Summit Huts: Historical Notes

Notes on the history of the Summit Huts Association

Picture of Janet White Tyler on skis.

Staying in the Summit Huts and talking with folks involved in founding and running them, one is struck by the sheer number of friendships, connections and remembrances that permeate the huts and weave them into a strong hut community.  This moved me to dig a little deeper into the history of Summit Huts Association – essentially an outsider scratching the surface for a few days — and here are some notes on the history of this remarkable community-based hut system.  This is a placeholder for a more in-depth account in future.  Need to add photos of founders and staff.  See Summit Huts Photo Gallery for relevant documents. 

Not surprisingly, SHA was inspired by its neighbor and partner, the Tenth Mountain Division Huts Association (10MD) and by a memorial hut.  In 1985 Dr. John Warner and his friends Tim Casey, John Cooley, Bob French, Jon Gunson, and Rick Hum were on a hut ski trip at the Friends Hut near Aspen.  Friends Hut was built as a memorial to a group of friends killed in a private plane crash.  Browsing through the photo album documenting the conceptualization and construction of the Friends Hut, John Warner said, “Hey, we can do this!”.  And they did!

They began meeting informally, and at the urging of Dr. Ben Eiseman, a founder of the 10MD, they incorporated in 1987 and began making plans and fundraising.  The original plan was to establish 8-12 huts in Summit County.  A survey of potential sites identified about 40, which was narrowed down to 12 possible locations.   Over time the regulatory environment got more restrictive and the larger plan was replaced with the aspiration to build 5-7 huts.  Today, after 8 years in the planning the fifth, Weber Gulch Hut, is nearing construction.  Most folks involved seem to believe this will be the last of the Summit Huts to be built.

SHA established a strong, working Board, Leigh Girvin Yule was hired as Executive Director in 1994, working with Scott Toepfer, Hutmaster and avalanche expert.  A Friends of the Summit Huts group was started and it appears that great community volunteer and philanthropic energy was generated quite quickly.  As part of this, a community visioning process around the huts was undertaken in the late 1980’s.

Janet’s Cabin was built in 1989/90 and Francie’s in 1993/94.  Local architect and SHA Board Member John Gunson designed both of these first two cabins.

Janet’s Cabin, a three-story log building, was built as a memorial to Janet White Tyler, 1926-1983.  Janet was an enthusiastic, life-long skier and a great lover of life.  She was by all accounts a woman of real grace and charm, who knew how to make people feel comfortable in her presence.  She was known for her friendly conversation and for the hospitality she extended in her Vail home.  Family and friends raised about $200,000 towards the construction of the cabin, The Town of Breckenridge contributed some funds, and a huge amount of volunteer labor went into the construction project, which in the end was estimated to cost $385,000.

The logs for Janet’s cabin were flown in by helicopter, and there was a helicopter accident after the last batch was dropped off.  Pete Wingle, a former 10MD and SHA Board member, was instrumental in working with the U.S. Forest Service in planning the Cabins and assisted SHA in many ways.  Before retirement, Wingle served as Director of Recreation for the region that includes Colorado, and was an expert on ski area development.  He pioneered in helicopter construction of ski lifts as a more environmentally sound method.

Francie’s Cabin, very similar in design to Janet’s, was opened in 1994.  It was built as a memorial to Frances Lockwood Bailey, 1953 – 1989, who died in a commercial plane accident (in which two of her sons were injured). Francie was known as a kind, gentle, caring and artistic woman who took pleasure in the small things in life.  She was a graphic artist and started a business designing children’s wear called “Baby Boomer Designs”.  Francie was an enthusiastic skier and loved the Breckenridge area.  Her friends and family were inspired by the idea of building a cabin in her memory.

Herb’s Sauna at Francie’s Cabin is dedicated to one of Francie’s brothers, Herb Lockwood, who died in a construction accident shortly after finishing college at Hamilton College, where he wrote his senior thesis (a copy of which is at the hut) on the geology of the drainage systems of Crystal and Mohawk Lakes near Breckenridge.

Ken’s Cabin and Section House are a great example of public/private partnership in preserving historic buildings.  The USFS uses the buildings and site as an historic site interpretive center in summer, and provides a special use permit to SHA to use these historic buildings as ski huts in winter.

Ken’s Cabin (1864) is one of a cluster of four historic buildings at Boreas Pass.  Owned by US Forest Service, Ken’s Cabin (built as Wagon Cabin) and Section House (1882) were built as living quarters for railroad workers and their families.  They were part of a very small settlement housing employees of the South Park Highline, one of two rail lines operated by the Denver and South Park and Pacific Railroad built to connect Denver to the mining districts on the other side of the Continental Divide.  once had a post office and a population of 25.

Section House (sleeps 12) is a delightful period structure that evokes the history of this lonely railroad outpost with a restoration that took place in mid-90’s, a great old wood kitchen stove, metal bunk beds.  It was opened as a SHA ski hut in 1998.

The adjacent Ken’s Cabin was renovated and opened as a ski hut in 1999 (?).  This three-person cabin, restored by SHA and USFS, is dedicated to the memory of Ken Graff, MD (beloved friend and pediatrician), who died at age 33 in an avalanche near Francie’s Cabin on January 15, 1995.  On the first weekend that Francie’s cabin was open he skied up to reconnoiter for a group trip the following Thursday.  Skiing about a half mile from the Cabin he was killed by an avalanche.  There is a moving journal entry by the people who discovered his ski tracks that were suddenly covered by a fresh avalanche, with no tracks coming out the other side of the avalanche field.  The search and rescue effort included flying in the rescue dog “Hasty”, and his owner Patty Burnett, from Copper Mountain.  Hasty located the body within five minutes of arriving on the scene.  Ken was not a registered guest at Francie’s but had stopped there for lunch before skiing towards his death.  He chatted with the two couples who later discovered the avalanche and wrote the account.  

The SHA received a special use permit from the USFS in June 2015 for construction of its fifth hut, Weber Gulch Hut. The site was one of those identified in the 1980’s site selection process. During the environmental assessment process, several public concerns surfaced: impact on wildlife — specifically habitat for Canada lynx, pine martens and elk ­— and off-site parking for the hut’s users. Construction is estimated to cost between $1 million and $2 million.  

