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Wilderness maintenance the old fashioned way

SITKA, ALASKA

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When most people think about repairing the foundation of a home, or building log trails and bridges, the first sounds that come to mind are the roar of cement trucks, and the time-saving whir of power tools.

But if you’re planning to do remodeling on wilderness lands, you’ll have to think again. Motorized tools are not allowed. This means no chain saws, no power drills, no nail guns. 

No cell phones no nothing, you find yourself dazing off at things you’d never look at back home. The nature part of it I guess and then stepping back and see how he put these logs together.

Kelley Pellet is the contractor heading renovations at Green Top Cabin—one of over 300 wilderness cabins in Alaska– and he says the best part of working on a project like this is stepping back in time.

The cabin stands about twenty yards up the beach and is a two story yellow cedar log structure that is 34 feet by 20 feet. Inside a behemoth rocking chair, complete with leather and metal studs conjures images of frontiersmen smoking pipes while drying their long johns over the fire.

Pellet feels this same nostalgia. His family grew up in the woods of Sitka, felling trees and hauling rocks from the beach to build his family home. Still, Pellet is more of a modern man, he champions ATVs and is a skilled carpenter that’s more accustomed to heading down to the local hardware store than foraging in the woods for building materials.

These people back in the day, they had time, I mean they didn’t have tv, they weren’t missing, the weren’t expecting to watch the Superbowl the next weekend, they were just working on projects, working on the gardens, so for them to go out and spend a day on the trail working on something that might make it easier to get to another portage, that was fun, that was exercising. They didn’t think twice about it.

Out on the trail, a young bearded Pete Martens looks like he’s been doing his own time traveling. Dressed in traditional Tin Pants and suspenders, he has one side of a log tied to a tree and the other nestled into a saw buck.

It’s change of pace pounding nails, it’s fun, interesting..it’s uh, pretty sweet out here, it’s called, the old timers called them misery whips, but its an old hand saw.  This one is al little over four feet, we’ve got a five footer, and there is one hanging over in the tree that two people use at the same time.

After they’re cut the logs are backpacked to the trail and laid into the ground, before being secured with minerals and gravel from the surrounding hillsides.  Barth Hamberg is one of the trail’s designers, and says he studied old mining trails for inspiration.

The detail on for the corduroy that we’re making this trail from actually came from an old mining trail at lucky chance that’s at the head of silver bay near Sitka, and that was built in the 1890s I think. 

Designing with local materials in mind, he says takes some creativity.

I think the more you can use the local materials on site the more appropriate the trail seems to the site, and so that’s really important in wilderness, We can’t do some things we do in other places, we can’t use helicopters, we can’t use treated boardwalk, so we are limited in materials and techniques.

Pellet and his crew know these limitations of wilderness construction all too well. But they also know the loopholes.

Here’s Barth Hamberg again.

Forest service land starts at mean high tide. Above mean high tide is actually in the wilderness. Below mean high tide is not in the wilderness. And so Forest Service has no jurisdiction over what happens below mean high tide. That’s up to the state of Alaska.

Pellet says using modern tools below the tide line doesn’t save much time, but just as the inhabitants of Green Top before him, he’s not going to say no to a chance to use some fangled technology.

Well you can see the original part of the cabin he used hand tools, but as the additions came on the tools cam out, they started using them.

The tide isn’t the only convenience offered to Pellett and his crew. Lucky for him float planes and motor boats are allowed in wilderness for access reasons. Making contact with the outside world and all its modern comforts just a little closer.

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