased recreational access (and economic development) while vigilantly protecting the environment from over-use by ever-increasing human impacts.

First hut now under construction

VHA hut construction, courtesy VHA

The first hut that VHA will actually build and operate is under construction now by the non-profit Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield, Vt. VHA will manage the self-service hut — perhaps with a weekly caretaker — under a long-term management plan it is devising with advice from the Green Mountain Club.  An application is pending for a special use permit from the U.S. Forest Service to site the hut in the Rochester Unit of the Green Mountain National Forest.  The hope is that the hut will open in 2018, and that it will be sited to allow connection to existing accommodations to the South, and that over the next year or two another hut will be constructed to strategically further develop a hut-to-hut network in the region.

 

Membership and fundraising campaign

Vermont Huts Association

Architects rendering, courtesy VHA

VHA’s challenge now is to bring these phase one plans to fruition, and they are reaching out for support. The project construction budget is $60,000, of which $28,000 has been raised so far. In addition to securing the remaining construction funds in the coming year, VHA’s goal is to increase its membership to 228 by the end of 2017.

I’ve just renewed my membership and made a contribution.  I encourage folks who like VHA’s energy and concept join and contribute to the hut fund.

You will be supporting a remarkable, forward-thinking state-wide vision and momentum for cooperation in the interest of recreation and environmental conservation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sperry Chalet

Sperry Chalet – historic hut in Glacier National park

Sperry Chalet: historic hut in Glacier National Park

[Featured image (1914) above by Fred Kiser, Courtesy Ray Djuff Collection]

By Sam Demas, October 2017

Sperry Chalet, a much-loved historic hut in Glacier National Park, came to national attention on August 31, 2017 when the main lodge, or “dormitory” was badly burned.  Sadly, I never visited Sperry.  This is not a first-hand account; like many others, I still hope to get there some day.  Efforts are underway to rebuild and re-open this early exemplar of high mountain hospitality. May they succeed!

This post is an appreciation of Sperry Chalet as one of the oldest and most beloved high mountain huts in the nation.  It sketches the hut’s history and architecture, and briefly treats its prolific namesake Lyman Beecher Sperry.  This post is based entirely on secondary sources, mainly the work of Ray Djuff, but others as well.  Apologies in advance if any errors crept into my account.

For fuller information about the present and future — i.e. the Sperry fire, present conditions and efforts to re-build — please see the article by Ray Djuff, which he kindly granted Hut2Hut.info permission to print and the October 19 Glacier National media release reporting on the stabilization efforts to help the structure (which lost its roof and floor) weather the winter.

For fuller historical information about Sperry Chalet see chapter 10 (p. 128-137) of Glacier’s Historic Hotels and Chalets: View With a Room by Ray Djuff and Chris Morrison (Farcountry Press, 2001).  For a touching, first hand post conveying the depth of affection Sperry has engendered among park visitors and staff, see Courtney Stone’s Remembering a Grand Lady: the Loss of Sperry Chalet, 1913-2017.  And the website of the National Park Lodge Architecture Society.

Origins of the second oldest hut system in the U.S.

Between 1913-1915 the Great Northern Railway (GNR) built a system of nine Backcountry Chalets (see my separate post on this early hut system) and four hotels to provide park visitors with horseback (and hiking) access to the interior of the park.  This makes it the second oldest hut system in the USA, and until sometime in the 1930’s or 40’s it seems to have been the nation’s largest hut system.

Until the 2017 fire, Sperry and Granite Park Chalets were the last remaining backcountry chalets in this once-grand hut system. The Glacier huts (and hotels) were sited in places of great natural beauty, each one a day’s horseback ride apart from another lodging option.  Designed in the style of Swiss Chalets, these hut complexes were part of the railroad’s efforts to market Glacier as “America’s Switzerland”, as part of a promotional campaign aimed a wealthy Americans to “see America first”.  See the introduction to Glacier’s Historic Hotels and Chalets: View With a Room for an excellent overview of this ambitious initiative advanced by Minnesota railroad barons James Jerome Hill (the Empire Builder) and his son Louis Warren Hill, Sr.

Sperry Chalet: quick historical sketch

Built on the precipice of a magnificent cirque, Sperry Chalet offers some of the finest views in Glacier and provides access to to nearby Sperry Glacier.  The Great Northern Railroad was anxious to build on this strategic site to gain a monopoly on access to one of the most popular destinations in the park.

Legally designated a National Park in 1910, the Great Northern Railway (GNR) was quick to establish a near monopoly on lodging in Glacier.  Sperry was just one of a dozen or more construction projects initiated soon after formal designation as a national park.  At Sperry a tent camp was constructed in 1911 and hosted 461 visitors in 1912, its first season.  Construction on the stone kitchen and dining hall began in 1912 and the facility opened in 1913.  The “dormitory” — accommodating 75 guests — was constructed in 1913 and opened in 1914, and supplemented by a tent camp (which operated until WWI) accommodating another 75 guests.

The hut is accessed by 6.7 mile trail from Lake McDonald (with a 3,300′ elevation gain) and a gentler, scenic 13.7  miles through Gunsight Pass.  The blazing of the trail to the site of Sperry Chalet is an interesting story related below.  Accessible only by horse or by foot, Sperry Chalet is renowned for its views, remoteness, and its mountain hospitality during its 60 day operating season.  Even without electricity, the level of amenities made for genteel comfort in a backcountry setting.  In the early days lighting was provided by kerosene lamps, running cold water was available in the dormitory rooms and hot water was delivered on request.  The buildings were heated by wood stoves. Plentiful servings of good food was provided, family style, three times a day in the dining room.

Sperry Chalet

Sperry dining room and kitchen in 1920’s, Courtesy Ray Djuff Collection

The hut was supplied by pack horses from Lake McDonald.  Human waste from outhouses and gray water were tossed over the cliff until the environmental effects became intolerable (see below) by 1992.  Lounging on the balconies to watch the sunset was a favorite activity.

Sperry, along with the other Glacier lodgings, suffered financially during the Great Depression. After the initial completion of the Going to the Sun Highway in 1933 park visitors increasingly visited by auto and overnights at the backcountry Chalets dropped off. 

Sperry closed (1943-46) during WWII.  By the end of WW II all but 2 of the chalets were accessible by car, the demand for saddle trips fell off dramatically and the railroad deemed the Chalets out-moded or unsupportable.  The GNR sold Sperry to the National Park Service for $1.  The Park Service let the hut as a concession to Martha Russell.  In 1954 the concession went to the Luding family, who operated it for many years.