 

Tenth Mountain Division

Trip Report: Sampling Tenth Mountain Division Huts near Leadville & Breckenridge

Sampling the Tenth Mountain Division Huts in Breckenridge and Leadville Areas

by Sam Demas, December 2017

Want to experience some of the best winter ski/snowshoe huts in USA?  Spend a week experiencing the pleasures of some of the 34 huts in the nation’s premier winter hut system, the Tenth Mountain Division Huts Association.  The Breckenridge and Leadville regions are closer to Denver (than Aspen) and have some of the easiest huts to access.  

As an intermediate skier, but a beginner to true backcountry skiing, I spent a week visiting six of these splendid huts/cabins in the Breckenridge and Leadville areas.  After my skiing buddy Peter had to drop out, what was planned as a 4 night ski traverse turned into a series of one night stays at some of the more accessible huts in the region.  While not what originally planned, it was a great way to get a sense of the range of 10 MD huts and amenities, and to meet lots of people in the process.  To top it off Laurel joined me at the end of the week for a final night in the huts.  A fun climax to this hut trip was spending a glorious night glamping at the Tennessee Pass Ski Yurts and Cookhouse, where we enjoyed fine dining in the backcountry.  

It was a terrific hut2hut field trip!  I’ll definitely go back — in winter and in summer — to do some h2h traverses and to visit more of the 34 huts in the 10MD system.  If you like skiing and huts, these notes will help you plan your own winter hut trip.  Note: the navigation notes in this trip report are simply  to give a sense of the difficulty of navigation.  Be sure to use proper map, a compass, and the detailed guidebook discussed below for full navigation advice.  NB: See sections below on determining if you are ready for such a trip and for tips on  advance planning

Hut Amenities:  Briefly, the huts are self-service: you bring a sleeping bag, your food, and emergency gear.  Huts have beds and pillows, wood stoves and firewood, propane cook burners, pots and pans and utensils, and comfortable spaces for lounging. Water is from snow melt. See 10MD website for details and an equipment list.  

Trip itinerary:

Day 1:  Francies’ Cabin  –  Summit Huts Association, 11,390 ft.

Navigation: via Crystal Creek Trail from Spruce Creek Trailhead – 1.3 miles

65 minutes up, 40 minutes down on snowshoes, elevation gain 1,000’.  10th Mountain Map: Boreas Pass, USGS map Breckenridge.  Start at Spruce Creek Trail Head and at a fork within a few hundred yards you will choose: a. to ascend to the hut by bearing left at the fork for the Spruce Creek Trail (2 miles), or b. by bearing right to follow the Crystal Creek Trail (1.3 miles).  Trail corridor through woods is quite obvious and marked only occasionally with blue diamonds.

Francie’s Cabin, Summit Huts Association

Hut notes: Francie’s Cabin is very popular due to its proximity to Denver metro area and easy access from  the trailhead.  A beautifully designed log hut with 20 beds, Francie’s slept about 18 people the Friday night I was there.  Among the 3-4 different  groups sharing the hut experience, the hallmark was conviviality in friendly, elegantly designed spaces around the wood stove.  I was alone, but easily fell in with several different groups.  It’s all about conversation, cards/games, art materials for table-top drawings, and an opportunity to contribute to the log book.  Plenty of opportunities for snowshoeing, ski touring, skiing and snowboarding on the slopes and ridges behind the hut.  We saw moose by the cabin and mountain goats in the distance.  

Francie's Cabin

Frances Lockwood Bailey Portrait

The idea for a hut in Breckenridge was conceived in by local dentist and former mayor John Warner.  He and a group of friends was staying at the 10MD  Friends Hut (named for a group of friends who died in a private plane crash near Maroon Bells) and as he looked through an album documenting the conception and construction of that hut, he said, “Hey, we can do this!”.   After much planning and fundraising, the hut was built as a tribute to Francis Louise Lockwood  Bailey, a mother, friend, and graphic designer who died in a plane crash at age 36.  Francie was was described as “a gentle artistic and lovely person who never forgot the small things in life that mean so much.” 

****

After a comfortable night at Francie’s Cabin, I spent the following night in an AirBNB near Breckenridge.

Day 2: Ken’s Cabin, Summit Huts Association, 11,530 ft.

Navigation notes: via Boreas Pass Trailhead, 6.2 miles via Bakers Tank Trail, which meets up with Boreas Pass Road.  Took 4.6 hours to ski to Kens Cabin, and  about 2.5 hours to ski out the next day. Elevation gain 1,130 feet.  Going up to the cabin I took the more varied Bakers Tank Trail, which meets up with Boreas Pass Road at Bakers Tank.  Skins not necessary.  Skiing out all the way via Boreas Pass Road makes for a long gentle downhill all the way down.

Hut notes: Skiing up to Boreas Pass at the Continental Divide the mountain views in all directions are spectacular.  The often windy pass and has a reputation for cold conditions, and was named after the Greek god of the North, Boreas. The main trail follows the railroad bed of the South Park Highline, a 63 mile narrow-gauge railroad built to connect Denver to the mining and timber districts around Breckenridge and Leadville that operated from 1884 until about 1934.

Ken’s Cabin

Ken’s Cabin (1864) is one of a cluster of four historic buildings at Boreas Pass.  Owned by US Forest Service, Ken’s Cabin (built as Wagon Cabin) and Section House (1882) were built as living quarters for railroad workers and their families.  Through a unique public/private partnership, Ken’s and Section House are operated in winter by Summit Huts as ski huts, and in summer by USFS as an historic  interpretive center.   

Ken’s is a rustic, cozy log structure that sleeps 3, with a brass bed, a couch shelf, a wood stove, cooking area, and a table with three chairs.  The 3 solar powered light bulbs make for good reading and social ambiance at night.  The logbook is filled with appreciative references to its suitability as a romantic getaway or “love shack”.  

Section House (sleeps 12) is a delightful period structure that evokes the history of this lonely railroad outpost with a restoration that took place in mid-90’s, a great old wood kitchen stove, metal bunk beds. There are two pit toilets (in “John’s John”) with fabulous views out of the picture windows in each of the two throne rooms.

