RIVERTON, Wyo. — Sun. Rain. Sun. Rain. Sun. Rain. Hail.
That’s a typical day of August weather at Simpson Lake, which lies in a remote region of the Shoshone National Forest, southwest of Dubois.
When thunder begins to clamor, the HistoriCorps volunteers working to restore three 91-year-old cabins there glance up, wondering how much water the darkening clouds are about to dump.
Regardless, they’ll keep working.
Simpson Lake’s elevation of 9,780-feet has been no friend to the project’s construction.
“It’s not really good for building,” project supervisor Jon Williams said.
The volatility of the area can also be dangerous: While a team of volunteers worked on the construction last August, the 14,644-acre Lava Mountain Fire burned just a few miles to the northeast.
For a while, Williams didn’t know if they’d be evacuated as the thick smoke began to block out the sun and helicopters flew overhead, dipping down into nearby streams to pick up water and dump it on the flames.
The crew was ultimately able to leave as scheduled on Aug. 23.
It was good timing: Another fire broke out only a half-mile away that same day.
That fire ended restoration work in 2016.
When Williams was getting ready to return in July, he faced a completely different challenge. The unusually high snowpack in the Wind River Mountains — which reached 300 percent of median at one point this winter — had left a blanket of snow that made it impossible for packers to bring in new supplies. As a result, the first session of volunteer work in July was canceled. So, all of that planned work had to be fit in to the August sessions.
“The work is a lot more challenging than I thought,” volunteer Victoria Silversides said at the end of her week. “The climate has gotten to me. I’m not used to the dryness.”
By the end of the week, her face was red and puffy and her lips were dried and cracked. She and other crew members also pined for the comforts of the front country.
“Mmmmm… hash browns,” Silversides said wistfully while stirring a spoon through her fifth bowl of oatmeal that week.
“I can’t wait for bacon,” volunteer Jeri Ho agreed.
And while the volunteers were ready for rest back in their own beds, the hard work, Ho said, was ironically “refreshing.”
“You just get back to the basics,” she said.
Ho, who came from North Carolina to volunteer for the project after recently completing a master’s program, offered to wield the hatchet at any chance she could during her week at Simpson Lake, banging out knots on each log.
“I love that it’s work you don’t have to think about,” Ho said. “It’s menial, but you’re always problem solving.”
Another volunteer, Scotty Campbell, said he enjoyed the process of pounding nails into 2-by-4s to make covers for the cabin windows.
“That’s the best part — taking all my stress out on this one little piece of wood,” he said.
Campbell was raised in Crawfordsville, Indiana, but moved to Denver in April to take an internship at HistoriCorps after completing a degree in history in Chicago. He was only hired to work in the Denver office and manage social media, “so it’s kind of a treat that I get to go out on projects,” he said, though he described part of the process as “Sisyphean.”
Wilderness regulations mean no one can use power tools. So volunteers used crosscut saws, hatchets and draw-knives to prepare each new log taking the place of the deteriorating wood at the base of the cabins. And due to the lake’s remoteness, any time supplies run low volunteers are forced to improvise. For example, in early August, while working to re-glaze windows, the group ran out of glazers’ points, so instead they held the new window panes in place by pushing in staples by hand, using only a putty knife as leverage.
On the original sashes that had been deteriorating since the 1920s, that stapling process wasn’t much of a challenge. But with the freshly cut wood, volunteers would break five staples before getting one to cooperate. It might take 10 minutes to get one staple in.
Staplings became one of the least favorite tasks that week.
Meanwhile, draw-knifing and crosscut sawing were among the most favored tasks. Those jobs turned volunteers from across the United States into lumberjacks.
After 10 hours of labor each day, the volunteers gather around campfire discussing politics, religion, and the great outdoors.
Volunteer Daniel Ramirez usually kept the group laughing through their exhaustion. He’s funny. Really funny. And he’s got a knack for reviving a variety of national accents into the most preposterous situations.
An uptight German enjoying a s’more? Ramirez delivered the impression like a standup pro after 20 years of touring.
The tallest man in camp doing a Simone Biles impression using a freshly shaven sill log as a balance beam? Ramirez nailed it.
At times, he had the other volunteers choking up their dinner around the fire.
Ramirez can also be a bit of a perfectionist. He spent most of the week draw-knifing logs, then spent most of his last day taking a chisel to little nicks and knots, smoothing his work into the cleanest finish possible.
“I really like being handy and working with my hands — and history too. This is a good way to combine the two,” he said. “It’s great to preserve a part of history while learning new skills.”
