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ACC’s Fay Hut reborn in Kootenay National Park

Volunteers come from across the country to help out after original 1927 building burned down two summers ago

Long before the breakfast dishes are washed, the Fay Hut construction camp springs to life with the sounds of work. The generator hums, hammers pound wood and the whine of a chainsaw echoes off the cliffs towering above the site.

In the background, chirping birds and the rush of a creek remind the group of volunteer carpenters and labourers of their spectacular surroundings 500 metres above the floor of Prospectors Valley in Kootenay National Park, where the forest floor is a profusion of bright new green and brilliant wildflowers amidst towering black tree poles.

In the kitchen – a floor-less canvas tent equipped with a fridge and a full sized propane stove, erected next to a dining tent furnished with four picnic tables, some wood shelves and a pot bellied-wood burning stove – Val Weed mixes up muffin batter for the morning coffee break. Soon the aroma of fresh baking fills the tents while outside, the smells of freshly cut wood mix with gasoline and a small, carefully tended brush fire lit to rid the area of debris left by the original forest fire that consumed the valley – and the original Fay Hut – in August, 2003.

A semi-retired social worker from Prince George, B.C., Weed is one of dozens of Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) members who have volunteered a week or two of their summer vacation to build a new log cabin to replace the club's first hut, constructed in 1927, plus its furnishings, sleeping room, outhouse, walking trails and grey water pit.

While the work crew includes two professional log builders from Calgary, many of the carpenters and labourers at the site are volunteers – some of whom have helped build other ACC huts enjoyed by thousands of hikers, climbers and backcountry skiers annually.

Work on Fay Hut began with a two-day blitz in mid-June, with about 10 volunteers and two helicopters working 10-hour days to sling 85 loads of building supplies to the site from the Paint Pots parking lot, which at the start resembled a giant construction yard. A third day was spent building the foundation, while work to assemble the 58 logs into a two-storey cabin began July 8 and will continue through the month.

Building a log cabin in such a remote location – a 13-km hike from Highway 93 south – presents some unique challenges, said log builder James Heck.

"This is the first time I've ever had to put up a house away from my crane," Heck said. "I've got a couple of old crappy cranes at home that I wouldn't usually bother looking at, but I'd love to have one of them up here. But instead we're using some creative manpower."

By coincidence, or simply good karma, one of the volunteers is Val's husband Jim Weed, a retired heavy-duty mechanic who spent his summers 25 years ago building log houses.

"I'm used to this," Weed grinned. "That's where I learned the boot strap and leverage methods."

Their creation, the Jim Weed Crane, resembles a cross between a giant tripod and a deep sea fishing rig, constructed of sturdy wooden beams, some metal braces and a hand-operated winch and steel cable.

With seven ground floor windows, including one oversized bay window overlooking the rockwall towering above Tokumm Creek, the new Fay Hut will sleep 12, as the original did, but on a separate sleeping floor. Downstairs there will be a much brighter cooking and common room.

Relaxing at the end of another long work day – the first week's construction crew tolerated rain showers or outright downpours nearly every day – the volunteers gather in the dining tent to share dinner, rousing card games and stories about climbing adventures and backcountry trips to other remote mountain huts.

The volunteers came from Calgary, Whistler and Kimberley B.C., and Granby Quebec, and included a lawyer, a financial planner, a retired high school science and biology teacher and a mechanic aspiring to become a police officer.

Eighteen-year-old Montreal student and lifeguard Glen Robitaille read about the project in the ACC's newsletter, the Gazette, and immediately decided how to spend his summer vacation.

"I stayed at the old Fay Hut," Robitaille said. "Building the new one seemed like it would be a fun project."

Wearing the same blue plaid lumberjack shirt he wore to build the University of B.C.'s Whistler cabin in 1965, retired geologist Karl Ricker recounted a climbing trip in 1958 when he and a partner ascended up a gully from Moraine Lake thinking it was the then popular 3/4 Couloir. At the top they realized that in the poor visibility they'd made what was likely the second ascent of the next gully to the southwest. After topping out on the glacier, they continued down past the original Fay Hut, but when their headlamps no longer illuminated the forest they ended up sleeping under a spruce tree.

Ricker helped build his first hut in 1953 and has worked on several since, including helping to renovate the ACC's Stanley Mitchell Hut in Little Yoho Valley in the 1980s.

"Once you start building huts it's hard to stop," Ricker said. "You're outside with all your friends, and it's always a challenge. Nothing ever fits, or is square or something is missing. It's good to be doing something useful. And I wanted to see this valley again."