Dedicated to the memory of Ken Graff, MD, who died in an avalanche near Francie’s Cabin on the first weekend it was open.  Family and friends raised funds to restore this cabin for use as a ski hut in honor of Dr Graff, a beloved figure. Ken’s Cabin is a fitting memorial to a kind man and avid outdoorsman.   

****

Stayed in the comfortable, affordable and convenient Leadville Hostel the night before departing for Continental Divide Cabin.  The friendly lodging establishment, the highest hostel in USA, is the perfect place to rest and regroup between hut trips.  It has a fully-equipped kitchen, hot showers, wireless access, washer and dryer, interesting people, and ample spaces for lounging.  Hut groups coming from different places around the state and region frequently gather at the hostel in preparation for a hut trip, and then unwind there afterwards.  

****

Day 3: Continental Divide Cabin, 10,555 feet

Navigation notes: Start from Tennessee Pass Trailhead on East side of Rte. 24, near the Tenth Mountain Division Memorial (a must-see memorial to these influential soldiers).  An easy .8 miles ski in with 95’ elevation gain; 25 minutes. Follows the Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail.

Hut notes: As the shortest and gentlest distance to ski in to any of the 10MD huts, this is a hut trip for families and for first-timers.   Built in 2007, this well designed log cabin (and its neighboring twin, Point Breeze Cabin built in 2011) sleep 8, are very nicely appointed and have a high level of amenities.  It is very comfortable,  with hand-crafted furniture and attractive furnishings, comfortable seating areas for lounging, rocking chairs around the stove, games, etc.  There are several food storage options, including a solar-operated refrigerated chest for summer use.  The covered breeze-way to access firewood and toilet is very convenient.

One Must Prepare, from The Analogue

Built by Lee Rimel, these two cabins seem to hit a sweet spot, and gave me the sense of seeing one strand of the future of hut development in USA.  They are artfully designed, very close to the trail-head, not far from Denver, offer great comfort, and are very family and kid friendly.  The snowmen and snow caves left by recent parties, along with the sleds and nearby kids fort and the tipi The atmosphere and signage clearly convey and ethos of caring, for the cabins and for those who will come after us. This is well expressed in the quote from Mount Analogue, a posthumously published novel by Rene Daumal that concerns and expedition to climb a mountain that unites heaven and earth. 

 

Day 4: Tenth Mountain Division Memorial Hut, 11,415 feet

Navigation notes: Skied from Continental Divide Cabin to Tenth Mountain Division Memorial Hut: 5.5 miles, 4 hours.  Elevation gain 1,150’, elevation loss 290’.  Well marked with blue diamonds and Colorado Trail signs, the trail follows the Colorado Trail.  There is a tricky section between the intersection with the Crane Park Trail and Lily Lake that requires extra attention to trail markers, map and compass.  There are many intersecting trails and roads in the area so care is needed to stay on the blue diamond trail to the hut.  Skins very helpful for last 1.5 mile ascent to hut.  On the return trip to Tennessee Pass Trailhead took Wurtz Ditch Road to the intersection with Crane Park Trail.  It seemed easier than making way through the dogwood thicket N. of Lily Lake.  2.75 hours return trip to Trailhead after a nice 3 “ dump of powder overnight.

Tenth Mountain Division Memorial Hut

Dining and sitting area

Hut notes: It is a pleasure to arrive at this high hut, perched near Continental Divide in a spectacular setting below Homestake Peak.  People frequently stay for several days and have access to a variety of ski terrain, can climb Homestead Peak for great views, and visit nearby Slide Lake. This large, well appointed hut sleeps 16 and is very well appointed, with a large kitchen and dining area, comfortable sitting areas, a library (put together with help from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies), games, and lots of log books.  The kitchen has a “Household Charm” cookstove (which I had no need to use), and the living area has a mighty “Defiance” wood stove that heats the living area quickly.  This two-story log hut is very well built and designed.  It is typical of the huts owned and operated by the Tenth Mountain Division itself.  

This hut is a memorial to the namesake of the hut system: the U.S. Army’s Tenth Mountain Division ski troops that trained just north of Tennessee Pass at nearby Camp Hale during much of World War II.   These mountain/ski troops were the first unit in US military history that were trained for mountain warfare.  They played an important role in several European battles during the war.  

During their training and service the men of the Tenth Mountain Division developed great cameraderie, and many came to love Colorado and to see is potential for recreational skiing.  After seeing first-hand the advanced recreational skiing infrastructure in Europe, many returned to Colorado (and elsewhere in U.S.) and became leaders in the post-war ski industry.  They brought a vision of large alpine ski areas and hut-to-hut systems to America.   Many provided leadership in founding and managing ski resorts; others became ski instructors, coaches and racers; some wrote about skiing and founded ski publications; and others became ski school directors.  Among this wave of enthusiasts for skiing was Fritz Benedict, a landscape architect in the Aspen area who inspired, along with others, the founding of the Tenth Mountain Division Hut Association and for whom the Benedict Hut is named. This memorial hut is graced with a number if interpretive plaques and posters, and is a great place to get a feel for the roots of this unique winter hut-to-hut system.  

****

Stayed another night in  the highly functional Leadville Hostel before meeting Laurel at Copper Mountain the next morning for final hut trip.

Day 5: Janet’s Cabin, 11,630 feet

Navigation notes: See Ohlrich book and Summit Huts web site for details on parking, shuttle to trailhead, and securing ski pass.  Started skiing from Westernmost ski lift (Kokomo) of the Copper Mountain Ski Resort, up along the edge of the ski slope.  This is the location of the Union Creek Trailhead.  One can take the lift up to gain about 800 feet of elevation.  Total ski in is 4.6 miles, much of it along the Colorado Trail, marked with blue diamonds.  Following the west side of second ski slope (above Kokomo lift), one turns right (West) on a marked trail leading off the slope and into the woods.  A pleasant ski through the woods leads to a bridge crossing Guller Cree, which drainage one follows most of the way to the hut.  After crossing the creek again to ski along the left side of the drainage, there is a final, really steep and strenuous   30 minute ascent to the hut.  Elevation gain of 1,390’ and loss of 410’.  The ascent took us 3.5 hours to the hut (we were running late and really moving) and 2.5 hours back down to Copper Mountain ski area.  

