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Manzanita Bay shelter restoration: Workers utilize hand tools on shelter
A swath of felled trees and a scarred mountainside are evidence of a strong wind event and heavy rains nearly a decade ago that ultimately destroyed the Manzanita Bay shelter, pictured here next to the work site during low tide at the bay along East Behm Canal. Staff photos by John McLaughlin

Daily News Staff Writer

The task of using only simple hand tools can deliver its own set of challenges when restoring a more than 70-year-old log shelter that had been ripped apart and thoroughly smashed by massive coastal softwoods.

Add in an almost daily onslaught of southern Southeast Alaska rain and nightly summertime cold in the remote stretches of eastern Revillagigedo Island, and Steve Harris rightly lamented for his warm bed at home in arid Salida, Colorado.

The 68-year-old project supervisor of HistoriCorps, a Denver-based historical restoration nonprofit, spent the bulk of June helping lead a handful of volunteers to restore the U.S. Forest Service’s tattered Manzanita Bay shelter, which sits along the shores of East Behm Canal, ravaged nearly a decade ago.

The group also will be spending a portion of July afield to repair Forest Service cabins at Winstanley Lake and the Wilson Narrows, before heading back to their varied homes in the contiguous U.S.

All told, the restoration and maintenance work is valued to cost about $211,000, including in-kind and “non-cash” contributions, according to Paul Robbins, the Ketchikan-based Tongass National Forest public affairs and partnerships officer.

The Forest Service is picking up 78.76 percent of the cost, with HistoriCorps matching the remaining 21.24 percent.

Two-thirds of HistoriCorps’ many dozens of past projects nationwide are born under similar agreements with the Forest Service, according to Jonas Landes, director of operations for the organization that officially gained nonprofit status in 2013.

Landes said the Forest Service originally approached the group in 2009, then known as Colorado Preservation Inc., to collaborate on sustaining a historic preservation capacity on public lands, per federal mandate. He said HistoriCorps subsequently was founded the same year for the public-private partnership.

The federal mandate “basically means protect if possible and maintain if possible, and things like that,” Landes said. “So they have this mandate. They don’t have a lot of internal capacity for historic preservation.

“They’ve got recreation engineers, recreation staffers; they’ve got civil engineers that, you know, do water and campgrounds; and they’ve got facilities engineers; they’ve also got archeologists,” he said. “But they don’t really have construction preservationists, as much. Some units do. Some forests do, but most by far do not.”

And for the nearly 17 million acres of the Tongass National Forest, priority comes for projects that deliver the greatest impact, according to Tami Conner, the acting deputy forest supervisor for the Tongass National Forest.

“We manage the country’s largest national forest at approximately 17 million acres, and we do so with the goal of providing the most benefit to the greatest amount of people possible,” Connor said in an email statement.

“To accomplish this within our budget as a federal agency,” she noted, “we must prioritize our projects based on need and public benefit. Sometimes that means restoration projects like the Manzanita (Bay) shelter are delayed, or like is the case here, a partner in the community steps forward to help us get it done.”

Another major plus, Landes said, is that the sustained preservation efforts engage volunteers and students, allowing the public to contribute, learn and advocate for restoring and protecting public historic sites.

“Because, literally, these volunteers give a little of themselves to these projects, and it becomes theirs,” he said. “That’s the important thing, to have ownership over what is truly all of ours.”

Landes said HistoriCorps hopes to complete work on up to eight historic structures within the Tongass National Forest in the coming years, depending on “ebb and flow” of federal funding.

As for the Manzanita Bay shelter, June became ripe with rain for HistoriCorps’ premiere project in Southeast Alaska.

In nearby Ketchikan, only five days passed without measurable precipitation, though trace amounts were recorded each day, with 10.83 inches recorded as of June 29 — nearly twice as much rain delivered than is typical for the month, according to National Oceanic an Atmospheric Administration data.

But project leader Harris, a certified historic preservationist who has worked construction for the past 40-some years, said during a recent return trip to the Manzanita Bay project site that it hasn’t been totally miserable — just slightly.

His three volunteers, joined by HistoriCorps crew leader Natalie Henshaw, pulled together regardless of the conditions, he said.

They were expected to finish the job by Friday.

The three-sided Adirondack-style shelter was originally built during the 1930s as a Civilian Conservation Corps project at Manzanita Bay, according to HistoriCorps. The most recent maintenance was done during the 1990s, Harris said.

Nearly a decade ago, a massive cedar root ball uprooted, essentially halving the shelter. Another large collapsed tree landed a direct, caddy-corner blow to the structure.

“It was a perfect smack,” Ketchikan-based Forest Service Engineer Kent Cherry said as he recently documented progress on the restoration effort. “It hit dead on.”

The trees collapsed along with many others in a swath of forest felled by a strong wind event that had been coupled with an extended period of heavy rains. The area remains visibly scarred.

With a planned June 1 start, the HistoriCorps crew was stalled for nearly a week in Ketchikan by troublesome weather and boating conditions.

At the Ketchikan-Misty Fiords Ranger District, they started their handy work by prepping logs for the shelter, before heading out to the project site for the first time about midway through the second week of June.

At that point, it was mostly rain and work.

“Every day was a rainy day, except maybe three,” Harris said this past Sunday aboard a twin-engine Forest Service landing craft, en route with the team to Manzanita Bay for the planned final week of work on the shelter.

As originally planned, Harris will now head home to Colorado, and a new HistoriCorps project supervisor, Dane Cowan, will lead work with Henshaw and the three volunteers at the Winstanley Lake and Wilson Narrows cabins.

Each of the latter projects are planned to span eight days, with down time in Ketchikan between the two work sessions.  

Henshaw, 30, of Savannah, Georgia, said the remaining work is comparatively minor to the Manzanita Bay shelter, and includes tasks like roof work, some joist repairs and painting.

The volunteers who restored the Manzanita Bay shelter will also work on the two cabins. Among them is Conor Herterich, 28, of Lufkin, Texas.

Herterich came to the Tongass National Forest with his girlfriend, Amanda Carr, 28, also from Lufkin. He’s a former high-school history teacher and now a graduate student studying historic preservation, a facet of public history studies at Stephen F. Austin State University.

“I’ve learned a lot of theoretical things in grad school but haven’t had any hands-on experience,” Herterich said this past Sunday at Manzanita Bay.

“This project allowed me to come out here and actually, you know, learn how to build things, practical construction experience,” he said.

Alaska, Herterich said, came as expected, and he gets the added benefit of missing some two months’ worth of dry southwestern heat. He’s also getting paid.

“They offer a stipend, so I’m getting paid. I’m escaping the Texas heat and seeing a new place: the wilderness,” Herterich said. “As far as the wildlife, the mountains, the terrain — everything is just what I saw on TV, so I’m not disappointed at all.”