Renegade cabins of the B.C. backcountry
words :: Feet Banks
photography :: Damian Cromwell
Note: To protect the innocent (and the guilty) some names in this article have been changed. But to make things interesting, each person was allowed to choose his own alias.
“Put these on.”
Long John McCuff* leans into the back seat and hands me a pair of old Oakley goggles, the lens painted over with a swath of white house paint.
“The truck’s not even running yet,” I say, hoping to buy some time.
“Sorry, this is how it works.”
I lower the A-frames over my toque and the world goes dark except for a sliver of gauzy daylight seeping through the foam vents–just enough to remind me I’m missing something.
The driver side door opens, flooding the cab with cold winter air and the smells of fried chicken and gasoline. I hear JD McCuff slide behind the wheel.
“We good to go? You don’t get carsick do you? Put your seatbelt on.” They call JD ‘The Sarge.’
“Carsick? No, never. But I don’t usually ride blindfolded either.”
“Well let me know. I got some gravol… suppositories.” I’m not sure if he’s serious but chuckle anyhow. As we start driving, I can feel JD doing laps around the parking lot to throw off my sense of direction. It doesn’t work. He hit the highway and the afternoon sun warms my left cheek– we’re driving North.
This kind of ride, if it were late September, I’d assume we were heading out to one of British Columbia’s clandestine outdoor marijuana operations but it’s mid-February and we’re going skiing. The blindfold seems a bit much but when you’re about to take a total stranger out to your own little piece of illegal mountain paradise, I guess one can never be too careful.
“We should be at the cabin in three hours or so,” John says. “You want a beer?” Why not? Long John cracks us a couple cold ones, none for JD thanks– he’s driving. These guys are renegades but they’re smart– they only break one law at a time.
The cabin took four solid months to build. “Every weekend from October to January,” John says. “Digging out the snow off the foundations, peeling logs, building away. Usually we’d miss work on Monday and then by Friday, your gear is just starting to dry out and it’s back up for another round.”
John just turned 39, he’s in construction but mostly he likes to talk and tell stories. Which works out well because JD, the wheelman, an ex ski-patroller and two years younger, hasn’t said a word since we left town.
“The Sarge takes a while to warm up,” John says. “We weren’t even speaking to each other when we started building the cabin but in those four months we got over whatever the fuck it was and we’ve been back skiing together ever since.”
It took more than brotherly love to get the project going however. “We started out with fifteen buddies and by the end there were four,” The Sarge says, suddenly opening up and taking pride in the details. “We brought stuff in by trailer and then by sled, all the major building supplies.”
“Almost all…” I can’t see but I can hear John grinning.“We were two sheets of plywood short. You can guess who had to carry those in by hand over three and a half miles of trail.”
Despite using reclaimed timber, roofing and insulation and with everything from nails to windows scavenged over the course of two years, the costs to construct their backcountry cabin rose quickly.
“All in all we spent over five thousand bucks,” JD says. Long John disagrees.
“No way, more like eight if you count this year too– the solar panels, that upstairs widow…” John lists a few more things. Every renegade cabin is a work in progress and even five years later the brothers are still pouring time, money, and passion into something that could be burned to the ground any day.
“Every time you go up there, you dread seeing that Forestry notice taped to the door.”
* * *
“A cabin without tenure? Yeah, we’re supposed to just burn those down.” John Jackson is a Natural Resource Officer with the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. He admits he’s a desk jockey who doesn’t get much time in the field, but he knows the laws.
In British Columbia, any land that isn’t private property (and that’s 94% of the province) is called Crown land, which means it used to be owned by the Queen but now belongs to all Canadian citizens. Anyone can enjoy Crown Land– you can walk over, ski down and hike up it, snowmobile across or camp on it, take pictures and appreciate it, but you can’t make money off it or remove any resources from it unless you have tenure. And when it comes to building cabins on Crown Land, Canadian law is pretty clear– you just can’t do it.