What kept Sperry and the few remaining backcountry chalets going during the 1950’s and into the 1960’s was use by enthusiastic and fit cliques of park and concessionaire employees.  Ray Djuff says this was a second golden age of the chalets, which became prized hiking destinations for those in the know.  The back to nature movement of the 1960’s and backpacking boom of the 1970’s precipitated yet another golden age, which continues today.  People love these huts.  Getting reservations has long been very competitive, and will certainly be harder still in future.  As in Yosemite, the interest in backcountry huts on national park lands is intense.  Sperry continued to operate through August 2017 in much the same way as it did in the early days, as rustic shelter for backcountry travelers who appreciate comfort and conviviality at the end of a day of hiking in fabulous mountains.

[Coda: It is interesting to speculate what the Glacier hut system would look like today if the other backcountry Chalets at Glacier had been able to survive the incursion of the automobile into the center of the park.  If, like Sperry and Granite Park, they had been able to hold on until the environmental movement and backpacking boom a generation later, Glacier still might have one of the largest and oldest hut systems in the USA.  In any case, Glacier still has Sperry (assuming it will be rebuilt) and Granite Peak as reminders of a different era in National Park Service backcountry lodging options.]

Sperry Chalet, note rock work mimicking log joints, Courtesy Wiki Media

Architecture

Both of the main buildings comprising the Sperry Chalet complex were built of local stone and lumber from the area.  The kitchen/dining building was built by Italian stone masons in1912. Both structures were designed by architect Kirkland Cutter of Cutter and Malgrem in Spokane.  The one story 22’x80′ Kitchen and dining hall was a fairly unassuming stone structure.  The 32’x90′ two story lodge or dormitory, was built in the style of a Swiss chalet.  The balconies were a favorite feature of guests.  A nice detail in the stonework is the use of stone to look like the corner joints of a log cabin.  Following is the architectural data included in the description on the website of the National Park Lodge Architecture Society:

Sperry Chalet • Glacier NP, 1913
Classification IV
Location:
 Sperry Trail, Lake McDonald, Montana
Theme: Swiss Chalet; National Park Rustic “Parkitecture” with multiple rectangular structures
Original Architect: Cutter and Malmgren; some sources list Samuel Bartlett. Glacier Park Hotel Company
Construction: Glacier Park Hotel Company (later renamed Glacier Park Company), subsidiary of Great Northern Railway. Most aspects of design and construction were controlled by Louis Hill, president of GN Railway.
Structure: Two storey stone dorm building with asphalt roof, multiple porches and dormers. Interior walls cedar tongue-and-groove, floorboards are painted wood, interior and exterior railings are peeled log. One storey kitchen-dining room building, stone structure with wood shingle roof.
Known Timeline:
Construction begins, 1912
Kitchen/dining room building completed, 1913
Open for guests, 1914
Closed due to war, 1918
112 total season guest count due to depression, 1932
Dormitory altered, 1940
Closed due to war, 1942-1944
Concession transferred to Luding family, 1954
Dormitory altered, 1955
Dining Room altered, including roof replacement, 1961
Deck and balconies replaced, 1978-1979
Restoration of entire complex, 1996
New restroom building added, ca. 2008
Presently offers 17 guest rooms

Environmental impact: the “million dollar toilet”

For years kitchen waste was pitched over a cliffside and became, as in many national parks, a public viewing ground for the nightly feasts of “garbage grizzlies”.  In response to problems with beats attacking people in a number of national parks, culminating in several lawsuits after bears killed humans.  NPS implemented strategies (e.g installing bear boxes, visitor policies, and closing of dumps in the park) to break the connection in the minds of bears between people and food.  At Sperry a new strategy — packing out the kitchen waste beginning in 1954 — was implemented long before the aforementioned NPS policy changes.

Disposal of sewage was a harder problem to fix. While flush toilets were added in 1964, sewage disposal continued as before: dumped over the mountainside.  By 1992 the unenlightened practice of disposing of sewage finally caught up with the National Park Service.  The pollution effects of this practice were no longer possible to ignore; Montana state water quality tests were one indicator that precipitated discussions of Sperry’s future.  Sperry was closed after the Sierra Club Environmental Defense Fund threatened to sue NPS for this defilement of a beautiful high mountain area.  The cost of fixing the sewage problem was deemed prohibitive by NPS, which had many other pressing priorities.  NPS decided to close Sperry Chalet and Granite Park Chalet, which had similar conditions.

This decision prompted a public outcry in the form of a “Save the Chalets” lobbying and fundraising effort.  Public pressure resulted in action from the Montana legislators, getting Congress to direct the NPS to keep the chalets open and allocating $3.3 million to implement solution.  The funds were used to effect renovations at both huts, but most of the funds went to fixing the sewage problem (the most costly component was helicopter fees associated with complex backcountry construction).  Sperry and Granite Park were closed from 1992 – 1999 during  construction and renovation.

The elaborate project attracted much press coverage about the “million dollar toilet”.

Alas, the expensive toilets were removed in 2005 due to non-performance — they could not achieve a sufficiently high temperature conditions to actually compost the waste.  They were replaced with latrines using sealed drums, which were used to haul sewage from the huts by helicopter to a sewage treatment plant.

Today we know from experience that siting of high mountain huts is a significant challenge.  Site selection for Sperry Chalet was done quickly by the railroad, and without sophisticated consideration of the long term effects of human use, in particular waste disposal.  Sites like those of Granite Park and Sperry Chalets would no longer make it through the screen of an Environmental Impact Statement process.  However, high mountain huts “grandfathered in” are extremely popular and can prompt extraordinary measures to keep them open in compliance with environmental stewardship principles and practices.

Lyman Beecher Sperry: professor, naturalist, sanitary scientist, trailblazer

Sperry Promotional Brochure, Courtesy Carleton College Archives

Lyman B. Sperry, the namesake of Sperry Glacier (after which Sperry Trail and Sperry Chalet were named)  was a talented with many interests.  He was trained as a physician, taught at a number of midwestern colleges (Oberlin, Ripon and Carleton), promoted the establishment of Glacier National Park, and was a tireless lecturer on nature-based travel and on topics concerned with public health and human sexuality.

Several aspects of Sperry’s connection with Glacier Park are related in “Lyman Sperry and the Last of the Firsts”, a chapter in Randi Minetor’s book Historic Glacier National Park: the Stories Behind One of  America’s Great Treasures (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016 ). Apparently Sperry visited the Glacier area with two purposes in mind: to purchase land in the Avalanche Lake area as an investment, and to explore the wonders of the magnificent landscape.  In the end it seems his appreciation of the beauty of the region — or something like that — trumped his pursuit of land acquisition.

