Seven Steps To Isolation
How to build a backcountry lodge.
By Jesse Huffman
What does the word “vacation” mean to you? A getaway, something leisurely, an escape from the daily grind? For snowboarders, and Canadians in particular, vacation means something very specific: good snow, good terrain, and not too many people to mess all that good snow up.
Now by just traveling to Canada you most likely have the first two requirements licked. And with a snowmobile you might accomplish the third—but what if you want to get really removed? What if you want to get away from any other skiers, snowboarders, or snowmobilers and have all that good snow to yourself?
If you were a man named Dan McDonald, you’d build your own lodge deep in the Canadian backcountry and start up a heli-operation called Mica Heli Guides. In the interest of providing TransWorld readers with the tools to make their own vacations better, I set out to investigate this self-sufficient hideaway in the backcountry of British Columbia. How did the lodge get there? Is the riding worth the isolation? What sort of person would camp out in the Alpine wilderness for the months it takes to build such a getaway?
Also on this mission were veteran photographer Mark Gallup and a cadre of experienced backcountry researchers including Shin Campos, Brandon Ruff, Jon Cartwright, Shandy Campos, Jonavan Moore, and David Melonçon. The following information is a report on what we learned firsthand—just what it takes to make it on your own, and the rewards you can reap for being successfully self-sustained in the British Columbia backcountry.
Step One—Scout Your Location
You know how the saying goes—location is everything. Your remote hideaway won’t be worth jack without sick riding. McDonald and his partner Pete Tashman scouted three locations before choosing the current Mica Heli one for its quality helicopter-landing area, easy access to the mountains, and good water.
Dan did a good job choosing the location—besides breath-taking mountain vistas, his spot definitely isn’t running the risk of overpopulation. It’s a two-hour drive north from Revelstoke to reach the helicopter pickup. The road follows the Columbia River to its origin at the Mica Creek Dam and the Kinabasket watershed, one of the biggest reservoirs on this continent. A heli then flies you past the dam and across the Kinabasket Lake to your final destination—Mica Heli’s lodge, deep in the mountains.
Step Two—Blow Up A Bunch Of Rock
If you’re gonna go to the trouble of building your own cabin in the woods, it’d better have a good view. Nothing gets old quicker than watching moss grow on the back of a row of poplars. If you’re near the Kinabasket Lake, you might as well perch your lodge on a hillside about a half-mile above the northern part of the watershed, looking out on the Canoe Reach River.
Dan situated the lodge in this unique location because it provides an amazing 270-degree view of the river. To build the lodge there, a thousand square feet of rock had to be blown up with twenty sticks of dynamite. Much of our time in the lodge was spent enjoying the impressive wraparound view of the river and the moody weather it generated.
Step Three—Pour A Foundation
Even if you’re just building a single-story cabin, you’d better start with a good foundation. After leveling off an even platform f your lodge, pour concrete directly over that bedrock to make a foundation. Although you’ll probably be sleeping in tents at this point in the process, you should have the foresight to install electric heating elements in the concrete floor. Mica Heli Guide’s lodge has this luxury, an amenity we all appreciated after a hard day of riding. While our boots dried upstairs by the fire, it was warm enough to roam around on the concrete floor with bare feet.
Step Four—Put Up A Timber Frame
Let’s face it—vinyl siding really clashes with those 12,000-foot peaks surrounding an Alpine hideaway. Why not use something more rustic that complements your all-natural setting? Logs are simply the classiest way to go in the backcountry. Start with some local timber—those 80-footers work well for the first floor.
Can’t figure out how to get the timber up the mountain? If you don’t have a few trucks, an excavator, and a trailer to destroy by trial and error, you’d better let Dan’s personal experience guide the way. He ended up using a highway tractor truck and a tow truck to carry logs up the hillside and assembled them using a backhoe. The top two floors were made from a timber frame package that traveled 400 miles by truck and eight miles by tugboat across the Kinabasket.
Step Five—Build A Lodge
Before you expect your friends to travel 500 miles from the local airport to spend the night, you’d better get some lights and plumbing. When we arrived at Mica Heli Guides, the windows and a majority of the electrical lighting had just been installed. All the outside walls were up, but the interior wasn’t quite finished. We slept in hypothetical rooms, where bare framing supplied the only indicators of doors and walls. The workers were going at it around the clock while we were there, putting up drywall, finishing the electrical work, and painting. Deep in the second night of our trip, a confused Mark Gallup fumbled about in a dark closed-off room. No, it wasn’t a weird dream—his bedroom had just been drywalled into a room without a door.
Thankfully, Dan saw fit to have one of the bathrooms as well as the kitchen finished before our arrival. Every meal of the day was cheffed by the able Mike Mark and Pam McSkimming. With Mike’s cooking and catering, the dining room was the hang-out spot of choice, especially because of the heated floor.
This is the most important and defining step for a successful mountain getaway—it means you don’t have to go anywhere to get anything, which is good when going shopping means a 30-minute helicopter ride and two-hour drive. For electric power, the most common choice is a diesel generator. Dan’s lodge is powered by a 75-kilowatt generator, which draws off a 2,100-gallon fuel reservoir. The same glacier-fresh water that gets bottled and sold at mini-marts flows out of the faucets, a resource Dan plans on harnessing for hydroelectric power. The lodge runs a satellite communications system for phone and Internet services, which means you can actually phone home or check your e-mail. Sanitation is handled by an on-site septic system.
For the most part, the Mica Heli Guides lodge stands and operates alone. What did it take to get to this point? Three months in tents with black bears lurking around, one destroyed truck, one destroyed excavator, two blown-up generators, one destroyed snowcat, one 30-foot boat sunk three times, and various other incidents of equal ilk.
After all that hard work, it’s important to remember why you’ve situated yourself at least 200 kilometers from the nearest outpost of civilization and over 700 kilometers from the nearest city. This should be the easiest step of the D.I.Y. getaway, but if you’ve been left confused by the past five months of hard labor, just have Mica Heli Guides lead the way. Take half the mountain of Whistler and stack it on top of itself, and you might approach the amount and type of vertical the Mica helicopter services—and the only people you have to contend with for fresh tracks are each other. Cabin fever doesn’t set in when you get 30 miles of untracked powder to yourself every day.‘ve been left confused by the past five months of hard labor, just have Mica Heli Guides lead the way. Take half the mountain of Whistler and stack it on top of itself, and you might approach the amount and type of vertical the Mica helicopter services—and the only people you have to contend with for fresh tracks are each other. Cabin fever doesn’t set in when you get 30 miles of untracked powder to yourself every day.