Home sweet hut

March 4, 2013
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Manitoba Cabin a prelude to what’s coming for the backcountry

Manitoba Cabin, warmed from within during a snowy night in February. The Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Huts Association now rents out the cabin as an introduction to the European hut-lodging experience. By Kevin Turinsky

Manitoba Cabin, warmed from within during a snowy night in February. The Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Huts Association now rents out the cabin as an introduction to the European hut-lodging experience. By Kevin Turinsky

We’d been skiing for an hour, winding our way up to the open slopes of Little Manitoba Mountain. In front of me, my friend Colleen Mueller laughed at our slow progress in the fresh snow – “We could be going faster on snowshoes,” she said – yet our goal on this perfect Thursday afternoon had nothing to do with speed and all to do with having a backcountry mini-adventure.

Skiing back down Little Manitoba took only a few minutes, and it was worth every sweat-inducing stride up. Fresh snow fell around us, leaving us damp with exertion and ready to warm up and dry off. As we descended, the smell of wood smoke greeted us, and in the near distance we could see Manitoba Cabin, tucked into the woods and inviting us with its cheeriness.

If that cabin could talk, oh, the stories it would tell. From its humble beginnings as a miner’s cabin in the 1930s, Manitoba has seen the boom of the Gold Rush and the bust of its downturn. Throughout most of that time, though, people who love the mountains have come here, drawn by the open slopes, fresh powder and outdoor recreation opportunities. Manitoba Cabin has been a beacon for those people, over the years sagging with age and falling into disrepair, yet still offering shelter.

Today, the Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Huts Association has reclaimed the cabin, reintroducing it to a backcountry-loving public as a way to showcase the concept of European-style hut living. After a summer of rehabilitation, the cabin now stands sturdy and strong, able to welcome cold, backcountry travelers with a warm fire, hot bowl of soup or steaming mug of cocoa.

“The best thing about Manitoba Cabin is that it is a physical thing in the world,” said John Wolfe, Jr., executive director of Alaska Huts. After more than 10 years of working to establish a connecting hut-to-hut system in Southcentral, Wolfe said the Manitoba Cabin is serving as a helpful test-run hut for a three-hut system currently being developed for the Placer River Valley.

“Now we have a real hut instead of talking about a pie-in-the-sky idea,” he continued. “And that’s good for the public getting to use it and get a sense of what a ‘hut’ is meant to be.”

So what is a ‘hut’ and how does it differ from a public-use cabin? Wolfe hears that question often. Visiting Manitoba Cabin answers the question loud and clear.

Colleen and I opened Manitoba’s front door and immediately knew we were going to like our stay. In front of us, a full-size oven and stovetop, surrounded by cooking utensils and shelves of plates, silverware and cups, covered the back wall. A large, L-shaped table, stained to a high gleaming finish sat in the center of the room, surrounded by bench seating with pads. A woodstove crackled in the corner, old skiing prints hung on the walls and we noted the propane lanterns, waiting to be lit when evening drew near.

“Look,” Colleen said, pointing to some benches by the front entryway. There, lined neatly side by side were four pairs of slippers, to be worn inside.

“Slippers! This is better than Alyeska,” I said, laughing at the backcountry luxuriousness of it all.

That’s what huts are all about, Wolfe said. One step up from a public-use cabin, but not so fancy or expensive as a wilderness lodge, the hut concept allows roving backcountry travelers a place to meet like-minded people in a friendly place.

“The whole concept of a backcountry hut where people come from different trails and different countries and share their experience is what I’ve always thought of with huts,” Wolfe said.

Kevin Turinsky, on the Alaska Huts Board of Directors, said one of the key elements of the huts concept is having a hut-keeper on site to greet visitors and oversee guests’ experience. Even day-trippers are welcome, and for a nominal $5 fee can stop in, warm up, buy a bowl of soup and socialize.

“That’s the fun part of it,” said Turinsky, who spent a recent long weekend at the cabin and served as volunteer hut-keeper. “The more people you have, the more interesting the experience.”

As Colleen and I began to hang gear to dry, Harry Hunt, of H & L Construction and the man tasked with rehabbing this once-dilapidated cabin, came out of a side room, carrying some tools. Hunt was there for the afternoon, working on a project in the attic space and doing a few small repairs.