At some point (it is not clear if this happened before or after the discovery of Sperry Glacier, but I assume it was before) Sperry was approached by an agent of the GNR and asked to explore the region.  Sperry already had a reputation as a lecturer and promoter of travel and, according to Djuff and Morrison,

“Sperry was enticed to explore the Glacier Park region by a Great Northern Passenger agent who asked him to “make such observations as you shall find practicable regarding our scenic attractions.”  It was the first hint of the railway’s interest in developing tourism in Glacier — more than a full decade before the area became a national park. 

In June 1895 Sperry visited the Avalanche Lake area in the region that would become Glacier National Park.  Homesteader Charles Howe told him about a U-shaped valley he had discovered, and about a sighting from the top of Brown Mountain of a large glacier.   The thought of finding a new natural feature in a region that had been pretty well explored was exciting.  They went as far as the edge of the huge basin in June and realized they needed more  time and gear to do a proper exploration.  Sperry returned in August 1895 (with his nephew Albert L. Sperry and Prof. L.W. Chaney, a geologist from Carleton College) and mounted an expedition into the basin and measured the elevations of the surrounding peaks, made some geological observations, and analyzed the water of Avalanche Lake, determining its composition indicated the source was glacial meltwater.  There was clearly a glacier in the mountains high above them, and they looked for a way to find it.  They reached the edge of the massive glacier and determined they would have to return to complete their exploration and documentation.  Sperry wrote up his findings in the January 1896 issue of  Appalachia, and returned in summer 1896 to climb onto the glacier and fully document it.

Like the GNR, Sperry soon became a fervent promoter of the idea of protecting Glacier as a National Park.

The next step was to provide visitor access to this remarkable discovery.  Sperry went straight to J.J. Hill to propose he fund trail construction from Lake Mcdonald to Sperry Glacier. It seems Hill was intrigued but concerned because the land was not yet protected as a National park and he ran a risk of losing his financial investment.  Sperry suggested the job could be done inexpensively by letting him (Sperry) hire a fifteen students at the University of Minnesota to build the trail in a summer.  Hill agreed to let the students do the work (apparently without pay) and provide them transportation to and from the park on the Great Northern.

[A final note on Lyman B. Sperry the lecturer and promoter: he traveled the nation and abroad for over 30 years lecturing on “Sanitary Science”, an early tributary of what later became  the disciplines of public health and human ecology.  His lectures at colleges and through YMCA programs, focused particularly on societal and individual  problems of sex and narcotics.  Sperry was part of a movement to counter the effects of roving quacks who dispensed advice and medications that confused young people and also filled them with fears and misunderstandings about these little-understood matters.  Among his lecture topics were “Male and Female”, “Human Longevity”, ‘Brain and Nerve”, “Narcotics and Narcoticism”, “Superstitions, Delusions, and Fads”, “Friendly Enemies”, and “Gumption and Grit”.  By all accounts he was a powerful lecturer.  With all this practice, its no wonder he was convincing in his promotion of national park status for Glacier, a topic for which he also developed strong conviction.]

Author’s note: I am deeply grateful to Ray Djuff for his research, on which I have drawn heavily, for our phone conversation, and for his providing the images used in this post.  Ray  is passionate in his research and generous in sharing his knowledge and resources.

Glacier National Park Backcountry Chalets: historical notes

Glacier National Park Backcountry Chalets: historical notes

by Sam Demas, based on conversation with and the work of Ray Djuff

Glacier National Park backcountry chalets

“View with a Room” book cover

These are notes on the story of a once-grand backcountry hut system in Glacier National Park.  Based on phone conversation with Ray Djuff, reading his remarkable book, and looking at additional sources, I have pieced together the bare bones of the story of the second hut system built in the USA (AMC huts first, and High Sierra Camps third).

The fire that burned the Sperry Chalet dormitory accelerated my interest in learning more about the Glacier backcountry lodging system.  Articles about the fire cited Ray Djuff and one referred to his excellent book (written with Chris Morrison) Glacier’s Historic Hotels and Chalets: View with a Room (Farcountry Press, 2001), which traces the history of the the extensive system of lodges and chalets built and managed by the Great Northern Railway (GNR) to promote railroad visitation to Glacier National Park (the creation of which the GNR vigorously promoted).  You can read much of the very informative first chapter of this book on Amazon.com.

While the chapter on Sperry Chalet was of immediate interest, I enjoyed reading the entire book and highly recommend it (see a book review by Jerry Fetz).  Ms. Morrison and Mr. Djuff write in historical detail about this amazing  example of how the railroads lobbied for national parks, secured transportation and lodging monopolies at them, and, in the case of Glacier and the Great Northern Railway, along the way, developed huts and trails, primarily to promote horseback access to remote parts of the parks.

For more on the relationship between America’s national parks and their development as tourism destinations by the railways, see Alfred Runte’s book Trains of Discovery: Railroads and the Legacy of our National parks” by Alfred Runte (Roberts Reinhart Book, 5th ed., 2011).

In addition to Djuff and Morrison’s book cited above, for more detail on the chalets than what is offered below, see Courtney Stone’s moving blog post The Loss of Sperry Chalet, and the National Parks Lodge Architecture Society website.

***

While Louis Warren Hill, son of James J. Hill — the “Empire Builder” — swore he didn’t want the GNR to be in the hospitality business, he vigorously oversaw the development of a system of 3 large hotels/lodges (Lake McDonald Lodge preceded the GNR hotels), 9 chalet groups, and a number of tent villages.  The grand lodges and hotels are still operating, but the tent villages, most of which were very short lived, are long gone.

The 9 chalet groups (comprising sleeping quarters, dining/cooking area, staff quarters, and sometimes associated cabins) of primary interest here were all originally built (most in the period 1910 – 1913) to provide rustic but comfortable lodging for park visitors traveling into the backcountry by horseback, carriage, or boat.  The railway was promoting the park as the Switzerland of America and Hill was enamored of chalet architecture (his summer home “North Oaks” outside St Paul, MN was a grand chalet).

While comparatively few people hiked to the chalets in the early days, “tramping” was at least a small part of the hut/chalet culture from the beginning and the GNR promoted it as an inexpensive option.  The GNR courted hiking and mountaineering groups, as Djuff and  Morrison report:

Hill [Louis W. Hill] ensured that members of the Chicago Geographical Society, the Seattle Mountaineers, and the Sierra Club of California all received sponsored (often all-expense paid) trips to Glacier.  Then their travelogues were printed by the railway and distributed.