At the end of the each day, the workers each huddled in their tents, their sleeping bags zipped up around their faces.
By morning, there sometimes was frost on the ground.
It wasn’t only Mother Nature that presented challenges, either — humans played a role as well. When a new crew of volunteers returned to the worksite in early August, they discovered that someone had broken into the site’s bear boxes and stolen a good amount of food.
Less frustrating was the fact that chipmunks had also made a feast of the drying window glaze.
The lake’s remote ruggedness also forced Williams to be more prepared than he usually is.
“As nice as it is to have that work trailer pull up to the job site like you do on most projects, you learn to plan ahead for what you need,” he said.
Despite the isolated location, Williams said he hasn’t felt like the project has been slowed down because he’s been missing any tools or supplies.
“You get really good at improvising,” Williams said. “That’s exactly what they did when they originally built these cabins. If they didn’t have everything, they didn’t ride back into town to get more.”
As the project has gone along, Williams has had to add on some work that wasn’t part of the original assessment. Early on, he discovered that several log-ends around the lodge’s sole fireplace were severely burnt and had simply been mortared off. It’s wasn’t structurally sound. So Williams added on the extra work — without adding extra time.
He accomplishes the feat by doing a lot of work himself. When “crew leader” Cathy Cooke calls for break time, the volunteers refill their water bottles and sink into their camp chairs, but Williams usually kept working.
After a sill log is striped entirely of its bark, Williams jacks up the entire cabin. He then maneuvers the new log into place, further chiseling away at his new puzzle piece to make sure it fits snuggly into the spot.
He also provided dinner for the crew on nights when he’d pick up his fly rod.
When he caught something, it was cause for celebration among the volunteers.
Williams managed to supervise while also being productive, ensuring volunteers were using their hatchets and drawknives safely. He didn’t have a single injury during the restoration, but he never was complacent in remembering that a rogue swing of the hatchet could force him to make an embarrassing phone call: Picking up the satellite phone to request a life-flight.
“I’m not going to let someone use a tool if they’re going to use it irresponsibly,” he said. “That’s the last thing I want to worry about.”
Williams had full discretion to decide how and when each part of the work would be done.
One of the first priorities was replacing sill logs and all roofing to prevent leaking into the cabins.
“If sill logs fall, the building starts to collapse,” he said. “If the roof isn’t leaking, everything else isn’t going to rot.”
He also had discretion on how to assign various tasks to volunteers, but usually he’d let them pick their jobs themselves.
On their last day at camp, they don’t have much choice, though: Volunteers undergo the tedious work of returning their construction site to wilderness conditions, picking up tiny pieces of the old roofings’ tarpaper from the ground and excavate thousands of nails from the pine needle ground-cover.
The last crew left the area by the end of August, boarding up the windows and padlocking the doors. After two summers of work, the restoration of Simpson Lake Lodge was finally finished.
Despite all the work that’s now completed, there are more questions than answers when it comes to the cabins’ future.
Kass Harrell knew that going in. She once worked at Simpson Lake Lodge in the 1970s as a cook. Since joining the Fremont County Historic Preservation Commission in 2012, she’s worked tirelessly toward getting the cabins restored.
She’s always hoped they could possibly be used again one day, but when she met with U.S. Forest Service staff in 2014, they made it clear that the wilderness regulations means only preservation, but not use, could be approved.
“We make no bones about this,” Shoshone National Forest archaeologist Kyle Wright said.
Wright said he’s glad the cabins have been restored and acknowledged that they were likely to fall into disrepair if Harrell and her allies hadn’t been willing to fundraise and seek state grants.
“As a forest, we’re getting less money every year to do more and more,” he said.
He said dwindling funds for the agency means the priority is usually to keep campgrounds open and roads maintained.
While the agency ultimately did contribute both money and the resources of its staff, Wright said that “if the Forest Service had to foot the bill alone, it would have been very hard to accomplish.”
It’s hard to know how many such historic structures exist across the wilderness areas in the United States. Wright knows of no such agency that’s compiled such a list. Many structures — including the Forest Service’s own fire towers — were torn down after wilderness status was declared.
What Wright does know is that a continuing commercial use of any structure is unheard of.
Allowing such a use for the Simpson cabins would be a decisions made by “leadership,” but Wright can’t imagine such a decision falling in line with the Wilderness Act of 1964.
“Putting it on the rental list, I just can’t imagine that happening,” he said.
Information from: The (Riverton, Wyo.) Ranger, http://www.dailyranger.com