“That’s under section 57 of the Forest Practices Act,” quotes Jackson. “A person must not construct, rehabilitate or maintain a recreation facility on Crown land.”
Dan Reibin, a district Recreation Officer with a bit more on-ground experience fills in the small print. “There is an authorization process, you must satisfy that what you want to build is safe, sanitary and environmentally sound. Plus you have to take into considerations any other stakeholders.”
Reibin admits this takes time. “Applications go in and referrals are sent out to many different branches of government, from Forestry to Tourism to Native Affairs. All those comments and reports come back to the Rec officer for the area. We review and make a determination.”
Sounds great, but in reality sticking it out through the application process is as easy as climbing a ladder with skis on.
“I helped out on an authorized hut,” JD McCuff says. “It took six years, the hoops they had to jump through. The process needs to change.”
One problem is the BC Integrated Land Management offices handle everything from backcountry hut applications to cat skiing tenure requests to logging permits to wind energy test sites. Right now, their website lists almost 2000 applications still under review, some dating back seven years.
In Europe, alpine hut systems are ingrained in the culture, a throwback to the old school shepherds’ shelters from back when people over there were still tooting alpenhorns and wearing wool pants. These days, there are over 1000 pay-to-stay huts and chalets in the Alps alone and skiers can easily tour from one hut to the next enjoying a variety of comfort levels.
In the wild west of British Columbia, things operate much differently. There are plenty of commercial heli, snowcat, and touring lodges offering warm showers, gourmet meals and all the amenities of a Whistler-hotel but you have to flip a lot burgers to afford that kind backcountry experience. For the average Joe with two or three days off the options drop considerably.
Most legitimate public-access huts in the BC backcountry are managed through partnerships with Alpine and snowmobile clubs with reservation and fee systems in place to offset repair and firewood costs. Popular regions also have a handful of authorized free shelters but generally there are a few hundred handfuls of people wanting to use them.
“The legitimate cabins around here are great,” says JD McCuff, “but you get up there on a Friday afternoon and there’s forty-eight people you know, twelve dogs and fifteen different stoves burning at once.”
Big groups means more conflicts, more dangers, more environmental impact, and, worst of all, less fresh turns. “I don’t know about you,” he adds, “but I come into the backcountry to relax.”
* * *
The 45-minute sled ride into Chateau McCuff is anything but relaxing. Night has long fallen and the 5ºF midwinter wind feels capable of flaying our flesh right off the bone. The good news– Long John lets me to take off the backcountry blindfold, but only so I can see which way to lean as we cross numerous washouts and avalanche paths, the last of which is a nerve-wracking 200 foot stretch of exposure with all sorts of impending doom hanging directly above. Up ahead, riding solo, JD roops his sled all over the place, dipping into the trees and popping out further along, weaving around at random.
“We don’t want a distinct track leading right to the cabin,” John explains as we enter the safety of the trees – pine and mountain fir– and punch through some snow-laden branches. “Hold on, we’re almost there.”
And then we are. Rimmed with snow like a fairy tale gingerbread house, and tucked in amongst trees with powder marshmallow branches, the cabin looms dark but inviting, a refuge from the wind and cold.
The Sarge barks orders, more excited than commanding. “Help me get these tie-downs. Back that toboggan up.” And then to me, “Get a fire going and make sure there’s a beer ready in there with my name on it.”
Aye, Aye. I plow up the snowy steps, toss open the door, and enter my first ever renegade ski cabin.
It’s freezing. But lighting a few of candles crammed into the tops Jagermeister bottles reveals a place that’s nicer than most first-year ski-town apartments. Peeled log beams support tongue-in-groove pine walls. Two chaise-lounges flank a small iron woodstove with custom glove and boot drying racks directly above and a pile of perfectly sized firewood stacked nearby. There are beds, a shelf of books, dishes, four-burner propane stove, two sinks with clean martini glasses hanging above them, and a shaker. Tibetan prayer flags loop up to a loft and below, an 8-foot wooden table with a life-sized resin statue of a squirrel holding a perfectly rolled joint in its frozen paws.
