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Home > Magazine > ProjectGadget > Making Harrison's Hutch

Making Harrison's Hutch
January 22, 2008

An Experiential Report of a Project, by Mike Hayes.

(A summary report by JP is elsewhere here.)

When I was a kid we’d take summer trips to Colorado and then some years later my Dad took me to see the film "Jeremiah Johnson." For some reason that kept playing over and over in my mind, and into the years to come. Eventually, that landscape seduced me and I moved out to Colorado, that glorious place.

Generally, when I tell people that we built a little mountain Hutch they immediately think of a small log cabin with green trim. And after closer inspection (of our photos), they realize that it falls into the category Jeff Potter of Out Your Backdoor stated in his article when he called it a mountain shack. I like to believe that’s the Michigan term for it, although in Colorado people called it a hut (described more thoroughly later); either way it appears to me to be the same. The most important thing to know is that we dragged all of the components in on a tiny little sled while snowshoeing… The only trips that we were able to actually drive all the way in were the last few, about the time of putting on the tin roofing. So our building materials were limited in size-much of which we recycled, the work was done during the winter, and we had limited time…

After scouting for months, we found a place, surveyed it through the snow, and bought it, building the Hutch on its illusive ground, (always buried beneath snow)…. And yet to this day we’ve never seen the property without snow… Built on four-foot stilts, on what would no doubt one day be soft ground. Winter in this harsh terrain and not knowing what you’ll find when it melts or upon your return… possibly years later… A form of time capsule without content…

Trees crumpled like twigs in harsh winds, water to be anywhere in much quantity as the melts will come and go turning all to mud and then freezing hard, again and again… One day I said to myself (talking to oneself a common theme in the mountains) “looky here, there’s a stream” mountain run off about twenty feet from the Hutch. It had just appeared, although it could’ve always been there, I just couldn’t see it before… Next year it may be right under the Hutch? Biting cold winds, sun intense at that altitude heavy snows suddenly fall… Again, I’ve never seen the property without snow…. A year later the Hutch is tilting an inch (which was less than I’d expected) in a photo Joe sent before he moved. He said to get rid of that big brace that I left on the outside running to the ground, as it’s not really doing much good now that the initial snow’s gone… I thought it might help at that time if a giant wind came up… He’d know better… I’ll put it on my list of things to do next time we’re there.

Avalanches were freaky, loud and unpredictable. One was so loud that I ran right out of the Hutch and just didn’t bother looking back, as I didn’t care to acquaint it too closely. Then I sank up to my waist in snow and prayed. I bet those old miners also ran in or out of their mines (still remaining as ruins) at times when they heard those loud sounds (maybe that Tommy Knocker I’d met was originally slow in running???)… Most of the rest of the time, I’d just stand there looking for some kind of snow blast to come through the trees. The property is at the base of a scree field from one mountain and an avalanche zone for another, but it would take the “hundred-year slide” to actually hit it. That’s what my neighbors (mountain people) said, anyhow. The Hutch is about a hundred and fifty feet within tree line, which is currently where slides stop. By the looks of the rocks on the property, slides and boulders have made it through before, when? When will be the next time is more likely the question now?

Surreal wilderness - blizzards dumping masses of snow. Wolves stalk, a lone white dove in prosperity or peace? Maybe both. Visiting birds, paw prints - mountain lions and deer; hugemongous shell piles from critters scampering, watching and intruding; Tommy Knockers (yes, in town and in the wood! I’ve seen and heard them in too much time in to short a time together/alone/not enough beer); neighbors and mountain peoples who live and breathe it, I’m envious and dream it… It’s all a blurrrrrrrrr.

Dry, harsh, abrasive, tender, raw, and intense… I equate the experience with all those great documentaries like “Alone In The Wilderness,” my Dad gave me a copy of that and it’s a true inspiration/reflection of what working on cabin/shack/hut undertaking really is…

A journey of self-discovery for me… I realized it’s never to late for self-discovery, courage; strength; perseverance and moments of greatness… Yeah, there were moments.

I felt well connected that very first day we headed to the mountains, now looking back I didn’t have a clue as to what I was getting us into. I told my honey “this little project will take two weekends”. “Haaaaah!!!” she said, and it took the next six months working every extra moment, up until two days before moving back to Michigan. The last visit was the worst, as I knew never such sweet goodbye. And my honey she knows me better than I, her nurturing as we left the mountain.