Herb’s Sauna, with helpful rope stair rail

Hut notes: It is hard work to get there, but the hut is rewarding.  In design, Janet’s Cabin is something of a twin to Francie’s Cabin.  Janet’s sleeps 14 and has a great mud room at the back entrance with cubbies to store boots and other gear.  Off the mud room are two indoor composting toilets.  The kitchen is well supplied and has ample stations for cooking and cleaning up.  The hut has a cozy feel and is kept warm with a centrally located wood stove.  As with most of the huts, the building retains much of the heat overnight and it is not necessary to keep the fire going all night.  The beautiful sauna building is close by, down a steep set of steps, but with a helpful rope handrail to aid in steadying wobbly legs.  Some skiers do a traverse to reach Janet’s from other huts such as Jackal and Shrine Mountain Inn.  There is great skiing (beware avalanche danger) near Janet’s near Searle Pass, on Elk Mountain, and on Sugarloaf Mountain.

Named for Janet White Tyler (1926 – 1988), this comfortable cabin is a memorial to a passionate skier and a woman of uncommon graciousness, exuberance, and joie de vivre.  As she was dying of cancer she approved the idea and location of a hut in her honor and we are lucky to benefit from the hut inspired by her spirit of hospitality and kindness.

 

Day 6: The Unique Tennessee Pass Sleep Yurts and Cookhouse!

Navigation notes: The Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is located across the parking lot from the Ski Cooper alpine ski center.  It is just up the road from Tennessee Pass Trailhead to the Continental Divide Cabin and the Tenth Mountain Division memorial hut.  From there it is an easy 25 minute ski in from Nordic Center to Cookhouse, and then another 10 minutes to the ski yurts.  The staff at the Nordic Center will lead you through the drill of parking, gear shuttle, reservations, etc.

Yurt notes:  As the climax if our hut trip, we treated ourselves to dinner at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse and an overnight stay at their Sleep Yurts.  A common hut logbook lament that folks are not ready to return to “civilization”.  The backcountry Cookhouse and Ski Yurts are a truly  unique kind of half-way house in making the transition from the rustic simplicity of hut life back into the full set of conveniences and complexities of our ordinary lives.  Highly recommended!

For more detail, see my “Featured Yurt” post on Tennessee Pass Cookhouse and Sleep Yurts.

We treated this pricey indulgence (yes it’s glamping) as a fun culmination of our hut trip and a fond farewell (for now)  to the mountains.  The four ski yurts are elegant 20’ diameter yurts, each sleeping up to six people in a heavy timber queen-size bunk bed and a separate queen size bed.  The very comfortable beds all have cozy flannel sheets and luxurious down comforters.   There is a small kitchen set-up with cold running water in the sink.  The outhouse is close by.  Altogether a cozy atmosphere, with the “oculus” of the yurt ceiling always reminding you that you are in the woods and under mountain stars and skies.  The wood stove quickly warms up the hut and its fun to relax with a glass of wine in the warmth of the fire before the 6:00 dinner, a very short ski away in the Cookhouse.

The Tennessee Pass Cookhouse was born out of the observation of the owners that the picnic table they located along the trail at a spectacular view-point overlooking the Sawatch Mountains was a very popular lunch spot for skiers and hikers.  So why not build a backcountry restaurant on that spot?  The rest is history.  The menu has a “bounty of the woods” theme and the elegantly appointed 30’ diameter yurt offers fine dining in a rustic setting.   The service is friendly and efficient and the wine and beer selections are great.  Lunch is served Saturday and Sunday during winter.  This is a popular dining spot for family groups, couples and friend groups.  

Reservations are required and the place is very popular with folks from Denver as well as those in the Aspen, Leadville and Vail area.  

*****

Caveat: Backcountry ski trips are not to be taken lightly

If you are an experienced backcountry skier in the mountains, you can skip this section.  

If not, you should know that ski touring is a physically demanding and logistically serious undertaking.  It takes a higher level of skill than hiking and backpacking.  While there are short, easy routes to a few huts, most are 6-7 miles into the backcountry.  Winter hut trips require:

  • well honed safety, navigation (use of both map & compass and GPS), and skiing skills;
  • proper ski and outdoor equipment/gear;
  • an understanding of how to avoid altitude sickness;
  • a high level of fitness;
  • logistics of getting to and from trail-heads can be complicated; having a car or hiring a shuttle is essential; traverses require two cars and/or shuttles, or some hitch-hiking;
  • wayfinding experience in mountainous terrain (some of the trails are not intensively marked); and
  • gear and knowhow necessary to spend the night outdoors in case of emergency.   

To determine your readiness for such a trip, buy a copy of Warren Olrich’s 10th Mountain Hut Guide, 2nd ed., Peoples Press, 2011.  It has great introductory section covering the essentials of  trip planning, equipment selection, winter navigation, hut procedures, and safety and emergencies.  And the bulk of the book comprises clear and detailed information on the routes from the trail-head to the huts, between the huts, and getting to the trail-heads. It also indicates level of difficulty for each route.  Perusing this essential guide is the best way to determine your fitness for such a trip and to plan a series of safe hut visits.  

Advance planning:

  • Buy a copy of Warren Olrich’s 10th Mountain Hut Guide and use it to identify possible itineraries;
  • Visit the Tenth Mountain Division website for:
    • Detailed trip planning information, including videos;
    • Hut amenities;
    • Information on hut availability and booking (online or by phone);
    • Equipment lists;
    • Transportation options/shuttles;
    • Information on guides and outfitters;
  • Call Tenth Mountain Division reservations number to discuss your plans and ask for advice and recommendations.
  • Purchase relevant paper maps from Tenth Mountain Division; and
  • Download to a GPS app (e.g. Gaia, Hiking Project, National Geographic) the relevant maps.  Downloadable versions are available on the 10MD site.

