Have you visited one of the Summit huts? Are you planning on doing so this winter? Whether it’s Francie’s, Janet’s, Ken’s or Section House (and soon to be Weber), these four log cabin gems together are one of the great perks of living in Summit County.
Summer hiking or biking and winter skinning or snowshoeing up to these cabins can be a workout, but keeping the huts in good working shape is arguably a much bigger challenge.
That’s where the volunteers come in.
When you’re cozying up to the wood stove in the cabins, have you ever thought about where the wood came from? Through winter and summer, there is only one full-time employee and a part-time assistant at the Summit Huts Association. The rest of the work — maintenance and upkeep, supply stocking and more — depends on volunteers who spend a day or two at one of the four huts doing seasonal work to get them open and keep them running smoothly.
ATOP BOREAS PASS
Last weekend, five volunteers and I met Mike Zobbe, executive director of SHA, at the top of Boreas Pass to get Ken’s Cabin and Section House ready for the winter. Because of a thwarted trip up to Ken’s Cabin last ski season, I had selfishly wanted to volunteer so I could scope it out for this winter.
The pass, with its historic railroad remnants, is worth a visit any time of year, even if you aren’t headed to the huts. A little snow on the ground, golden aspens just past peak and some gorgeous autumnal light greeted me on the drive up. Across the road from the cabins lies wide-open terrain that beckons to skiers and snowboarders.
Whereas my day started with coffee and a granola bar, Paul Swidzinski and Brooklyn Grinage from Manitou Springs had feasted on homemade eggs and biscuits.
“I guess Brook thought I needed a real mountain man meal,” Swidzinski says as the day begins. They had volunteered at Francie’s Cabin at the end of the ski season and knew what to expect. I, unfortunately, did not.
Zobbe helps us wheel around two log splitters and briefs us on the day. I look at an enormous woodpile towering above me and wonder how long it will take us to split and stack all that wood. Zobbe thinks we can do it.
“It’s better to have too much than too little wood,” he says.
Part taskmaster, part friendly co-worker, Zobbe makes sure it all gets done. While the morning was crisp, the incessant physical labor had most of us stripping off our layers throughout the day.
The seven of us get into a rhythm. From the splitter, we toss, carry (sometimes with the help of a wheelbarrow) and move the wood over to the next group that meticulously stacks the logs. These will heat the two cabins for the winter.
After many hours of work, suddenly, there is silence. We cut the engine from the splitter and there is relief from the diesel and mechanical noise. Looking up from our work, we notice the dry grass where the wood had been. We place the last log on the pile as proudly as the final piece of a puzzle — seven cords of wood split, carried and stacked.
“This will make you look at firewood differently next time you go to a hut,” Zobbe says.
While the bulk of the day’s work is done, we continue with the important tasks: Wiping down counters, assembling a new fence and making the place look tidy. Working in Ken’s Cabin, I ask first-time volunteer and Dillon resident Brian McPike if he’d do it again. Without hesitation, he says, “Yeah, definitely.”
THE PERKS OF BEING A VOLUNTEER
Of my five fellow volunteers at Section House, there is only one Summit County resident.
“There’s just so much to do up here,” Zobbe explains. “People have to work hard, and there are so many other volunteer opportunities. For the Front Range, it’s a little more exciting.”
Nevertheless, he says there’s a “cadre of committed local people” volunteering throughout the year.
The most popular volunteer opportunity is the helicopter-assisted weekend at Janet’s Cabin and Copper Mountain, which requires at least 20 volunteers. For Zobbe, though, it is the most stressful day of the year.
“You’re dealing with a helicopter,” he says. “A lot of things can go wrong. The best thing that can happen is that no one gets killed and we’re on budget.”
Based on the fact that half of this weekend’s volunteers were back for seconds, Zobbe must be doing something right.
“We try to make it fun and social, and also feel like you accomplished something,” Zobbe says. “Like today, that wood pile looked pretty intimidating.”
Indeed, but we did it, even without the help of a few no-shows. Volunteers are an essential part of keeping the hut system running smoothly.
“Keeping the hut experience affordable is really important,” Zobbe says. He mentions that SHA would probably have to charge an extra $10 a head if they had to pay for the work that somewhere between 80 and 100 volunteers accomplish throughout the year. As thanks, each volunteer gets a free night for two in the hutmaster’s quarters.
The next volunteer opportunities will be in February for Francie’s and Janet’s Cabins. Because these are midwinter cleanups, expect indoor work like scrubbing countertops.
“It’s the winter experience,” Zobbe says. He tries to make the volunteer days enjoyable for volunteers, so you might have time to get in some turns between chores.
SHA aims to be a community-oriented association by giving back to the community. They offer discounted nights for youth groups and contribute to the local economy by supporting small businesses. If keeping the huts accessible and affordable is important to you, there are many ways to support them. While scheduled volunteer days are one way, they often need work done at other times.