Annie Coburn

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When summer temperatures are hitting record highs, you might be looking for a cool place to hide out that will not put a strain on tight budgets or involve the old vacation haunts which seem so ho-hum. With the winter snows falling and you are wanting somewhere beautiful to have a great get away, how about a spectacular vacation idea that’s not only cool, but satisfies the soul as well? Volunteer vacations, where you not only enjoy new surroundings, but also give your time and effort helping others is a win for everyone.

The National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) in Winter Park, Colorado, is a world leader in helping disabled young people and adults participate in all types of outdoor activities, year round. It’s not too early to plan a summer get-away and not too late to think about a winter escape. In fact, it’s the right time to think about playing in the snow.

What is NSCD? In the late 1960’s, Hal O’Leary was a ski instructor at Winter Park when the Children’s Hospital of Denver called George Engel, owner of Winter Park, with a revolutionary idea: let’s teach disabled children to ski. When Engel asked his ski instructors for volunteers, the only hand that went up was Hal O’Leary’s. He didn’t have much time for preparation since the first group was scheduled to arrive at Winter Park in six days.
First he kluged together some ski outriggers (two short skis fixed on ski poles). Next, he tied up one of his own legs behind him and began to teach himself to ski on three tracks (one leg and two outriggers). A few days later, twenty-three amputees arrived for Hal’s first class. This was the beginning of forty years of achievement for Hal and the NSCD program. Each year NSCD instructs thousands of physically, cognitively and emotionally disabled people with the help of over 800 volunteers.

Before long, the Winter Program that Hal began expanded to include a Summer Program. People from around the world flock to the cool temperatures and beauty of Colorado’s Fraser Valley to be a part of the NSCD program. The summer program includes rafting, rock climbing, canoeing, therapeutic horseback riding and camping. Ashley Sifers, NSCD Volunteer Coordinator, puts the need for summer volunteers into perspective: “On any given day, we can have forty people on the river, thirty people horseback riding. We can have a group hiking up Jim Creek. We can even have some overnight camping going on plus some canoeing in Denver. All of this can happen in one day. We are growing at an exponential rate.”

NSCD needs volunteers. Can you participate?
Excuse #1: I have a family. What would we do with the kids while we’re working with the program? Families are welcome…all family members. In fact, NSCD prefers to have every member of the family volunteer. Imagine what a learning experience this would be for the entire family working together to help others. Kids have a way of connecting with other kids. That would certainly change the conversation at the dinner table and put life in perspective for both young and adult. “This program is a lesson in the power of the human spirit,” says Sally Speas, veteran NSCD instructor, “To see this strength first hand makes all of us stronger.”

Excuse #2: I’m not an outdoors kind of person. I don’t bike and never even touched a horse. NSCD wouldn’t want someone like me. Even if the outdoors isn’t your playground, this doesn’t mean a volunteer vacation won’t work for you. You don’t have to know how to raft, rock climb or canoe in order to help with the logistics of getting equipment or food or people where they need to be. People are needed to tie shoes or walk along side a horse. “No experience necessary”, explains Ashley. “As long as you have the desire to be a part of this meaningful and incredible experience, we’ll find a way to make it work for you.”

Excuse #3: I really want to help, but this is my only chance to relax and renew myself. To be a volunteer only requires half a day each day for as brief a stay as one week. But, I promise, once you work with these young people and adults, you won’t want to leave. “It fills you up. It makes you smile. It makes you happy. It makes you proud”, explains Karen Conger, NSCD Instructor. “You learn from these students. They don’t learn from you. It’s just amazing.” How could you find a better way to renew your spirit?
As our fitful excuses vaporize into the thin air of those magnificent Rocky Mountains, I’ll leave you with some contact information to begin making your summer or winter vacation plans. For special programs or questions, call NSCD at 303-293-5711. To sign up complete the application on the NSCD website under the volunteers tab: For information about hotels and summer events, check out Winter Park’s website at
If you have even a flicker of hesitation, this message from Mike Machuga, NSCD instructor extraordinaire, should cinch those vacation plans: “In this program you get to do something that most people never get to do in their whole life. You get to make a difference in someone else’s life. At the end of the day, you can hang your hat on it.”
See you in snowy Colorado!

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One summer day in 1995, Andy Miller was standing beside a newly constructed tilt-wall wondering how he would raise it into place when a fledgling Ohio State football player emerged from the woods to lend a hand. Four-months later, construction of one of Grand County Colorado’s most sought after back-country accommodations, High Lonesome Hut, was complete.