 

Tennessee Pass Cookhouse

Featured Yurts: Tennessee Pass Sleep Yurts, Cookhouse, & Nordic Center

Featured Yurts: Tennessee Pass Sleep Yurts and Cookhouse

by Sam Demas and Laurel Bradley

Most photos courtesy Tennessee Pass Nordic Center and Cookhouse

Imagine a mile-long ski or hike into the woods to enjoy a fine meal with fabulous mountain views.  After the delicious repast with fine wine, spend the night in a nearby well appointed yurt.  This will be glamping at its best, hosted by and authentic backcountry operation far outside the realm of mass tourism.

We enjoyed the Tennessee Pass Sleep Yurts and Cookhouse at the end of a week-long exploration of some of the dozen or so Tenth Mountain Division Huts nestled in the Rockies between Vail, Leadville, and Frisco.  This Featured Yurt post is a ringing recommendation of this experience – which can become a comfy climax, a cushy reward after days and nights immersed in the more rustic pleasures of hut life.  We highly recommend you splurge and add the Tennessee Pass venue to your Colorado hut-to-hut bucket list.

HUT-TO-HUT AND THE HIGH-END YURT EXPERIENCE

Tennessee Pass Cookhouse

Sleep Yurts

A common lament found in hut logbooks is simply that folks are not ready to return to “civilization” after days of mountain highs.  Off the grid, the Cookhouse and Ski Yurts are a unique half-way house between hut life and ordinary life with its full catastrophe of conveniences and complexities.  This unique version of mountain hospitality, especially for families and friend groups, is special because:

  • It offers a (mild) physical challenge, along with the act of leaving behind the car and all it represents, which unites the group;
  • The short journey by foot or skis are rewarded by the fine food and restaurant amenities  ;
  • This mom and pop operation is distinctly NOT corporate; and
  • Cookhouse and Ski Yurts is nestled within a network of trails and offers amazing views of the Sawatch mountains.

FINE DINING IN THE BACKWOODS

The Tennessee Pass Cookhouse evolved from a simple picnic table with a view.  The owners recognized that a popular lunch spot enjoying spectacular views of the Sawatch Mountains could become much more.  The Cookhouse is the result.  Housed in a 30-foot diameter yurt, this fine dining establishment offers four-course, “bounty of the woods” meals.  Fish, meat and vegetarian entrees go down easily with a choice from the fine wine and beer list.  Candle-lit service is friendly and efficient.  Lunch is served Saturday and Sunday during winter.  This popular dining spot attracts friend and family groups, as well as couples from the local area and from as far away as Denver.  Reservations are required as all the meal fixings must be prepared in advance.

Executive Chef Dylan Brody, who grew up in Minnesota hunting and fishing, learned early in life to prepare fish and game.  As a young man he worked two summers at Bristol Bay Lodge, Alaska, leading fly-fishing trips and working in the kitchen. There he learned the fine dining side of things and yearned to cook fulltime in a “taste of the wild” themed backwoods restaurant.  An ad in the Leadville newspaper led him to the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse and the fulfillment of a dream.

THE SLEEP YURTS

Sleep Yurts

Over the years, Cookhouse diners often joked that their dining experience would be perfect “if we could just stay the night”.  And indeed, four sleep yurts now offer a delightful overnight experience.  The rustic and elegant 20’ diameter ski yurts each sleep up to six people. The heavy timber queen-size bunk bed and a separate queen size bed are outfitted with flannel sheets and luxurious down comforters.  The wood stove quickly warms up the hut.  There is a small kitchen area with cold running water in the sink.  The outhouse is close by.  Altogether this is a cozy atmosphere, with the “oculus” of the yurt ceiling always reminding you that you are in the woods and under mountain stars and skies.  The wood stove quickly warms up the hut and its fun to relax with a glass of wine in the warmth of the fire before the 6:00 dinner, a very short ski away in the Cookhouse.

FOUNDERS STORY

This Cookhouse and Yurt complex is a unique act of imagination by owners Ty and Roxanne

Tennesse Pass Cookhouse

Ty and Roxanne on the move

Hall.  The couple, who met and married in college, were resolved to make a life in Leadville, Roxanne’s hometown. Despite limited job prospects for college graduates, Ty found work at Ski Cooper while Roxanne signed on as a school teacher.  Ty noticed a struggling Nordic ski center across the parking lot from Ski Cooper.  The Halls bought the outfit in 1993 as it was about to go out of business.

As the Halls expanded the trail system and enhanced the Nordic Center’s capacity, they also moved ahead to realize their vision for a backcountry dining establishment.  They managed to get a special use permit from the Forest Service for a temporary structure, and put up a 30’ diameter yurt, with attached kitchen in 1995.  They struggled for the first eight to ten years, but eventually the Cookhouse proved a viable and valuable addition to the Nordic Ski Center offerings.

In this same period Ty and a friend built and operated the Belvedere Hut near Leadville; this hut – now the 10MD’s Sangree-Froelicher Hut – was sold to Tenth Mountain Division in 1999.  They used the profits to construct a new building for the Nordic Center in 2002.  They have expanded their cross-country ski rentals and trails business, rent fat tire bikes, sell gear, and provide delicious snacks and lunches at the cafe/warming center.  With the Cookhouse and Nordic Center doing well, the Halls looked for ways to construct sleeping quarters. The Forest Service would not issue a permit for sleep yurts next to the cookhouse, so the Halls bought mining claims nearby and put up four yurts on private land, two in 2011 and two in 2013.  They have rights to construct two more sleep yurts.

Twenty-three years in the making, business at the Cookhouse and Sleep Yurts is good although Ty admits that, “it’s not exactly a cash cow”.  Indeed, this enterprise represents a lifestyle commitment as much as a business endeavor. Roxanne has retired from teaching and bakes cookies and brownies for the cafe, teaches ski lessons, works with reservations and otherwise works with Ty in managing this family business.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mint Hut, Alaska

Huts Hostels in the News

Huts Hostels in the News

Huts Hostels: New forms of accommodations (not really new, but getting renewed attention) are popping up in the news more frequently.

Here are two that seem worth passing along to those interested in affordable, sustainable options for travelers to outdoor destinations:

  1. 9 Upscale Adventure Hostels to Stay in Now by Megan Michelson in Outside Online

Pictures and brief descriptions of “a new breed of affordable shelter for travelers” in Colorado (Breckenridge, Boulder, Denver); California (Trukee and San Clemente) and Whistler, BC; Ludlow, VT; Ellijay, GA, and Whitefish, MT.