“That’s Weedy,” Long John says stomping the snow from his boots. “Weedy the Squirrel, the welcoming committee.” Just then JD switches on the Solar-charged battery system and clusters of LED Christmas lights kick in. The battery also powers a car stereo, for a few hours anyhow, solar isn’t too reliable in the dark, snowy BC winters.
I’m halfway through starting fire with paper torn from my notebook when Bruce Leigh, one of the original cabin conspirators, arrives with photographer Damian Cromwell and Dave and Daryl Treadway. They lug in more food and some whiskey, already opened. Someone returns with fresh water from a nearby creek and outside, nickel-sized snowflakes begin to fall.
Cabin nights are never bad although in the midst of winter, after sitting empty for days, the temperature in the 670 square-foot structure takes hours to get up past the freezing point. The company and conversation warm almost instantly however. This is a place for sharing stories and laughs and the renegade cabin, like any good fort, develops it’s own unique rules and mythologies to learn throughout the evening.
The ‘King Kameiameia’ chair is the most comfortable and closest to the fire. Anyone holding the “Don Veto” stick (a hefty, foot-long wooden war club that, if swung correctly, could knock over a moose) has the power to veto any half-baked idea or prematurely end a rambling story. If you’re seated and you need something – another drink, snack, your touring skins– the game is to ask someone else to get it for you and see how many times in a row you can get away with making people serve you. It’s just dumb fun but a hollered “Get it yourself you lazy Bastard,” will always elicit robust cheers from the crowd.
* * *
Crowds are a problem in the backcountry. Every person leaves an impact and eventually that impact becomes more than the terrain can handle. The idea of losing all their hard work if the cabin becomes too busy motivates the McCuffs’ fanatic secrecy.
“My biggest nightmare is to go online and see GPS coordinates of this place posted somewhere,” JD says. “We’ll never lock the cabin, we just ask that people respect the place and keep it low profile. Nobody wants a parade of city people up here.”
Regardless, an open-door policy is integral to the survival of any renegade cabin. “The line between public-access cabin and squat is sometimes blurred,” says John Currie. “If they are left open where anyone can use them that is one thing. Bars on the windows and locks on the doors is something else entirely.” Currie is a Compliance and Enforcement Officer for the BC Forest Service, a foot soldier fighting abuses of Crown Land. He’s also the guy with the power to burn down a cabin although he admits it very rarely happens. “We recognize important safety huts and try and see what we can do. If it is possible to authorize one and someone wants to take care of maintaining it then we will work to make that happen.”
Safety is another thing the renegade McCuff brothers take very seriously. The permanent, on-site first aid set-up is similar to a standard ski patroller kit and contains all the band-aids and gauze you’ll ever need plus leg and arm splints, a burn-victim sheet, spine board, and a patrollers toboggan with a cage for heli-evacuations.
“I’ve been in a lot of backcountry cabins and none of them, legit or otherwise, has the safety gear we have here,” JD says. As an ex patroller he’s proud of the kit they’ve assembled and he should be, it’s already saved two lives.
“A girl was caught in a slide up here,” Bruce Leigh recalls. “A class 2.5 avy. She had a broken back, severe internal bleeding. She would have died. Her boyfriend got her back to the cabin and into the toboggan and out. Twelve hours by the time he got her to the road.”
Another girl was badly burned when her one-burner stove exploded. “It was summer, they got her out on a dirt bike and called a heli-vac to the hospital. Our burn kit probably saved her.” Long John, returning from a trip to the ‘piss tree’, points towards the ceiling, “You can see my prayer flags are still singed from the fireball.” The logbook, a permanent fixture of the cabin, holds the evidence of these tragic times as well as countless happier entries from friends and strangers alike.
