(This 1018th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 26, 2010.)


Thirteen of the nineteen members of the lean-to building crew


Remember those stories about colonists coming together in a festive atmosphere to erect a barn or house for a neighbor or a school or church for their community? We don't do much of that kind of thing any more. There are a few notable exceptions, of course. The outstanding Habitat for Humanity program is one.


Another that comes closer to the colonial activity is the building of lean-tos along hiking trails. Recently Bob Collins shared a two-hour video he filmed of a 19-member volunteer crew erecting the Tamarack Lean-to on the Finger Lakes Trail in the Danby State Forest, south of Ithaca.


Three of the construction crew members are from western New York: construction director Quinn Wright and crew members Melanie Okoniewski and Ben Petryszak. The rest hail from Rochester, Syracuse, Ithaca, Binghamton and Los Angeles. A key member of the team was Ken Reek, an RIT professor who designed the plans and even wrote a manual for other lean-to constructors to follow. Still, less than a quarter of the crew members had had any prior experience building one of these shelters.


Lean-tos are familiar not only to hikers but also to anyone who, like me, was brought up building model structures with Lincoln logs. They have an open front and three enclosed sides. The roof slants down from front to back giving the structure that asymmetric appearance from which the name lean-to is derived.

You can enter without stooping, stepping over the large log that crosses the front of the lean-to, but you soon hit your head as you move toward the back of the enclosed space. In some lean-tos the floor is packed dirt; in this one a wood floor is provided.


These huts are especially useful to hikers as they allow travel without carrying a tent for shelter. A half-dozen or more campers in sleeping bags will fit comfortably inside them.


Perhaps the most spectacular of these lean-tos were the ones along the ridge trail in the Great Smokies National Park. There are so many bears in the park that the front of those lean-tos had heavy metal screens. Staying in them was like spending a night in a reverse zoo: the woodland animals could come to view you. (I use the past tense there, because I understand that those iron grates have now been removed.)


I could still probably build a Lincoln log lean-to in a few minutes, but that provides a misperception of the task of building a real lean-to. A great deal of work is involved.


Like so many such shelters, the Tamarack Lean-to is located in a wilderness area. Access was achieved only by ATV along a mile-long, steep and deeply-rutted, unimproved road. The crew had to carry in their supplies, their equipment, their food for lunch, and all of the building materials they couldn't take from the forest itself. No heavy construction equipment was involved.


The team stayed at a nearby state Lions Club camp where breakfast and dinner were cooked by team members, Jacqui Wensich AND Laurie Dondo. Breakfast was at 7 a.m., work on site started before 8 and lasted, with a half-hour break for lunch, through 6 p.m. before the weary crew hiked back out.


The completed project


A final estimate indicates that the lean-to weighs five tons, all of which had to be manhandled into place by team members. Some of the individual logs weighed over 300 pounds and had to be carried by four people.


The task involved more than building the lean-to. Team members had to spend a first day demolishing a decrepit old hut on the same site, its logs so rotten that they only served as firewood. And they also rebuilt a vandalized outhouse, built benches and a picnic table, lay stone to establish a terrace, put up signs, split firewood and cut brush from the area. There was plenty to do for everyone.


There were costs involved. Those were defrayed by the National Park Service, Eastern Mountain Sports, the Finger Lakes Trail Conference, the New York State Lions Organization and the state DEC.


The completed lean-to has been valued at $41,000, with 85 percent of that value representing the 1400 hours of sweat equity provided by these extraordinary volunteers.-- Gerry Rising