Huts Hostels

Mint Hut, Alaska, courtesy Backpacker Magazine

2. View with a Room: America’s Best Huts by William M. Rochfort, Jr., in Backpacker Magazine, Oct. 2017, p. 49-69.

A nice photo spread with brief descriptions featuring 12 huts, cabins, yurts, fire towers, and climbing basecamps.  Several of these descriptions are at least partially available online: e.g. Mint Hut in Alaska and at https://www.backpacker.com/author/william-m-rochfort-jrThere is very brief notice of another 6 huts.   And also included is a compelling essay “Cabin Convert” by Jonathan Waterman [any relation to the mountaineering Waterman’s of Vermont?] about overcoming half a lifetime’s reactionary dislike of huts by rediscovering the pleasures of hut-to-hut in the San Juan Hut system.

[BTW, the catchy title, View with a Room, is understandably popular to describe mountain huts.  There are a number of B&B’s by that name, and it is also the title of a great book about the lodging system in Glacier National Park by Ray Djuff and Chris Morrison (View with a Room: Glacier’s Historic Hotels and Chalets, Faircountry Press, 2001.]

Sam Demas, October 2017

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Sperry Chalet

“Sperry Chalet dorm lost to fire may be rebuilt” by Ray Djuff

Sperry Chalet dorm lost to fire may be rebuilt

by Ray Djuff, Prince Of Wales Hotel 1973-75, ’78

[posted here by kind permission of the author;

featured image of Sperry fire courtesy National Park Service]

As quickly as the Sprague forest fire destroyed the dormitory, or “hotel,” building at Sperry Chalet on August 31, 2017, there was talk of rebuilding the structure.

The morning after the fire, Doug Mitchell, newly appointed executive director of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, was talking with park superintendent Brian Mow about the next step.

The conservancy quickly established a $90,000 emergency fund and hired DCI+BCE Engineers to come up with stabilization plan for the damaged building. The conservancy will also buy supplies to do the stabilization work.

{Note: since this was written the building has been stabilized for the winter by the NPS with funding from the Glacier National Park Conservancy.  See Glacier NP Media Release Oct. 19, 2017}

DCI+BCE Engineers is a Seattle-based structural and civil engineering firm, with offices in Missoula, Kalispell, Bozeman and Billings, that was consulted on repairs to Sperry Chalet after it was damaged by an avalanche in 2011.

Glacier superintendent Jeff Mow told the Missoulian newspaper that it was too soon to know what the future holds for Sperry, but “this work represents the first step in assessing the extent of the damage to evaluate what future actions might be possible.”

For U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, a native Montanan and former U.S. representative for the state, there was no doubt about the future.

“Rebuilding Sperry is one of my top priorities,” Zinke said in a news release from Glacier. “Today’s announcement is the first step in that process.”

The sentiment was supported by both of Montana’s U.S. senators, Jon Tester and Steve Daines.

The fire that gutted Sperry Chalet was caused by a severe thunderstorm on August 10 that saw some 150 lightning strikes setting off several small blazes in Glacier, one in the Sprague Creek drainage on Edwards Mountain, east of Lake McDonald Lodge.

The forest fire grew rapidly, from 10 to 101acres within days of its discovery, cutting off access to Sperry Chalet along the trail from Lake McDonald, stranding chalet staff and 39 guests.

The last guests to arrive at the hotel was a group of five women, among them Khi Soldano, daughter of Blackfeet artist King Kuka (1946-2004).

In face of the growing fire threat and after consultations with the National Park Service, chalet manager Renee Noffke closed the building and led the staff and stranded guests to safety on Friday, August 11, via Gunsight Pass, a 13.5-mile trek to Sun Road.

For Soldano and her four hiking partners, who had struggled over that same trail just two days before due to being ill-prepared and ill-informed about the hike, the return trip was a daunting thought.

“I wasn’t sure if I could ever do that (hike) again,” Soldano told the Great Falls Tribune. “Then that thought was thrown in my face. I’d have to do it again.”

With the public evacuated from the Sperry region, a group of highly skilled firefighters was assigned to defend the chalet. The firefighters did fuel reduction around the five structures in the area, laid out an extensive line of hoses, put sprinklers on the chalet roof and set up a pump system. As well, the firefighters put protective wrap on exposed wood and around the bottom of buildings with decks.

It was decided that it would be too unwieldly to try to wrap the entire dormitory.

Logistically, it is difficult to wrap a building the size of the chalet, said Glacier fire information officer Diane Sine. Each roll of the fire-resistant material weighs about 100 pounds and the crew couldn’t get to the top of the two-storey building.

Sine said using a fire retardant gel also presents difficulties, as it has to be maintained and hauled in buckets to the site.

“They felt that the sprinklers were enough,” Glacier’s public information officer Diane Mann-Klager said.

Despite the best efforts of firefighters to contain the Sprague fire in the heavily wooded and steep sides of Edward Mountain, it continued to grow, from about 500 acres on August 18 to 4,600 acres on September 1.

With the fire spreading unchecked and causing dangerously poor air quality conditions in the valley, Lake McDonald Lodge announced August 29 it was closing early for the season. It was originally supposed to close September 27. The move was out of concern for employee safety–because they work and live onsite they have a longer duration exposure to the air conditions.

Four days later, Sun Road was closed from Apgar to Logan Pass and everyone around Lake McDonald was ordered to leave.

Firefighters moved in to protect Lake McDonald Lodge and neighbouring buildings. Pumps were put in Snyder Creek and Lake McDonald, hoses laid out and an extensive “Rain for Rent” sprinkler system was used to increase the humidity around the lodge.

By now, the fire was now on Sperry Chalet’s doorstep.

“The fire team . . . worked tirelessly to contain this fire and protect structures and infrastructure,” said superintendent Mow.

While battling an “ember shower” from the approaching fire, the firefighters noticed puffs of smoke under an eave on the Sperry Chalet dorm. It was approximately 6:10 p.m. on Thursday, August 31.

