Building in the Backcountry: Part 1 of 6 [GUEST CABIN UPGRADE]

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As owners of Mackay Bar Outfitters & Guest Ranch, we are very accustomed to the challenges of building and upgrading structures on our property here in Idahos’ backcountry. The remote and mighty Salmon River that winds through the unparalleled River of No Return Frank Church Wilderness brings about a number of building challenges when one decides to build or remodel!

As a 5 star rated vacation venue located on the Salmon River in the Frank Church Wilderness (Idaho’s River of No Return),  Mackay Bar Ranch regularly hosts family groups, friend groups, wedding party groups and special event as well as corporate groups of all types.

Over the last 6 years, we have upgraded our cabins, private rooms, grounds, main lodge and most recently, a custom built home for our family needs. This has certainly provided us with plenty of insights over the years, as to the extent of extra labor and planning involved when  building or remodeling structures here in Idaho’s backcountry wilderness.

Over the next 3 months we will be sharing with you,  before and after photos, along with some of the trials and tribulations to consider while building in the backcountry.

We will start with sharing the details of our guest cabin remodels that took place in 2013 and 2014.

ALL building supplies are hauled in by airplane, jet boat or a seasonal Forest Service road, that ramps down a steep Salmon River canyon road with sharp hairpin curves to the river below. During the months of June to October (when the road is not covered in snow) we can utilize this 4wd road – FS Road #222 from Dixie, ID to Mackay Bar Ranch however weight limits and lengths can be an issue.   If we do haul material in by this road, we must plan on unloading on one side of the river and then reloading (somehow) to get across the 5.5’ ATV bridge and trail to Mackay Bar Ranch.    At times, we have helicoptered materials from the north side of the river to our building site at Mackay Bar Ranch.

Always something to consider when hauling loads into Idaho’s backcountry is weight limits and overall size. Some items may be light enough to haul in the plane but would be too large to do so. Or, visa-versa as some loads may be the right size but way too heavy to haul in the plane! Loads up to 600 pounds can be carried in our Cessna 182. We can haul loads as heavy as 4,000 lbs in our twin engine jet boats (depending on water flows). Loads can also be trailered in by vehicle on dang near the roughest, windiest, steepest road you could imagine! Using our 1 ton pickups, we can pull 6-8,000 pounds on trailers winding their way down the 4wd only road from Dixie, ID to the Salmon River. Hauling loads via pickup may still require material  to be helicoptered from the bottom of the FS Road #222 (once at the river) to the other side where the ranch resides. The 5.5′ wide Mackay Bar Bridge, situated at the bottom of the FS Road #222 from Dixie, stops many loads from being hauled straight to the Ranch. Roofing material would be a great example of this as the lengths can not make the turn after the bridge connects with the south side of the river.

All items must be planned far in advance. For example, the cabins and all remodel at Mackay Bar have historically been done in January – April (during our slower winter season). With this said, all material needs to be hauled in during August and September prior to the #222 FS Road closing from snow. Once the end of November starts, the river has a good chance of being frozen until sometimes, as late as March 1st, precluding jet boat transport during this time frame. Also, our jet boats are generally tied up in October and November during our primary season which is steelhead fishing and hunting season (September – November). Winter travel by airplane can be very unpredictable because of snow on the runway and bad weather.

During construction, power is needed to run saws, concrete mixers, power tools and heat. At Mackay Bar Ranch, power is supplied by a hydro system that was put in place during WWII.    Supplemental power can be supplied by propane generators for power tools that consume extra power. All supplemental power is ran off of smaller gas generators or the larger 17KW propane generator. Seven – one thousand gallon propane holding tanks – store propane for all ranch consumption. Typically, twice a year, propane delivery is hauled down the #222 FS road to the river by Idaho Country Propane. They haul in 3,000 gallons per trip! This has to be scheduled during the six month period the road is open (and not covered in snow)!   Once again . . . planning . . planning . . . planning!

This first month’s blog references the cabin remodel during 2013 and 2014.   During this time frame, three – 300 square feet guest cabins were remodeled from the ground up, as follows:

  1. CABIN SIDING: The cabins were resided with rough-cut lumber from Ken Key’s mill in Grangeville, Idaho. All of this lumber was jet boated in during the spring of 2013 (Elk horn cabin completed) and Spring of 2014 (Bear and Bugle Cabins completed). A torch was used to put a slight burn on the rough-cut wood to seal it and then Sikkens stain was applied.
  2. CABIN WALLS: The old paneling from the 60s and 70s were removed and sheetrock was hauled in on a jet boat in March.   Tape and texture was done in the spring and propane heat was added to the cabins, in order for the mud to dry.   Joe Wood and family (from Grangeville) were brought in to help with the drywall.
  3. CABIN WINDOWS & DOORS: The windows were all boated in from Vinegar Creek boat ramp in the Spring. Vinegar Creek boat ramp is located 26 miles from the main highway out of Riggins ID. They were purchased in McCall, ID about a 45 minute drive south from Riggins, ID.
  4. CABIN FLOORING: the old carpet was removed that had been in since the 80s .. gross!  Wood floor was put down. The wood flooring was hauled in, by boat, from Lewiston, ID.
  5. CABIN PORCH/STEPS: Wood was salvaged from the Painter Mine Cabin (upriver from Mackay Bar). The Painter Mine Cabin’s shop had beautiful cedar lining the roof. Once this property switched hands, Mackay Bar was awarded the contract to remove building structures from the land. Mackay Bar tore down multiple buildings and any salvageable materials were hauled downriver to our ranch. The cedar from Painter Mine shop was made into the steps/patio that are currently out front of the cabins.
  6. CABIN COUNTERTOPS: Buck Dewey poured concrete countertops for the bathroom vanities on site at Mackay Bar. Copper sinks were used as well.
  7. CABIN HEATING AND UTILITIES: The old propane water heater was replaced (and moved to the outside for ventilation purposes) and a new propane heater was installed.

Many friends and family helped out on the cabin projects when we first became owners of Mackay Bar Outfitters & Guest Ranch 6 years ago.

As a final mention, it’s always important to stock up on items such as screws, nails, tools, etc.  When you’re here at Mackay Bar Ranch nestled in the Frank Church Wilderness on the “River of No Return” it’s not as if you’re able to run to the store for misc items. If you are out something, it will take at least a week to get it in!  Many times, if items are ordered on Amazon Prime by the latest Friday morning, we can have them delivered to Arnolds Aviation in Cascade ID on Tuesdays.  By Wednesday, if the weather is good, the mail plane can bring in the supplies!

We hope you’ve enjoyed a peek into our world here at Mackay Bar Ranch and the extra grit and perseverance it takes to build and remodel in the backcountry! Be on the lookout for more before and after photos and details over the next three months in regards to our ranch upgrades!