The use of the chalets changed quickly during the 1930’s and 1940’s. With the rise of the automobile people increasingly visited the park by car rather than by train, and apparently many were reluctant to leave their cars behind to take slower moving backcountry trip.  The 52 mile Going-to-the-Sun Road (constructed 1921 – 1933) traveled east to west and going over the Continental Divide,  opened the center of the to automobiles.  Of course the Great Depression also took its toll on visitation.  Where visitors before the 1930’s would typically spend 2-3 weeks in the park, car culture shortened visits to 3-4 days.  The auto helped propel a mentality still common today: “Check. Been there, done that. Off to the next park”.

Glacier National Park Lodgings 1917

Glacier National Park Lodgings, 1917 map by Great Northern Railroad. Courtesy Ray Djuff Collection.

The first golden age of the backcountry chalets for non-motorized travel was from 1913 up to the Great Depression.  Some had short lives: Gunsight Chalets, one of the most popular in the early years, was obliterated by a land slide in 1916.  But what killed them off was the automobile and the development of roads.  By the end of WW II all but 2 of the chalets were accessible by car.  The demand for saddle trips fell off dramatically and the park began to emphasize car camping.  After WW II the Chalets were deemed out-moded or unsupportable by the GNR:

  • three hut complexes were torn down because they were no longer in demand and were in poor condition from disuse: Cut Bank, St Mary’s, and Going-to-the-Sun;
  • the chalet group at Swiftcurrent Lake was turned into an “auto camp”, with cabins for people driving in the park;
  • the Great Northern Railroad sold three chalets: Belton, Sperry and Granite Park; and
  • GNR retained Two Medicine chalets, but they were not much used after WWII and were torn down in 1956 (except for the dining hall and log store, which remain today as historic landmarks).

According to Ray Djuff, who worked for a time at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Glacier, what kept the few remaining backcountry chalets going during the 1950’s and into the 1960’s was use by enthusiastic and fit cliques of park and concessionaire employees.  Djuff says this was a second golden age of the chalets, which became prized hiking destinations for those in the know.  The back to nature movement of the 1960’s and backpacking boom of the 1970’s precipitated yet another golden age, which continues today.  People love these huts.  Getting reservations has long been very competitive, and will certainly be harder still in future.  As in Yosemite, the interest in using the few backcountry huts located on national park lands is very strong.

Each of the chalet groups is discussed in greater detail, and illustrated with period photos and promotional brochures and notices,  in Glacier’s Historic Hotels and Chalets: View With a Room.

Glacier Park Lodging

The Mountaineers of Seattle ready to take a hike, GNR Promotional Brochure, Courtesy Ray Djuff Collection

With the burning of the Sperry Chalet Dormitory on August 31, 2017 (the kitchen and dining building are undamaged), the only remaining backcountry chalet is Granite Park. Because Sperry Chalet is such a rare and beloved backcountry lodging, there is deep sentiment that it should be re-built and re-opened.See my separate post on Sperry Chalet and a piece by Ray Djuff on the fire that further diminished the once-grand hut system in Glacier National Park.

Sperry Chalet Dormitory, Sept. 10, 2017. Note the original iron beds, which held up well in the fire and after many seasons of use! Courtesy Ray Djuff and Glacier National Park Conservancy.

 

 

Among the supporters of this effort are the Glacier National Park Conservancy, Secretary of the Interior Ray Zinke (a Montanan) and the two U.S. Senators from Montana.  See Ray Djuff’s article about the fire and the future.

Author’s note: Sadly, I never visited Sperry Chalet.  At this time I don’t have time to do in-depth research so this is a brief sketch of a big topic.  Fortunately there are a number of good sources to which I refer the reader for more detail.  This post is a placeholder.  It is comprised of notes from sources I plan to revisit and expand upon, including noodling around in a preliminary way in the rich literature on lodging experiments in the U.S. National Parks and the relationship between the railroads and the National Parks.

The National Parks Lodge Architecture Society provides some excellent architectural and historical information along with links about the chalets, including:

Glacier NP Lodges

Glacier Park Lodge Resources

Recommended Reading

 

 

 

 

 

American Prairie Reserve Huts

Hutmaster profile: Michael Quist Kautz, American Prairie Reserve

Hutmaster Profile: Michael Quist Kautz:

Founding hutmaster for American Prairie Reserve

[See Preview of the APR Hut System for background on this new hut system.]

The American Prairie Reserve’s (APR) hut system is a key part of the public access and education mission of this ambitious, privately-operated public land project that is gradually knitting 3,00,000 acres of public and private lands into a vast bioregional wildlife reserve. What kind of background and experience does one look for in hiring someone for such an undertaking?  This is the story Mike Kautz’s path to a leadership role in founding a ground-breaking hut system.

Mike’s journey to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity began in Maine with schoolteacher parents, with whom he developed an early love of the Maine woods and all things out-of-doors.  While studying arts and humanities at Middlebury – a liberal arts college in Vermont — a friend recommended Mike to fill in for her for a summer job in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC) huts (she had decided to go to NOLS instead).  This happy accident turned into a ten-year stint working in the AMC huts. He worked in the huts four summers in a row, for several years as a seasonal worker, and eventually became AMC’s fulltime Hut Manager from 2004 to 2007.  Mike loved the sense of conviviality among both the “Croo” and the many hikers coursing through the huts.

At AMC Mike developed an enduring interest in working for conservation-related causes.  He was deeply influenced by Andy Fallender, former Executive Director of the AMC, who stressed that hut jobs went beyond hospitality to include education, stressing that the Croo’s job was to aid in “moving people through a conservation continuum”.   AMC also connected him to a large network, some of whom have made backcountry lodging a profession, including: Jesse Bellingham (Director of Lodging for the American Alpine Club), Tom Callahan (Executive Director of Alaska Huts Association), Paul Cunha (VP of Operations, AMC), and James Wrigley (Huts Manager, AMC).

After AMC, Mike enrolled in the MFA program at the University of Montana in creative writing, where he honed his classroom presentation skills and continued to work on his own creative expression.  He then taught writing and photography workshops internationally for National Geographic, taught literature in Turkey for a year as a Fulbright Fellow, and taught ESL at Montana State University.  While then While he liked teaching, he missed being outdoors and working in conservation.

