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Portable Mill Brings Ski Lodge to Reality

Wood-Mizer put to work to create lodge building in remote British Columbia

By Timberline Staff
Date Posted: 1/1/2005

      The setting is the Canadian Rocky Mountain backcountry. The elevation is 5,400 feet, and the nearest paved road is 60 miles away. With a Wood-Mizer portable sawmill, some other heavy equipment, and a passion for backcountry skiing, four friends pursue a dream.

      Partners Dale McKnight, Dan Josephson, Dave Markel and Matt Cochand are former loggers who won government-awarded tenure on 50 square miles of British Columbia’s Rocky Mountain backcountry. In this magnificent region, the partners use snowcats to carry clients to ski and snowboard on glaciers, high alpine slopes and huge forested ridges.

      It is a perfect setting for winter recreation with its boundless, untracked powder snow, relaxed isolation from crowds, small groups of skiers, and comfortable lodging — all amid spectacular alpine scenery. From the highest point, almost 10,000 feet elevation, clients ski and snowboard amid views of the peaks and glaciers of North America’s Continental Divide.

      Dedicated to their dream, the partners started off small. The group built a small cabin for 12 guests, and Chatter Creek Mountain Lodges was formed. For two years, skiers enjoyed Spruce Lodge’s cozy, dormitory-style accommodations, outdoor plumbing, a friendly staff and fabulous backcountry skiing conditions.

      While the ‘Spruce Goose’ holds a special place in the hearts of those first guests, in 2002 the four owners forged ahead to build a larger lodge with world-class accommodations. The challenge was to build a 9,300-square-foot lodge in one brief summer.

      The isolated site, with its difficult access road, forbids quick trips to the lumber yard and requires the use of logs harvested from the surrounding forest. To meet the tight schedule, the partners needed some special equipment. With help from 20 client-investors, they bought a new Wood-Mizer LT40 hydraulic portable sawmill and a used mobile crane.

      Getting the equipment to the remote location was not easy. The first 50 miles of the trip to Chatter Creek is by logging road, but the last 10 miles becomes a rough track. Built as a summer road, it has no drainage and, in the spring, it is a bog. The crane got stuck time and again. Each time it had to be pulled out with an excavator and the road repaired. Bridges had to be reinforced, and many were damaged, requiring repairs. In a convoy, with a bulldozer pulling and the excavator pushing, it took three days to complete the trip.

      At Chatter Creek, over 200 green spruce logs were ready for milling. The Wood-Mizer LT40 hydraulic band mill, with bed extensions totaling 45 feet, was immediately unloaded and set up. The logs were sawn into dimensional lumber for framing, paneling and decking for the new lodge. The small crew of about 12 people had only a few months before the first guests would arrive. The crane aided in construction of the log walls.

      In four months, the sawmill cut well over 250 logs, producing  floor joists and decking for three floors, studs for partition walls, and boards for decking and paneling. Some of the logs measured as much as 42 inches at the butt.  The roof required more lumber than any other aspect of the project, and the Wood-Mizer cut all the rafters, beams and posts.

      On Dec. 27, 2002, the floors were swept, all the dishes were washed, and the beds were made. Late in the afternoon the first helicopter arrived, and soon 24 guests were enjoying Vertebrae Lodge’s double-occupancy bedrooms, private baths, hot tub and spacious living.

      “Thank goodness for the Wood-Mizer!” said Dale, who is president of Chatter Creek. “This project was a much bigger undertaking than we first realized. With such a short window of time, we needed a really good mill to keep things going. We could not have done it without the Wood-Mizer.”

      The Wood-Mizer’s work was far from over, though. After wintering under six or more feet of snow, the sawmill comes to life every spring to cut a supply of dimension lumber for the summer’s project. In 2003, for example, additional finish work was done on Vertebrae Lodge, including construction of interior wall paneling, roof overhang extensions and outside porches.

      Dale and Dan, with a small crew, are finishing a new four-story, 9,000-square-foot sleeping annex. Named Solitude Lodge, this new building shares a common porch with Vertebrae Lodge and accommodates 12 additional guests. The recreational facilities in Vertebrae Lodge are being expanded, and an area for drying clothes will be relocated to the new building.

      The owners are always thinking how to improve and expand their facilities. The partners are pondering the 50x25 porch joining the two lodges. The porch is covered, but maybe they will enclose it and add a grand entrance. They may create an outdoor fire pit to welcome home clients after a long day of skiing or snow­boarding. Whatever the next project might be, the Wood-Mizer mill will be a key element. Investing in the Wood-Mizer was pivotal in enabling the owners to pursue their dream.

      Chatter Creek is a real ‘bootstrap’ business, built on sweat equity and very little funding. The owners usually buy used equipment and carefully nurse it along. The sawmill was an exception.

      In first presenting the project to their investors, the partners said that to meet their tight summer schedule, they needed the best portable sawmill, a real Cadillac. As one investor said, “At first we were skeptical, but we now all agree. The mill has been marvelous, a real workhorse. It made the project possible.”

      Chatter Creek Mountain Lodge stands as proof that with hard work, perseverance and the right equipment, dreams can come true.


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