The firefighters sprayed the area with water because they thought there was an ember on the roof. Almost instantaneously, a window in the dorm broke out and flames were licking at the eaves. From a photo taken of the event, it would appear that embers had gotten inside the building and had set the interior alight.

It was a “valiant stand” by the firefighters, supported by three helicopters with water buckets, to save the structure, but they were unsuccessful.

The 103-year-old Sperry dorm, a national historic landmark, was gutted.

Fortunately, the rest of the buildings survived the fiery onslaught.

The public reaction when photos of the burning building and the remaining rock walls of the chalet were published was shock and grief.

“I am utterly devastated that our beloved Chalet has been lost to the Sprague fire,” Geneva Warrington, a member of the extended Luding family which operates the chalet, posted on Instagram.

“Each and every person who was lucky enough to spend time here knows what a magical place it was, and what a terrible loss this is,” Geneva wrote. “My family has been incredibly blessed to get to share this magnificent place with the public for the past 63 years, and we are so very sad it has ended in this way.”

Kevin Warrington, Sperry Chalet co-ordinator for Belton Chalets, Inc., which operates the chalets, called the loss “a sad day.”

“I have been around Sperry for my entire life and I have never expected to see anything like this,” Kevin said. “It has been a privilege to share Sperry with the great many people that love it.”

Beth Dunagan of Whitefish, lamented: “My heart is breaking not just for my family, but for everyone who so dearly loved that chalet.”

Dunagan, another member of the extended Luding family and a former employee who recently wrote a book, Welcome to Sperry Chalet, about the place, spent all of her childhood summers and five years as an adult at the backcountry lodge.

“There’s no place on earth I’d rather be,” she told the Daily Inter Lake newspaper shortly after her book was published in 2013.

Dunagan’s book is as much a tribute to the chalet as it is to the Luding family, which has operated Sperry Chalet since 1954.

Sperry became a tourist destination in the early 1900s, after the Great Northern Railway paid Dr. Lyman Sperry to have students from the University of Minnesota build a trail from Lake McDonald to his namesake glacier, which he’d earlier located.

Upon the Glacier region being designated a national park in 1910, Great Northern president Louis Hill commissioned a series of camps be built for tourists on saddle horse trips. The tent camp near the present Sperry Chalet opened in 1911.

The first buildings appeared the following summer, 1912: two log cabins and a 22- by 80-foot dining room/kitchen complex made of locally quarried stone and lodgepole pine. The kitchen/dining room opened for business in 1913.

That same summer, work started on a 32- by 90-foot dormitory building, again made of rock and wood. It was finished and opened in the summer of 1914. The two-storey dorm had 23 guest rooms.

Both stone-and-wood structures at Sperry were designed by Spokane, Wash., architect Kirtland Cutter, who also created the plans for Lake McDonald Lodge, also opened that year, 1914.

Situated on the edge of a cirque 6,500 feet above sea level, the chalets offer a fantastic view of the surrounding mountains and down to Lake McDonald. The hike from the lake to the chalets is a rigorous 6.7 miles, gaining 3,300 feet in elevation.

Sperry Chalets were a popular destination for anyone wanting to visit the nearby glacier, and a welcome stop for tourists on saddle horse trips. During the Great Northern era, fresh bread and pastries were made daily, served at mealtimes by waitresses in uniform. Each bedroom had metal beds with springs and mattresses, a sink with cold running water, and chamber pots so guests wouldn’t have to go the outhouse during the night. Lighting came from kerosene lamps.

The creation of Going-to-the-Sun Road, along with the Great Depression, radically changed the nature of tourism to Glacier, to people driving themselves and fewer venturing on horse trips into the backcountry. By the 1950s the Great Northern Railway was looking to get out of the hospitality industry in Glacier, and in 1953 it sold the Sperry buildings to the National Park Service for $1.

While other chalet colonies the railway had built were razed due to lack of use, Sperry got a reprieve when the park service in 1954 leased the operation to Ross and Kathleen (Kay) Luding. It was the beginning of a six-decade long revival of the complex, with the Luding family starting and maintaining new traditions at the fabled site, so remote it is supplied by mule train arrivals each week.

Kay Luding, a sprite of a woman with boundless enthusiasm and a welcoming smile, became the heart of Sperry. In her book about Sperry Chalet, Beth Dunagan said Kay Luding always put others first:

“It doesn’t matter to me how many discomforts I have up here just to serve the public,” Kay Luding said. “I couldn’t care less, because I want our guests to have a memory they’ll take home with them that will last forever.”

She achieved her goal, turning Sperry into a spot where tourists champed at the bit to make a reservation for the following year, and openings were hard to find during the short, 60-day summer season in which it operated.

It is on the basis of that reputation, maintained by her son Lanny Luding and other generations of the extended family following Kay’s death, that has sparked the push to rebuild the fire-ravaged Sperry Chalet dorm building.

When Doug Mitchell, who had only taken on the top job at the Glacier Conservancy six weeks before, heard the news of the Sperry fire, he said: “This puts all hands on deck. We will marshal the troops and do what we can to help. Our mission is to be here for the long run.”

The conservancy has set up a page where the public can make contributions to its “Sperry Action Fund.” As a special thank you for any donations of $100 or more, the conservancy will send donors a limited edition 12- by 18-inch poster of Sperry created and donated by Roy E. Hughes, done while he was Glacier’s artist-in-residence in 2005.

With the conservancy’s support, a team of engineers has visited the site and is putting together a plan to stabilize the rock walls of the fire-charred dorm so they survive the winter, after which a decision will be made about whether they can be preserved for a rebuilding project. The plan is to have the supports for the walls in place before winter hits the higher altitudes in Glacier.

Park spokesperson Lauren Alley told the Flathead Beacon newspaper that approximately 100 beams will be brought to the site by helicopter to stabilize the remaining walls. The chimney will be secured with stabilization collars, and the gables will be surrounded with plywood.

“We want to protect the walls from wind and snow this winter,” Alley said.

Meanwhile, the Heritage Partnerships Program of the National Park Service is seeking blueprints of the Sperry Chalet dorm to assist in any rebuilding effort. The Heritage Partnerships Program helps citizens, agencies, organizations, and communities identify, document, interpret, protect, and preserve National Historic Landmarks within the eight-state Intermountain Region.