Working for Jeff Brown (a former AMC huts manager) at the Yellowstone Institute Field School for 3.5 years, Mike ran the Lamar Buffalo Ranch.  There he managed lodging and field operations and supported a wide range of educational programs. This position deepened his management and hospitality skills, and grounded him in creative partnership methods for managing public lands.

Mike’s next move brought him ever closer to APR: working in the startup phase of Adventure Scientists, which operates citizen-science projects all over the world.   For 3 years he managed data collection projects, including an APR wildlife baseline data study (through camera tracking and transects).  Spending lots of time on the prairie engendered a love the subtle and spare beauty of the prairie and admiration for APR’s mission and organizational ethos.  He witnessed the profound responses of volunteer citizen scientists to places and to wildlife as they practiced close observation.  This reinforced the power of meaningful exposure to a landscape in engendering genuine appreciation and a sense of commitment to environmental protection.

As Adventure Scientist’s liaison to APR, Mike attended their annual Transect where an interdisciplinary group stays in tents and moves together across the landscape for ten days by foot, bike and canoe.  He marveled at the learning and sharing that went on around the campfire and along the trail, and discovered that APR was approaching a crucial moment in its evolution: after 15 years of focus on acquiring land, fundraising and building an organization, APR was ready to invite more visitors to the reserve and launch a new phase in its educational agenda.  The staff of APR was exploring how best to encourage people to visit this remote, harsh, and little-known prairie landscape.

This got Mike thinking about how hut systems allow people to move safely and gently through a range of environments, and support them in immersive listening and learning.  He began to envision the APR as a vast laboratory to test ideas about how facilities can, in Fallenders’s words, “move people through a conservation continuum.”  He shared his observations and experiences with APR, suggesting that huts could be a way to get people to come for recreation, but at the same time build a connection to the landscape that fosters a commitment to conservation.

It soon became clear that a prairie hut system was an innovative way for APR to realize its public access and educational goals, and that Mike was the perfect person to serve as its first Visitation and Huts Manager.

Why Mike?  For one thing, he has a broad perspective on the task at hand.  In addition to working in one of the nation’s largest hut systems, he came to know huts in Europe and New Zealand in his travels. However, while running the AMC’s hut system was about continuing a tradition and unswervingly maintaining a set of time-tested systems and procedures, the APR and its hut system are both startup organizations, requiring vision, flexibility and imagination.  Mike has experience in both following a plan and in “making it up as you go”.  This prepares him to help build new approaches to backcountry safety, logistics and hospitality in the nation’s first hut system not located in the mountains.

While Mike is the point person and has unique knowledge of how hut systems operate, he is hardly the only one at APR contributing to developing the hut system.  Partners include land management folks, marketing and PR staff, scientists, operations staff, fundraisers, board members, volunteers, and administrators.  His background in non-profit management in a variety of settings makes it easy for him to operate effectively within a larger organization, especially one as innovative, values-based, and unique as APR.

As a writer, photographer, and humanist, Mike is great at connecting the dots to create a compelling narrative.  He understands his work on operational, scientific and technical endeavors through a liberal arts lens.  He approaches his work as a humanist and an artist, as well as a manager and a skilled practitioner.

Finally, Mike’s sophistication with different forms of verbal and visual communication allow him to reach people in many different ways.  He is accomplished in using maps, images and text in telling the story of the APR and the huts.  Storytelling can inspire dreams when he talks about the prairie landscape and about the roles of huts.  His commitment to conservation education, his realization that it needs to be based in a fun experience, and his diverse experience in teaching and learning are invaluable assets in this recreational and educational enterprise.

Mike clearly has the skill set, education and experience for the job, and he came by them in his own unique way.   APR definitely has the financial and organizational capacity to develop something new on the American prairie!  It will be fun to watch this hut system innovate!

Reflections on the position of Founding Hut Master in the 21st Century

I’ve published a number of profiles of hut and trails founders; each person and set of circumstances is different.  While I’m not prepared to generalize across these stories, talking with Mike I began to see the outlines of a 21st century model for innovation in huts, for a new generation of Hut Masters, and for new approaches to public/private partnerships in conservation, recreation and education.  Riffing on my conversation with Mike, following are some initial thoughts.

Mike and the APR are at the beginning of an ambitious undertaking; and they approach it as a commitment to creating a new model for public/private partnership in conservation, recreation and education.  They are looking at what it takes to develop an innovative, educational, environmentally-sensitive hut system on private lands in 21st century.

The job of actually founding a hut system, bringing it to life, is a unique and rare calling. Like entrepreneur, farmer, conservationist and educator, the job of “hut master” is a richly interdisciplinary, creative undertaking.  It requires: vision; mastery of a wildly diverse bundle of practical skills and technical knowledge; sophisticated people, political, and organizational skills; perseverance; flexibility; and an active imagination. The work is aided by the gift of creating a compelling narrative about the significance of preserving and enjoying a wild landscape — and, in APR’s case, a vanishing and largely unknown biome that once dominated a third of the continent – that is traversed by the hut system.  This role goes way beyond safety, hospitality and recreation, and far into the realms of conservation and environmental education.

The ability to blend science, education, and practical know-how within a broad imaginative framework can be immensely helpful to the hut master. And the ability to make the educational dimensions of hut experience enjoyable, not dry and didactic, is a key to the success of any conservation education enterprise aiming to capture the imagination of young people.

As Andy Fallender said, guests may come to the hut experience for recreation, but through the efforts of the hut crew they gain they form a connection to the landscape that motivates them to protect it.  This is hardly a new concept in the hut world, but its importance is underscored as we struggle to cultivate an ethos of biophilia and do as little harm as possible to the natural world.

 

 

 

Hutmaster Profile: Michael Quist Kautz

Yurts rising on the Prairie: the American Prairie Reserve hut system

Preview: Yurts Rising on the Prairie!

American Prairie Reserve building their first two huts

By Sam Demas

The first two yurts of American Prairie Reserve planned 10 hut system are now subtly nestled in a remarkable prairie landscape in Montana.  The interiors will be finished this fall, the interpretive program will be developed this winter, and the yurts will be open for adventurous environmental pilgrims in Spring 2018.  The amazing American Prairie Reserve’s hut system will be:

  • the first in the USA not located in the mountains;
  • the first located on the threatened, sublimely beautiful great American prairie;
  • the second largest in the USA (after the 10th Mountain Division Huts);
  • the largest in the USA located on privately owned land;
  • operated as part of a huge nature reserve as and integral part of a strong conservation and education mission;
  • open to travel by hiking, biking and/or canoeing/kayaking; and
  • offering spacious, comfortable quarters with excellent amenities, with minimal environmental impact in a remote and rugged environment.