As the weeks pass by, we made many many trips up to altitude. I started to hear the snow, really started to hear the snow! And when it’s coming down regularly, like a foot an hour, that’s when you learn the true meaning of time constraints. Have to wear snowshoes all the time, doing almost everything in them often made for a lot of extra work, if it were outside of the snow hole, then it would most often require snowshoes. We’d snowshoe our supplies in and build (haaaaah, build??? freeze our asses off in one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and eight feet of snow). The unordinary sleigh riding of materials to bring them in… on good days if you got there early the snow was dry and slippery until around nine a.m., that’s when it started getting sticky from the sun, which made for difficulty hauling materials… The beams about killed me, OSB plywood in 60-80 mph gusts about send you off like a tornado. You quickly learn to listen for those gusts. I had treated everything with linseed oil and marine sealer, never having enough time to let it dry. So it was wet, sticky, slippery and heavy as hell… Most of the snow-time we’d have to make two trips a week just to keep our site dug out, as that was a massive energy zap (if you don’t live at altitude, it’s taxing; although I have friends that live close by there and it’s a day in the park to them)… I couldn’t often haul in supplies, dig out, set up and build in one trip, that’s a cardiac arrest waiting to happen. Maintaining the snow hole… The Kid loved it, when he came… More often than not I made the trek by myself… So there’s that candle burning at both ends, wanting to spend time with family in the city below and the job at hand or as Jeff said “Scratchin’ an itch in a purty place,” always knowing that the season’s running thin, and time along with it.

Two years have now passed and I’ve re-entered my past life as a flat-lander, I only see old photos of the Hutch around the house or at Jeff’s O.Y.B. site, usually I browse his new quiver of books and interesting articles, but occasionally my lunch breaks contain a little peak at the Hutch… Hopefully he’s not counting my visits because then I’d owe him for sure. It’s not easy to describe our little spot, as it’s not so much the Hutch as it is the place. At eleven thousand feet the air is crisp and dry, you feel different, sometimes you feel sick and short of breath, especially if you’re not used to it. Other times you’re in the middle of the clouds, literally. For me, it was where all the troubles of the world fell to the wayside… As I recall, Jeff knows what real mountains and altitude are about, as he’s lived many lives and one of them not far from the Hutch, out in Colorado. He lost a close friend in an avalanche there, and I know Jeff still lives there inside. I think he knew it better than I’ll ever really know, yet I somehow know there are more days ahead of old stories exchanged over a few quality beers, family and friends, and a couple of bowls of chili… Hopefully one day at the Hutch and we could then hike up to the real mountains, steps away… That’s what it is to me. I left my lost family there, and I will return to revisit those who I loved so much.

The Hutch being what it is (a tea house, a meditation, a crash shack, camp hut, left over house parts from my dear ol’ departed relatives, a memorial, and all of those good things packed into one), originally started as an idea that I got from some telemarkers/backcountry/back-hill skiers to be exact. And these guys do a thing that’s called “hut to hut,” which is tele-marking/skiing from one state and/or private hut/yurt to another and camping out in these with what you packed in. Most of the huts are simple and small, with a few huge ones. But what really matters is the concept, it’s a lifestyle. These huts can be at max altitude and way way back in. It’s one of those “register in advance” wait list and hope you got enough muster-gusto to get there when the time comes… There’s a whole network out there, look it up online. I’ve got a book set “Colorado Hut To Hut”… I think they even have their own language, but I don’t think you’ll know that until you try… The people in those books are my Heroes. In actuality I’ve never done it, but figured if I built my own Hut/ch, maybe one day my sons, daughter, honey and I, or perhaps they, would pursue this fantastic idea, ‘cause that’s why we originally moved to Colorado to do stuff like that. The Hutch is at the base of one very fine back hill snowboard/ski/sled run. We actually had snowboarders winter camping a couple hundred yards from our place right up on the mountain and they would spend their days just plowing around tree line… Hard to believe this was our little spot.

The people in the mountains live it and breathe it. I’d always wanted that and did it on weekends until we bought the property up there and then we lived it. Short lived, but none the less lived at the tail end of our ten-year stead…

And it was the calling of Jeremiah’s quest that persuaded me to move to Colorado and I don’t know if I am forever grateful, or another fool who chased the illusive dream… Denver/Boulder, Taos, and Santa Fe - May one day I again know your dry air and sweet song.

The Hut.

The View.

Family on site.

Hauling it all in, every time...

Starting to build...

Digging out to start work again.

Framing in.

Team effort!

What will it look like when it's all green up there?

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