Fans of Glacier Park eagerly await news of the fate of what remains of the Sperry dorm, and the rebuilding plan.

Elsewhere, Glacier’s staff is looking at the huge job of cleaning up some 30 miles of trails where the Sprague fire swept through the Lake McDonald area, felling 1,900 trees on the hiking and riding paths.

Park spokesperson Lauren Alley said it’s possible that some popular routes, such as the Mount Brown Lookout trail, Snyder Lake trail and Sperry trail will be closed well into next year. The Lincoln Lake and Lincoln Creek trails were among the most heavily affected by the fire, she said, with two bridges damaged on Snyder Ridge.

Milder weather rain and snow had diminished the fire, which at last report before publication continued to smoulder. It had burned more than 17,000 acres in the park.

 

Book Review: “Walks of a Lifetime: Extraordinary Hikes From Around the World”

Book Review: Walks of a Lifetime: Extraordinary Hikes From Around the World

by Robert and Martha Manning, Falcon Press, 2017.

Hurrah! Another elegant invitation from the Mannings to ordinary folks to try long distance walking!

Martha and Robert Manning on the Kumado Kodo Pilgrimage Walk, Japan, Courtesy Robert Manning

Walks of a Lifetime (2017), like the Manning’s first guidebook, Walking Distance (2013), alternates compelling descriptions of 30 exceptional walks around the world with brief essays on aspects of walking. With these intelligent companion volumes, Robert and Martha Manning are now firmly established as discerning and trusted guides to some of the world’s best walks.  Their approach goes way beyond your typical “trail guide”.

Essays in Walks of a Lifetime delightfully amplify themes in the walk chapters, connect the reader to the larger world of long distance walking, and inspire closer attention to the world we walk.  The 30 topics include trail angels, pilgrimage, urban walking, philanthropic walking, place, and the philosophy and ethics of walking.  The authors celebrate the joys of advance research, discuss how to prepare and how to enjoy serendipitous “misadventures” along the way, and offer advice on answering the inevitable question, “how long will it take?”.  Further, they explore the expanded field around walking by musing on ecotourism, health, walking as political statement, walking as art, and they contemplate the existential conundrum of journey vs. the destination.

Each walk portrait presents the sort of information that never goes out of date, for example natural and cultural history, land management context, weather and terrain.  Descriptions are useful, satisfying, but hardly exhaustive.  Instead, the reader will be stimulated toward further research, and to embrace walking as a process of life-long learning. Robert contributes knowledges honed by decades of research and teaching on national parks around the world, and he also provides hundreds of high quality photos.  Martha, an artist, speaks and writes as an astute observer full of practical advice.  Both husband and wife have an eye for natural beauty, topography, and unique landscape features.  They also share their infectious enjoyment of people, culture and cuisine.   Specifically, the walk descriptions include:

  • Orientation to the landscape and its natural history, including geology, wildlife, botany, weather, soils, bodies of water, etc.;
  • Cultural highlights of each area, including history, archaeology, museums, culinary traditions, agriculture, architecture, language, thermal baths, and local lore;
  • The context of the trail/traverse: how the trail came to be, how it operates, nearby and connecting trails, the challenges and unique features of the parks and natural areas it traverses, the broader trail system and walking culture of the nation/region in which it exists; and
  • Photographs that visually define each experience.

And, of course, practical information and advice is included:

  • Getting to the trail head and back, getting around in the region;
  • Availability of food, water, accommodations, bathrooms, campsites, etc.;
  • How to hike the trail in sections, other possible modifications, and adjacent trails;
  • Level of difficulty, type of terrain, safety considerations, and tips about gear;
  • Trail protocols (important do’s and don’ts) and environmental ethics.

In Walks of a Lifetime the authors expand our concept of long distance walking beyond hiking remote woods and tramping distant fields to include sauntering through some of the world’s most populous cities (Sydney, New York, Paris and San Francisco).  They also include a range of bucolic to backcountry walks in places like Arizona, Hawaii, Georgia, Utah, Colorado, Maine, N.H., China, France, New Zealand, Italy, Portugal, Japan, Scotland, England and Wales.  And they take us on treks in some of the most isolated locations in the USA such as Denali in Alaska, Havasu Canyon and Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness in Arizona, and Popo Agie Wilderness in Wyoming.

The Manning’s continued emphasis on long distance walks for ordinary people is a refreshing corrective to the current craze for “through hiking” on such trails as the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trail.  Such hikes, requiring months of time and almost superhuman effort, are not for ordinary people. This book is a tonic for the rest of us.  In fact, in Walks of a Lifetime, the Mannings offer even gentler and more accessible walks than in their previous guide.  They include four urban saunters, and also describe a higher proportion of domestic (U.S.) walks (seventeen) than in the 2013 volume (twelve).  As to level of difficulty, this latest guide includes seven walks of low challenge (compared with two in the previous book) and eight that are categorized as high challenge (compared with twelve in the previous book).

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, an Urban Walk, Courtesy Robert Manning

The latest volume is published by Falcon Press, a specialist in trail guides.  The earlier guide, published by Oregon State University Press includes an index, further reading suggestions at the end of each chapter, a bibliography, and a sprinkling of sparkling quotations throughout.  The Falcon Press publication omits these extras.  I missed these.

One quibble: the maps in Walks of a Lifetime are extremely rudimentary.  While providing the highly detailed topo maps necessary for walking the walk is clearly not within the scope of this guide, better maps would definitely aid in amplifying the author’s text and in supporting the walker’s planning.  Falcon Press is capable of doing better by its authors and readers.

Readers new to long distance walking will find themselves in good hands as they select a walk and plan for their first trip.  Experienced walkers will enjoy perusing the options shared by the well-travelled and insightful authors. Written with intelligence, grace and gentle humor, the Manning’s two guides are perfect gifts for friends and family.  Each volume effectively encourages new readers to get off the chair, take a long walk, and savor the wonders of nature and culture at a slow pace.  Both guides are also highly recommended for libraries serving communities with interest in outdoor recreation.

Sam Demas, October 2017

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.