What follows is a brief preview, based on a visit in early September 2017, of what is coming soon on the great American Prairie.  I hope to visit again next year and present a more complete report, based on the experience of staying in the huts, on this innovative, distinctly American hut system.  For now much of the content below is derived from the APR website, from visiting the huts under construction, and from stimulating discussions with Mike Quist Kautz, Visitation and Huts Manager, who is leading the APR hut system development.

Yurts rising on the Prairie, Courtesy APR

One of the APR Yurt Sites, near Judith River, Courtesy Mike Kautz (also the featured photo at the beginning of post)

Context: Mission of the American Prairie Reserve (APR)

Our mission is to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States, a refuge for people and wildlife preserved forever as part of America’s heritage.

Operating since 2004 on the basis of an exemplary set of values, the APR is committed to a bioregional program of stitching together 3,000,000 acres of existing public lands (primarily BLM lands) using private land purchases.  As their web site states, “When these fragmented public and private lands are connected, the Reserve will provide a continuous land area collaboratively managed for wildlife and recreation, the largest of its kind in the Lower 48 states.”

So far the non-profit APR has completed 25 land acquisitions transactions to build a habitat base of 353,104 acres:

  • 86,586 acres are private lands owned by the Reserve
  • 266,518 acres are public lands (federal and state) and  leased by the Reserve

They operate on the basis of a rigorous scientific program and strive to foster strong working relationships with their neighbors — the current human occupants and users of large parts of this landscape.

This map gives a sense of the scale and nature of the challenge.  The brown background is BLM land and the white is privately owned.  The goal is to knit together 3,000,000 acres surrounding the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument andCharles M. Russell National Wildlife Preserve to create the largest prairie reserve in the world.  All this to help preserve and restore the land as close as possible to the landscape and wildlife Lewis and Clark encountered in this place in 1806.

American Prairie Reserve

American Prairie Reserve Current Habitat Map 2017, courtesy APR

The huts will be built on private lands owned by the APR.  The purpose of the hut system is to advance the APR mission by providing affordable shelter and recreational opportunity for visitors interested in experiencing and learning about this unique ecosystem.  Knowing a landscape engenders commitment to preserve it, and the hut system is being designed to aid in getting people to visit and come to appreciate the subtleties of the prairie.

Aerial View of Judith River Site – Courtesy APR

Conceptual plan for the APR Hut System

The prairie ecosystem of Central Montana is a spare and subtle environment — most folks fly or drive over it as quickly as possible.   It is a rugged steppe-like environment with weather extremes, including low rainfall, intensely slippery muds and dangerous roads, and is remote from gas, cell reception, and life safety services.  It requires serious shelter and planning to visit, and a slow, thoughtful pace to truly appreciate.

The hut system is conceived as a means of giving a wide range of visitors the rare opportunity to safely, comfortably, and affordably experience one of America’s iconic — and disappearing — landscapes.  How do you provide public access to a privately owned nature reserve?  How do you direct people to he places you want them to visit and keep them away from ecologically fragile areas?  These are the essential challenges of designing this kind of hut system.

American Prairie Reserve Yurts

Mike Quist Kautz, Director of Visitation and clerk of the works

The idea of a hut system grew from multiple stimuli: the experiences folks have had through APR’s amazing annual “Transect” program and its Kestrel Camp program of trips for board members and donors, from precedents including the Appalachian Mountain Club huts, New Zealand DOC huts and Great Walks, and from the vision  of Mike Quist Kautz and others that huts are an ideal way to introduce people to this unique landscape. 

Eventually 10 huts — ideally placed a days hike, bike or river trip apart — will provide a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in this rich ecosystem.   Each hut will feature a different facet of the Reserve and have its own interpretive theme.  In combination, the total experience of these 10 huts will cultivate appreciation of the the range of biodiversity, the threats, and special thrills of this subtle and vast landscape.  At one time xx % of the America was dominated by prairie.

The map below presents the conceptual plan for a 10 hut system, and the following picture is an artist’s representation of the hut designs.

American Prairie Reserve Hut System

American Prairie Reserve Hut System Plan

American Prairie Reserve Hut System Design Scheme

American Prairie Reserve Yurt Design Scheme, courtesy APR

The first two yurts: design, amenities and operation

Viewed from a distance on this grassland system, these two structures evoke a Mongolian steppe settlement or, in some ways, a spaceship landing in the outback.  The two yurts, designed and built by Shelter Designs (shelterdesigns.net) of Missoula, MT, are grand embodiments of the yurt/hut genre. They comprise three modules each: a 30′ diameter common area, a 30′ diameter sleeping yurt (with the space divided into four sleeping rooms, each accommodating two twin beds, and one also including a bunk bed), and a commodious bathroom yurt. These are unusually commodious spaces for a hut system.

One yurt is located by the rushing Judith River sheltered by a beautiful and increasingly scarce Cottonwood Gallery of majestic old trees. The other is higher in elevation and a nice hike away from the bench providing a dramatic Missouri River overlook (in the Missouri Breaks), featuring views of the historic confluence of the Missouri and Judith Rivers (see also featured photo for this post).

The entire yurt will be rented to a single party, on the model of the US Forest Service cabins common in the Western US. Prices are not yet set, but the intent is to make them affordable.

Yurts will have an unusually high level of amenities for a hut system.  Full kitchen facilities will include propane stove, refrigerator, pots and pans and eating utensils, and sink.   The huts will be available as self-serve (bring your own food and cook on site) or “catered” (food provided and you cook it yourself).  Provision of guided trips is under consideration.  Both huts are on ranch roads that allow for provisioning. Drinking water and food will be trucked in.  Solar collectors will provide power for lights, heat, refrigerator, air conditioning (!), and charging of personal devices.  Description from their website of toilets by Toilet Tech Solutions:

Toilet Tech offers a low-cost and low-hazard solution for waterless human waste management at high use sites.  Toilet Tech’s urine diverting toilets are superior to: expensive barrel fly out toilets, hazardous and ineffective conventional composting toilets, and water polluting pit toilets.  100% of urine is diverted and treated onsite by native or engineered soil.  Fecal matter and toilet paper are consumed by invertebrates (TTS-Decompose), or dried and burned onsite (TTS-Waste Away) leaving little residue.  No bulking agent is required.  Stabilized waste extraction is very infrequent.  Odor is very low.

Graywater will be collected in buckets in the kitchen area and hauled to the septic system behind the bathroom for disposal.

