Manitoba Cabin a family-friendly place on near side of backcountry

Erin Kirkland

As mom to an active 9-year-old son, I'm always on the hunt for places that feed his desire for outdoor independence and indulge my need for quality family time away from the usual day-to-day busyness. I found that at Manitoba Cabin.

The Manitoba Cabin hut site is nestled in forested state land near Summit Lake. Practically adjacent to the Seward Highway, it nonetheless feels like off-grid Alaska. My husband, 9-year-old son and I visited in February for a midweek break and found a range of family-friendly activities, including the journey itself.

Operated by a team of volunteers from the Alaska Mountain and Wilderness Huts Association, Manitoba opened in 2012. It's the first of three structures the organization hopes to build as part of a network of sites for hut-to-hut trekking. Manitoba includes two yurts for sleeping and a cabin for day-use cooking and mingling amongst guests, an important aspect of the hut-to-hut wilderness experience. The cabin was built from the former Polly Mine and homestead and dates back to 1936.

"Manitoba is the result of opportunity," says John Wolfe, founder and executive director of the organization. "The cabin was at risk of being demolished, and we interceded to save it, renovate it, add yurts and open it as an easily accessible hike and ski-in hut site."

Wolf says his group is in discussions with the U.S. Forest Service, Department of Natural Resources and the Alaska Railroad to open more huts between Spencer Glacier and Trail Glacier through the scenic Kenai Mountains.

"It's all about permitting and timing, but our aim is three connected huts by 2020," he said.

While hut-to-hut hiking is relatively new as a branded activity in Alaska, the idea is an old one, especially in Europe, where historic trade routes were augmented by huts for overnight shelter. In the eastern United States, hut hiking has long been popular, especially near the Appalachian Trail and New Hampshire's White Mountains.

Having a hut-to-hut network nearby is especially exciting for families, because they would be able to move from one hut to the next carrying only the basics, leaving more room for personal gear, cameras and all the trappings of childhood.

Wolfe says the Huts Association hopes to see Manitoba visited by both young and older users, and especially children.

"It is particularly important to us to give kids a way to get outside year-round without necessarily subjecting them to big packs and harsh conditions before they are ready. Huts are a great way to get kids (and adults) hooked on the outdoors."

For parents, places like Manitoba can be a safe introduction for kids to hiking, backcountry skiing, camping and the idea of sharing. It's a short walk from Milepost 48, and the trail goes past state land claimed by gold miners. In the summer months, visitors will be treated to views of said miners and their dredges working nearby creek beds.

From the moment our son hopped out of the car at Milepost 48 and helped load backpacks and a sled carrying food, beverages and miscellaneous gear, he radiated excitement. Gamely leading the way along a wide trail flush with tracks of skiers and the occasional snowshoe hare, he was skipping most of the three-quarters of a mile through the spruce forest, pausing now and then to refer to directions printed from Huts Association website.

The 15-minute hike traverses a small series of hills and crosses a steep, narrow canyon, where partially-frozen Mills creek rushes around the corner. Manitoba cabin is perched on a small rise above the creek, just over a steel bridge, and our steps quickened as we climbed the final hill to the cabin's front door.

A key code opened the cabin, which would be base camp for all guests and our home for the night as residents of the hut keeper's quarters in back. An 18-by-24-foot common area serves as kitchen, dining and living room. Two propane-fueled stovetops and an oven are available for visitors, as is all the hardware needed for crafting gourmet (or not) meals. A leather journal sits on the table, full of trail tales, hand-drawn pictures and descriptions of nights filled with sledding, northern lights and hot chocolate.

All fired up after a successful hike to the cabin, our son immediately dumped his backpack in a heap on the plywood floor and began a reconnaissance of the entire area, running past us to check out the outhouse, the wood shed and yurts, and patrolling the kitchen area like a scent hound.

The Huts Association volunteers and staff supply everything from the outhouse (complete with antler handles and a view) to a completely stocked wood shed. In return, visitors are asked to add to the indoor wood cache and giving dishes a full wash-rinse-sanitize treatment before departing.

"Kids learn skills of self-reliance and an appreciation of natural beauty," says Wolfe, "and a healthy, active-oriented lifestyle."

Speaking of, we had work to do. A fire in the small wood stove needed to be built, headlamps located and instructions read about the two propane wall lights before the afternoon sunlight dipped behind the hills. Our son was dispatched to fetch kindling and unpack sleeping bags and pillows.

Busily working on our respective tasks, it wasn't long before orange flames crackled in the stove, tacos were constructed and devoured and two bottles of beer and one chocolate milk clinked together at the table with nary a complaint to be heard.

We retreated to bed late that night, after a sledding trip down the trail leading to Manitoba Mountain. The air was crisp, the stars were out and the mood was perfect. Even the moon seemed to wink its approval as we swung back toward the glowing little cabin in Alaska's close-in backcountry.

Erin Kirkland is a family travel writer in Anchorage and author of "Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children."

If you go

The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Huts Association rents two yurts. The Manitoba Cabin has a kitchen and common room and the hut keeper's quarters, a 9-by-12-foot bedroom that may be rented as well depending on availability (usually midweek).

Reservations can be made at Rates begin at $125 a night, with day-use permits available for $5 a day per person. The Huts Association hopes to include three more huts along the Alaska Railroad's southern route, at Spencer Glacier, Grandview and Trail Glacier. Some day, John Wolfe says, hut-to-hut hiking will be a multiday experience for Alaskans. Hint: Renting both yurts and the hut keeper's quarters starts at $300 and is a great deal for a multifamily trip.

Yurts sleep up to eight people with bunks, and the hut keeper's quarters can house two adults on a double bunk with floor space for kids (a maximum of four people total). Yurts are for sleeping only; no food is allowed, all food and meals must be stored and prepared in the Manitoba Cabin.

Find the Manitoba Cabin along the Seward Highway at Milepost 48, about 90 minutes from Anchorage. Park in the pull-out area, then hike, ski, or snowshoe three-quarters of a mile to the property. Families may find it easier to use backpacks for clothing and a pulk or sled for food and other gear. Most children ages 5 and up can walk the trail with little difficulty. In winter, snow may impede progress, but who cares? This is an adventure; take time to enjoy sights and sounds of the forest.

Guests should pack food, clothing, newspaper for starting a fire, water for drinking (creek water is available but visitors must purify on their own), sleeping bags and pads, headlamps, games and toys or books for children. Bring indoor shoes to keep floors cleaner and small feet warmer. There is scant cellphone service, no Internet and no indoor water source. Guests should plan on self-sufficiency.

Courtesy guidelines include sharing kitchen and living space and common table seating. Children are encouraged to visit, but parents should use the experience as a lesson in community. Take time to talk with other visitors, share stories and offer a cup of hot chocolate to fellow explorers in your midst. A more complete set of tips for hut travel can be found on the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Huts Association website.


Daily News correspondent