“We started work on this on the summer solstice (2012),” said Hunt, who also constructed the Serenity Falls Hut at Eklutna Lake. With that project well received, Wolfe said Hunt was a natural choice for contractor on the Manitoba project, which was constructed in part thanks to a $10,000 grant through the Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area.

“When we started this project, we hauled three contractor bags of porcupine poop out of here,” Hunt said. “It must’ve been six inches deep all underneath the floorboards. There used to be an old root cellar beneath the floor, and those porcupines must’ve been living there for 30 years.”

To breathe new life into the cabin yet maintain its rustic heritage, Hunt said he had to carefully strip the old, rotten wood away, including the floor, then hoist the whole building up and replace the foundation.

“We built a new floor and brought in compacted gravel to get a good, solid bed for the new foundation,” he said.

For the tables and window trim, Hunt used salvaged wood, recycling everything he could. The result is a cabin that has modern amenities – woodstove, propane, shelving and drawers – yet simple charm.

The Manitoba Cabin is hut-living at its best: With propane heating, cooking facilities and homey décor, it’s a step above public-use cabins but not so spendy as a fancy, wilderness lodge. By Kevin Turinsky

The Manitoba Cabin is hut-living at its best: With propane heating, cooking facilities and homey décor, it’s a step above public-use cabins but not so spendy as a fancy, wilderness lodge. By Kevin Turinsky

The Manitoba Cabin has hutkeepers’ quarters attached to the main communal hut space, while two yurts, located just a few hundred feet away from the cabin, give private sleeping quarters to paying guests. Rates currently are $125 per night, per yurt (each yurt sleeps eight), with the cabin serving as the gathering spots for all parties.

The cabin and yurts opened for reservations the weekend of Thanksgiving, and interest – as word spreads of the cool new cabin – is growing quickly, Turinsky said. An open house/grand opening celebration set for mid-March will give anyone an opportunity to check it out.

“The place is really getting dialed in now,” he said. “It is giving us a chance to learn what we need to do better, what works already and what will work once we have the huts in place,” he said.

After Hunt left for the day, Colleen and I settled into the cabin and had time to appreciate the care put into this backcountry oasis. Wood and kindling had been stacked neatly in bins, waiting to be split and burned. Someone had creatively added battery-operated party lanterns around the windows, giving the cabin a festive, welcoming feel. We lit the propane lanterns and went about making dinner and listening to some music while playing cards.

We imagined what it would be like if the cabin were full of guests, each with their own stories to tell and adventures to share. Indeed Colleen, who once lived in Germany and visited the well-run huts systems there, said European huts are bustling, active places, with music, varied accents and people coming and going all the time.

That’s the vision Wolfe would like to see evolve with Alaska’s huts.

“It’s what I’ve always thought of huts I’ve stayed at elsewhere,” Wolfe said. “You don’t ever know quite who you’re going to meet, but it’s always kind of fun to share their experiences and likewise.”
Manitoba Grand Opening
Open House March 9-10

The Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Huts Association celebrates the opening of its Manitoba Cabin hut and yurt operation with a weekend celebration set for March 9-10 at the cabin.

On Saturday and Sunday, March 9-10, the Anchorage bluegrass band High Lonesome Sound will be playing live at the cabin, welcoming visitors to stop in learn about this newest backcountry opportunity in the area. There will be door prizes throughout the day and food samples from Adventure Appetites, an Anchorage outfitter that specializes in preparing and packaging gourmet camp food for hikers. There will be bonfires going outside, and since all of the yurt bunk spaces are taken already, tent camping will be available nearby.

“We will probably be offering ski tours on the flats or up on the mountains, depending on how many people we have out to help,” said John Wolfe, Jr., executive director of Alaska Huts.

The purpose of the weekend is to introduce users to the Manitoba cabin, which ultimately will help fund a three-hut project in the upper Placer River Valley Chugach National Forest in cooperation with the National Forest Service’s Whistlestop project. It also will show users what the “huts” concept – strangers uniting their passions for the outdoors in a shared mountain location – is meant to include. The event is free, but donations are always accepted. Access to the cabin is on a -mile trail that starts from the north end of the parking lot at Mile 48 of the Seward Highway. For more details, go to the Huts webpage at www.alaskahuts.org.

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