Biking will be on existing ranch roads.  Other recreational pathways are still under consideration. In addition to using existing trails (human and wildlife), walking routes will be created de novo by users in some areas as part of a grand vision with conservation, recreation and educational dimensions intertwined.  APR promotes a form of walking they call “snorkeling” (making ones way slowly across the trackless landscape and becoming attuned to its subtle pleasures). Canoeing and kayaking routes are under consideration.

The initial target audience will be native Montanans who are familiar with the great plains environment, experienced in traveling rough terrain and harsh climate, and overall have the outdoor skill set for this adventure experience.  Doubtless the demographic will evolve over time, and I predict many Europeans will eventually find and treasure this hut system.

This hut system is off to a fabulous start in developing infrastructure to give the user an experience of the larger meaning of prairies by recalling the American prairie as it existed when Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea came through in 1805 and 1806.

Next Steps:

APR hopes to continue development of its hut system by opening one or two more huts in 2019.  As the first American hut system not located in the mountains, they have an incredible opportunity to experiment with a wide range of hut designs appropriate to the weather and terrain. The inclusion of Indigenous architectural traditions, such as cabins and shelters dug into the hillsides (and perhaps some contemporary architectural riffs on these and other building traditions) might result in an architectural showcase of shelter types as well as demonstrating a high level of environmentally sustainable amenities.  And the potential for the huts as infrastructure for innovative environmental education by APR is incredibly exciting!

Stay tuned and get ready to book a trip next year!

Sam Demas, September 2017

 

 

Sun Valley Trekking

Featured Huts: Pioneer Yurt and Fishook Yurt and Hut

Pioneer Yurt and Fishook Yurt and Hut

Featured Huts of Sun Valley Trekking

(See Also Photo Galleries for Pioneer and Fishook,

and Operational Profile for Sun Valley Trekking)

Pioneer Yurt and Fishook Yurt are two of the six huts operated by Sun Valley Trekking in the beautiful snow-filled mountains of Central Idaho. These two locations have historical significance in the world of U. S. alpine touring huts, and they give a taste of the offerings of San Valley Trekking’s remarkable infrastructure for enjoying the beauty and thrill of these mountains.  

Pioneer Yurt sits on the edge of a lovely alpine meadow at 8,600’ in the Pioneer Mountains in the Sawtooth National Forest in Central Idaho.  Located near the towns of Ketchum and Hailey, this fully-equipped yurt — located in a bowl surrounded by Hyndman Peak (12,009’, the highest peak in the Pioneer Mountains), Old Hyndman Peak. (11,755’), Cobb Peak (11,6500), and Peanut Peak (c. 9,600).   This is paradise for ski mountaineering groups in winter and a spectacular base camp for hiking, botanizing, and star-gazing in summer.  

Sun Valley Trekking has operated Pioneer Yurt since 2006 when it took over from Heli-Ski and tore down the old yurt and erected a new one.  The 24’ diameter yurt is equipped with everything you need (just bring a sleeping bag and food) to enjoy this mountain Shangri La.  The high ceilings, three large windows, and nicely designed amenities provide a feeling of openness and comfort.  The ambiance is simple, rustic and cozy — perfect for a getaway with family and/or friends.

The amenities are thoughtfully honed over years of experience in mountain hospitality.  The yurt sleeps up to 16 people in four bunk beds, each with comfortable plastic covered mattresses.  The wood stove keeps the yurt warm.  There are lots of clothes lines and hooks for hanging wet clothing to dry.  Water for drinking and cooking is from snow melt in winter and from nearby Hyndman Creek in summer (gravity filter provided).  The kitchen has a three burner propane stove and all the implements needed for cooking and eating, including a small BBQ.  There are tables for indoor and outdoor eating and lounging, and foldable chairs for reading and sitting in the meadow or under the stars.   The Goal Zero solar collector system feeds a battery which powers lights, lanterns, a speaker system, and recharges GPS units and personal devices.  A selection of games and reading material, along with the hut log, provide quiet entertainment options.

Pioneer Yurt is 3-4 miles as the crow flies (much farther by trail) from the historic Pioneer Cabin, the first backcountry ski hut in Sun Valley.  In 1938 the Bavarian ski guides and instructors brought to Idaho to start the Alpine Ski Touring School at Sun Valley told their employers that the place to learn alpine ski touring is in the mountains, not in the valley.  They took over an old mining cabin and called it Pioneer Cabin, where they established one of the early alpine ski schools in the USA.  The original hut is no longer in use, but is a popular day hike destination for its fabulous panoramic views.  

Sun Valley Trekking

Fishook is comprises a wall tent and a yurt joined with a walkway. Photo Courtesy Sun Valley Trekking

Fishook Hut and Yurt sit at 6,800’ next to meandering Fishook creek and beautiful meadows on the edge of the Sawtooth Mountains wilderness area.  The jagged mountains rise above the meadow, with spectacular views of Thompson Peak (the highest in the Sawtooth Mountain).  Fishook has the same level of amenities as Pioneer, described above, and is distinguished by three features: topography, history, type of accommodation, and a hot tub.

The approach to Fishook is a gentle four mile tour.  The lower elevation and flat terrain are ideal for Nordic skiers and snowshoers.  Advanced skiers and snowboarders can find fantastic downhill terrain in the peaks above Fishook Valley: Horstman, Thompson, and Williams.  

The 16’ diameter Mongolian yurt is nicely appointed and sleeps 8, and is joined together by a lodge-pole pine framed walkway to a pioneer style wall tent that sleeps 6.  The wall tent, the site of cooking and dining, is appointed with colorful panels and a gorgeous fabric doorway.  There are two covered outhouses. The piece de resistance is a wood fired hot tub.  

Historically, Fishook was the site of what Joe Leonard, the guide who started the business that Sun Valley Trekking built upon, claims is the first yurt in North America, built in the 1970’s.  Whether this claim is true (there is a competing claim in Sun Valley lore), staying here gives the visitor a sense of being part of the history of alpine huts/yurts in the USA.  

****

Sun Valley Trekking

Joe and Francie St. Onge at work in the SVT office in Hailey, ID

Joe and Francie St. Onge, owners of Sun Valley Trekking, have developed a remarkable series of backcountry ski huts and a local and international guiding business.

They offer guided trips to their huts (including porters and food service if desired) as well as self-guided experiences.  Most of their business is from return visitors; first-time visitors in winter are required to use a guide for the first day.

This is a serious, well-run backcountry ski destination, and appropriate skills are needed.  I visited in summer and can’t wait to return for the winter experience!

