Remote Access

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Free lodging in the B.C. backcountry? No problem -- as long as you know the secret handshake.

Tucked slyly among old-growth hemlocks and the ripsaw arêtes of British Columbia's North Cascades sits Rene Crawshaw's plywood heaven -- an 8-by-12-foot cabin with a hard-working wood stove and a buffet of backcountry skiing at its doorstep. When crammed with friends, booze, and Gore-Tex, Crawshaw's hideaway begs only one thing: the right to be there.

Building an illicit hut on public land may be unheard of in the States, but in Canada it's an august tradition -- one that's now enjoying a renaissance of sorts as snowmobiling and backcountry skiing flourish.

The provincial government doesn't know how many so-called "trespass huts" squat on Crown land, but in southeast B.C. alone "there's gotta be well over 100 huts that aren't authorized," says Fred Thiessen, a recreation forester for B.C.'s Ministry of Forests. Officials visiting the Bull River drainage northwest of Fernie recently found a veritable subdivision of huts puffing away in the woods.

Most of the hut builders are adherents of Unabomber chic, their creations resembling rustic one-car garages. Other folks simply claim-jump old mining shanties or illegally rent cabins from trappers.

Two years ago, Crawshaw and his best friend built their clandestine cabin high in the Chilliwack River Valley, a hop over the 49th parallel from Washington's Mt. Baker ski area. A winter visit requires a 4x4, a snowmobile, and a snowy hike -- and can take hours, he says, especially when cases of Kokanee are on the gear list.

Yet the furtive location and paint job (camouflage green and black, naturally) are more to dupe vandals than any prowling bureaucrats. The government officially frowns on the huts, but it only removes the troublesome ones. "There's bigger fish to fry," says Bernie Ivanco, another recreation forester.

And while these huts may be B.C.'s worst-kept secret, don't expect their owners to draw you a roadmap to them. "If you're considered worthy," Crawshaw says, "they'll tell ya."