Unlike many Colorado huts, High Lonesome is a far cry from a simple lean-to shelter. This fully appointed cabin, nestled next to a secluded meadow of the Arapaho National Forest, is equipped with modern conveniences. My first visit to High Lonesome Hut was also my first experience with cross-country skiing, proving that even a flatlander can negotiate this back-country adventure.
Marie-Ange, a 17 year veteran of the Fraser Valley and an avid outdoor adventurer, enticed me to join her and two year old son, Jason, for a “there and back” lunch trip to The Hut. Debbie Muenster at Icebox Mountain Sports outfitted me with cross country skis including a five minute “how to” lesson at the back of the store. The excitement of this new adventure was a combination of scared to death and can’t wait to get started.

Around 10:30 that morning, five of us arrived at the entrance to the trailhead located off County Road 84, four miles from US 40, between Fraser and Tabernash, a one and a half hour drive from Denver. High Lonesome Hut is glorious any season of the year. During the winter, visitors have a choice to cross-country or snowshoe the 2.5 miles (4.0 km) from trailhead to cabin. A person in good physical condition can easily manage the well-marked, expansive trail. If you prefer to travel unburdened, Andy offers gear transport at a nominal fee for extended stay guests.

Transport Fees:
Winter fee$90.00 One Way. Winter weight limit – 400 pounds (181.4
Summer fee $60 between June 10-September 15. No summer weight limit.
When we arrived at trail’s end, the trees parted to reveal a 1,000 square foot, three-story log timber framed cabin centered in a pristine glade.
Once inside, our first task was to light the efficient wood-burning furnace in the basement. The brick chimney, the centerpiece of the cabin, transfers heat through out the cabin, providing warmth to all those within. Outside is the well-stocked woodpile. If the thought of hauling wood down a narrow staircase is not for you, that’s not a problem. Wood is easily brought into the basement through a window opening located at ground level. Next to the large furnace is a cast iron, wood-burning stove that quickly knocks off the chill of the journey.
While you’re waiting for the warmth to take hold, notice the solar/battery system that provides electricity to the Hut. Solar panels, located outside the Hut, power six 250-pound lead acid batteries. Andy maintains these on a monthly basis, eliminating any worry about candles for evening reading or card playing. However, avoid hairdryers and coffee pots that quickly drain the batteries’ capacity, leaving you scurrying for candles. Andy provides his guests with a French press for a great pot of stovetop coffee.
On the second floor, the kitchen has a full compliment of pots, pans and utensils. Adjacent to the kitchen is one of Andy’s inventions, copper spigot glove warmers built around a graceful tree branch. This practical and whimsical creation utilizes the heat from the furnace to dry those wet gloves and hats. Windows surround the large dining area providing a panoramic view of the meadow to the delight of the guests.

If the copper spigot is the most creative item in the cabin, the twenty-foot, singletree center beam is the most dramatic. Another twenty-foot beam, cut from this same tree, forms the pivot point of the spiral staircase. All the timber used to build the cabin was harvested from the property, including these magnificent beams.

The national forest permits logging in the area. Just as Andy logged the timbers for the construction of High Lonesome, others in the area also log. Andy tells the story of Jim Winter who logs with ax and draft horse. Late one afternoon, a group of hunters from Missouri, regular guests at The Hut, were returning to the cabin when they heard a call for help. They followed the sound until they discovered Jim pinned beneath a tree. Quickly, they came to his rescue, lifting the tree and freeing him. A cold, but uninjured Jim explained that while he was notching the tree, it pivoted and fell, pinning him beneath. He was trapped and alone. The Missouri man chucked and said to Andy: “Ya know, ‘ol Jim was mighty glad to see us.”

The bathroom is an adventurer’s dream with flush toilet and hot shower. Water comes from a 180 foot well and uses an on-demand propane fueled water heater. Waste is dealt with using a traditional septic system.
Beds are plentiful at High Lonesome. Two bunk beds and a small sitting area occupy the second floor. The third floor is devoted exclusively to sleeping quarters. The Hut can comfortably sleep as many as 12 guests and as Andy remarked, “I’ve had as many as 27 blind students from the NSCD program at Winter Park camping here at one time.”

Spring and summer bring a different look when wild flowers halo the Hut. Activities morph into mountain biking, horseback riding and fishing in the stream behind the cabin. Some visitors use bike trailers to haul in equipment and supplies.

If you are searching for that out-of-the ordinary adventure with family or friends, you can find it at High Lonesome Hut. Families and pets are always welcome at the Hut. Plenty of toys and books are available to keep young ones occupied if the weather is prohibitive for outdoor activities. For those wanting to optimize their adventure, Andy offers a guide service for day trips and over nights. Call 970-726-4099 for pricing.
Our group spent an hour taking in the warmth from the furnace and sharing our healthy snacks. Then, it was time to make our way back to the trailhead. My trek in was good practice and I felt confident that the trip back to the trailhead would be successful. Whether you are a first time back-country adventurer, like me, or an experienced outdoorsman like Marie-Ange, High Lonesome Hut offers fun and relaxation in the surrounds of the majestic Colorado Rocky Mountains.