Details on hut rental and reservations can be made on the Sun Valley Trekking website .  

 

 

 

Post by Sam Demas, September 2017

Sam Demas, September 2017

Grand Huts Association, Colorado

Trail Tracks Editorial in “American Trails”, Fall 2017: Hut-to-Hut is growing

Editorial: Hut-to-Hut is growing: lets plan for it

Following is an invited editorial published in the Fall 2017 issue of American Trails.  It is a call to trails professionals, recreation planners, and land managers to acknowledge that hut systems are no longer just peripheral, “accepted anomalies” on the American recreational landscape.  There is a grass-roots movement that needs support and guidance.

Since writing this I’ve discovered even more hut systems under development.  It is time to turn attention to the research and planning necessary to support and guide this nascent movement as an effective approach to environmental education and stewardship.

Conducting a formal recreational ecology study of the environmental impacts of huts is a great place to start.

Sam, September 2017

Hut-to-Hut is growing

Sam Demas Editorial in American Trails Fall 2017

Hut-to-Hut is growing

Sam Demas Editorial in American Trails Fall 2017

Update on Spearhead Huts Construction

Spearhead Huts Construction Begins!

by Sam Demas based on information from Spearhead Huts website

The Alpine Club of Canada and the British Columbia Mountaineering Club have broken groundAlpine Club of Canada - Claire and Kees  on the Kees and Claire hut, the first of three huts in three huts planned for the Spearhead Traverse.  Named after a young couple who perished in a collapsed snow cave they built for shelter while on the Wapti Traverse in 2006.                                                                 

The Spearhead Huts August 25, 2017 blog update provides some great photos of the intense volunteer effort undertake  to put in the foundation for the hut.  For an broad overview of the plan for the Spearhead Traverse, see the FAQ and other portions of their web page.

When completed this three hut traverse will offer safer access to the remarkable ski terrain that claimed the young lives of Kees and Claire.

Spearhead Huts Construction

Foundation of Claire Kees Hut emerges August 2017.  Photo Courtesy Spearhead Traverse Huts

Spearhead Huts Construction

Working fast on concrete pour between helicopter deliveries of concrete. Photo courtesy Spearhead Huts.

Alaska Huts

Alaska huts and trails and economic development

“Could the lure of trails salvage Alaska’s economy?”

article by Krista Langlois in High Country News (June 26,2017):

Summary  below with link to full article

 

This article is highly recommended to anyone interested in huts and trails and their potential for economic development.  Following is a brief summary:

The subtitle of this piece summarizes Langlois’ arena of exploration: A trial along the Trans-Alaska pipeline could be the start of a booming recreation economy. Krista interviews people on all sides of this question, but is clearly interested in the potential of Alaska’s greatest asset — its sublime landscape and huge tracts of magnificent wilderness — as a desperately needed driver of economic development.  

The economy of Alaska is on the ropes: timber jobs have decreased by 80%, oils production has dropped by 76% since 1989, the state is doing everything it can to prop up fishing and mining, but is now facing a $4 billion budget deficit.  Governor Bill Walker said in 2016 “We have reached a point in our state’s history that we need to be looking beyond oil.”  

The specific proposal Langlois explores is the development of an 800 mile trail that parallels the Trans-Pacific pipeline.  She outlines the arguments pro and con, provides interesting character sketches some of the advocates and opponents of the trail, and provides valuable context in comparing the state of trail development in Alaska compared with that in the lower 48 states.  The bottom line is that while Alaska has unsurpassed wilderness beauty, it has relatively little infrastructure to attract outdoor enthusiasts.

She hones in on the fact that the rugged wilderness of Alaska is beyond the capabilities of most people, and that the development of hut systems is one way of making these wonders accessible to the vast majority of “people in the middle” who appreciate and long for contact with wild but are simply  not up to the job of backpacking in Alaska.  She interviews Tom Callahan of Alaska Huts Association, and cites relevant economic development studies and initiatives including the New Zealand hut system and Great Walks, the AMC Hut System, and Adventure Cycling, and Fruita Colorado to name a few.  

But don’t settle for my summary: its well worth reading the entire article.

American Alpine Club

American Alpine Club Hut System

The American Alpine Club’s “Hut System”

While staying at the American Alpine Club’s (AAC) Grand Teton Climbers Ranch I was intrigued by a sign indicating that it is part of the AAC Hut System.

It turns out the AAC has borrowed the term “hut system” (see my article What is a Hut? Towards a definition)  for a more common definition) to describe its system of five lodging camps in USA.  I talked with Jesse Billingham, Lodging Director of AAC, to learn more about this accommodations network.  It turns out that AAC has developed four of these five properties in the past five years or so and is considering opening more in future.   As with the original Climbers Ranch in the Grand Tetonsthe other four lodgings are small non-profit operations. Some operate in the black and others in the red; it varies from year to year.  The AAC does not view them as a revenue stream, but hopes they don’t lose money.  

The mission of all these lodging enterprises includes:

  • providing affordable accommodations for climbers at iconic climbing locations,
  • community building through creation of a cultural hub for climbers,
  • education, and
  • environmental conservation.

To these ends each one provides lodging, a central dining pavilion, one (or two) communal fire pit (rather than many dispersed gathering spots), and education and volunteer service programs, such as the AAC “Crag and Classics” series of weekend events and clinics.

I was so impressed by the mission and thoughtful design of the Grand Teton Climbers Ranch, established in 1970, that I decided to look online at the others.  These lodgings are open to AAC members and to non-members. Reservations can be made online at the link below.

These are good examples of an organization developing lodgings to build community for their members and support nature-based activities.  Following is a very brief listing of the other for AAC lodgings, each of which is described in more detail on their website.

  • Snowbird Hut (Alaska), sleeping 6-12, this is a single hut that can be linked with two huts of the Alaska Mountaineering Club to form the Bombers Traverse.  Open year-round, this remote shelter is for back country skiiers, climbers, and hikers.  There is a link to the history of the hut on the AAC website.
  • Hueco Rock Ranch (near El Paso, TX).  Established about 2012, this ranch includes a house with rooms for rent, campsites, and space for parking travel vehicles.
  • New River Gorge Campground (Lansing, WV) was established in 2014 and has 40 campsites, a shower house, and two communal fire rings.
  • Gunks Campground (officially: Samuel F. Pryor III Shawangunk Gateway Campground, New Paltz, NY) was established in partnership with Mohonk Preserve and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission.  It has 26 drive-in campsites and 24 walk-in sites.