Simpson Lake cabin restoration completeSep 1, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer
Part 1 in a series.
On the morning of Aug. 12, Marty Amble was deep in the Shoshone National Forest wilderness area west of Dubois, glazing windows with a knife and linseed putty.
At age 70, he says he finally has his dream job.
After fixing the panes and installing the glass in Wyoming's wilderness, the South Dakota native, who spent a career in Denver's commercial real estate industry, had the windows ready for installation back into the three log cabins on Simpson Lake that have been weathered gray during the 91 winters that they've stood in the high country of the Wind River Range.
Amble had driven up a week earlier to join five other volunteers from across the United States in restoring the cabins.
Trees were cut from the immediate area to make new sill logs that had deteriorated. Rocks and gravel were dredged from the lake's floor to create new mortar.
After two summers of work, the restoration of Simpson Lake Lodge -- the three cabins that have sat on their namesake lake since 1926 -- was finally completed this Thursday.
After the all restoration work was completed, the crews came back to civilization, but not before boarding up the windows and padlocking the doors.
The cabins won't be allowed to be used by backpackers and trail riders. After all, they aren't really supposed to exist.
Since the forest service surrounding Simpson Lake was named a wilderness area in 1976, these cabins have strangely skirted the gray area of regulations created by the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Along with its ban on roadways, bicycles and motor vehicles, the act also outlawed the existence of any "structure or installation," as well as all "commercial enterprise."
The Simpson Lake cabins' existence wasn't grandfathered in, either.
In the 1980s and early '90s, the Forest Service tacitly allowed Les and Alice Shoemaker -- who had owned CM Ranch since 1952 -- to continue bringing their guests to the cabins.
Forest Service officials originally told the Shoemakers they would need to demolish the cabins by 1990. Then, they decided to wait for both Shoemakers to die before demolishing the cabins.
That plan became more complicated after the CM Ranch, including the Simpson cabins, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.
Part of the cabins' uncertain status comes from the inherent tension between the Wilderness Act and the National Historic Preservation Act. Neither law was really written with the other in mind.
One prevents the Simpson cabins from being used while the other makes the cabins eligible for preservation.
Once both the Shoemakers had died, the Forest Service took ownership of the cabins in 1997.
Like the HistoriCorps volunteers two decades later, forest rangers boarded up the windows and locked the doors.
Within the last five years, Kass Harrell noticed the cabins began disintegrating quickly.
With her husband Mike, she had managing the CM Ranch after the Shoemakers and had also worked as a cook for Simpson Lake Lodge in the 1970s.
The decades of visits are literally carved into the walls of the main lodge. Guests at the CM Ranch have etched their names -- and occasionally the fruits of their fishing exploits -- into the walls.
Once Harrell joined the Fremont Historic Preservation Commission in 2012, she began exploring whether "maybe one last-ditch effort to save Simpson was something that Fremont County could be involved in."
This type of work is almost unheard of in wilderness areas, but the cabins' status on the National Register meant the project was actually approved by and partially funded by the U.S. Forest Service.
Help also came with more than $50,000 in private donations, alongside funding from the Fremont County Historic Preservation Commission, the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office and Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund.
Like its funding, the restoration work was also completed by a diverse cast of volunteers from the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and the nonprofit organization HistoriCorps.
Jeri Ho, 31, came from North Carolina to help with the project in early August. She had just finished a master's program in Chinese medicine at the Daoist Traditions College of Chinese Medical Art.
Victoria Silversides, 23, took a break from her job at the Detroit Historical Museum to drive out west and join the team.
Daniel Ramirez, 32, who teaches Montessori education in Austin, Texas, used his free summer to join in the restoration.
Most volunteers have little to no construction experience. Yet it's these kind of amateurs that HistoriCorps has relied on, since its creation in 2009, to complete similar projects across the United States.
That's part of the beauty of log cabins -- buildings that are an iconic feature of the American West: Building them is arduous and taxing, but no special skills are needed.
"A lot of the projects we take on are work that's relatively easy to teach," HistoriCorps project supervisor Jon Williams said.
Almost anyone can be taught to strip bark with a drawknife in less than a minute. The rest is sweat - it might take a full day for a person to completely clean the bark from a single log and remove all its knots.
At Simpson Lake, it's been Williams, an affable 27-year-old Connecticut native, who's been on the ground, leading volunteers in the restoration.
The project has a simple goal, he said. It's to ensure that the cabins "aren't going to fall apart in the next 5-20 years." As project supervisor, Williams's main job is to train volunteers how to do the work and then make sure they do it right.
Despite his East Coast origin, Williams has a personal connection to Simpson. Before he started on the project last summer, he had already been there -- 21 years earlier.
After Williams' great-grandfather visited CM Ranch in his youth, Williams's family has been traveling to the Dubois area for four generations. That connection has given him a certain camaraderie with the local residents whose shrine he's saving.
"In Dubois, it's hard to walk down the street without running into someone who has a connection to this place. It's pretty cool," he said.
He heard about project from HistoriCorps's executive director, Townsend "Towny" Anderson, who came to Simpson Lake in 2015 to do an assessment, which estimated the work would cost $150,000.
It was pure luck that Williams was in the right place at the right time, but it was a no-brainer to take on the task.
"I thought: 'Of course I'll do that project. In fact, I have to do that project," he said.
His dad came out to volunteer on the first session in 2016 and was there again this week to help complete the work with his son.
For Williams, the Simpson cabins were as daunting a challenge as he's had.
"It's the biggest pack-in I've had on a project," he said.
Because the cabins reside in wilderness, all materials had to be brought on the backs of mules and horses.
In spring of 2016, the Forest Service provided packers who brought in materials to the cabins using more than 50 packloads.
Crews from the agency also cut down new trees to replace rotting sill logs and helped to pack out old material.
The team has tried to retain as much of the original work as possible.
Many of the original window panes remain.
If half of a log is in decent shape, Williams will salvage it.
The original assessment called for full replacement of the roof decking, but Williams found that it had held up better than expected over the years and decided to replace just a third.
"When it comes to historic preservation, you're not going to replace something if you don't have to," he said.