“People argue that if the cabin wasn’t here we wouldn’t be here but that’s bullshit,” Bruce Leigh says from his double bed in the corner. “With the skiing in this zone, we’d be camped in tents or snowcaves doing the exact same thing, and if something went wrong…”
“This cabin, the rescue access is really the whole point of it being here,” Long John adds. “That and the steaks and the music and the eggs and bacon in the morning.”
* * *
Bacon and eggs don’t impress the government but most levels recognize there is a need for more huts as backcountry recreation becomes increasingly popular. Advances in snowmobile technology have allowed more people easier access to a wider area and with more people comes more problems.
“The backcountry is getting busier and most of our conflicts are between user groups,” Dan Reibin explains, “Sledders and skiers mainly, or parties with commercial tenure clashing with unsympathetic recreationists. With renegade cabins, we don’t generally go looking for them but if there is a complaint from a concerned party then we have to act.”
“Nevertheless, people are not allowed to go out and build cabins on crown land in British Columbia,”
By that logic, if the Renegades are responsible enough to keep things quiet, safe, open and complaint-free, then the BC government seems willing to turn a blind eye, admitting it’s got bigger problems to worry about. It sounds amazing– a government using good judgment, a responsible, self-regulating citizenry– but don’t get lulled into a sense of peace and harmony.
“Nevertheless, people are not allowed to go out and build cabins on crown land in British Columbia,” John Currie says, sounding like he means it. “Normally one cabin tends to spawn others and where do you draw the line?”
Admittedly, not everyone is as thorough or conscientious as the McCuff boys. It takes a special kind of person to finish off his ski season by hauling a 55-gallon metal drum of human feces 500 yards away to bury it a safe distance from any water source. Not everyone will spend summer weekends fighting off mosquitos the size of hummingbirds just to make sure the woodpile is stocked. And lot of people would even dare to ever ski away without restocking Weedy the Squirrel. A good Renegade is never more than two steps away from Martyrdom.
* * *
Martyrs or not the boys can sure pick a nice spot. At 5450 feet above sea level and surrounded by tight trees the cabin is perfect for touring. Morning light reveals over a foot of fresh, dry powder and everyone laughs at my alpine trekkers (I never got around to touring bindings) but I click in anyhow and after an hour of dry-mouthed perseverance I’m high enough to take in the surrounding terrain– ridge after ridge, bowl after bowl, cliffs, glades, chutes, glaciers, snow in every direction and not a single ski track, road, nor person in sight. This is the BC Backcountry at its finest.
Another half hour’s skin catches me up to the group, waiting atop a steep ridge, watching the Treadways do laps off cliffs. The Sarge has tested the snow– it’s fresh, knee-deep and good to go. I’m given first turns and I milk them for around a thousand feet of untracked blower pow before skiing right up to the warm cabin for lunch. Another hike and I nail another thousand feet for dessert.
Back in the valley, with the best turns of the year still burning my thighs, I stop in trees and listen to the thick, heavy, nothingness silence that surrounds me.
It’s human nature, people build cabins for the same reasons kids build treeforts. Every group of renegades needs a hideout– the Hole in the Wall Gang had their hole in the wall, Batman has the Batcave, and British Columbia backcountry skiers have secret cabins in the woods. Not nearly as bad-ass but there’s no one shooting at you either.
The renegade cabin is a hideout. It’s a place to escape to, where you can come in from the wilderness but still be somewhere wild. It’s shelter from the storm but it opens people up. It protects, it heals, it saves, and the fact that it’s illegal only makes it that much cooler.
Life can be short in the mountains but a good cabin can last a long time, creating stories and memories that may even last forever. The McCuff Brothers and Bruce Leigh are felons, criminals under Section 57 of the Forestry Act. They break the law but they do it from an enthusiasm and passion that every skier can easily relate to.
“We just want our own safe place to ski tour out of and enjoy what BC has to offer,” Long John McCuff says. “We’re happy to share, we don’t want to live up here,” he flashes a grin at The Sarge, “unless we get the sauna in maybe.”