Upper Wairau River Area, Marlborough - February to December 2020
Connors Creek drains the steep flanks of Mt Chittenden (2205m), an outlier peak of the St Arnaud Range, east of Nelson Lakes National Park. The creek tumbles through a beech-clad valley, until it flows into the Wairau River, deep in the Marlborough backcountry. A short walk (or about a 1km drive on a 4WD track) from the confluence is Connors Creek Hut – the subject of another recent Backcountry Trust project. Spearheading this project was Bob Chittenden, who shares a moniker with the mountain at the valley-head named after his father, Eric Chittenden.
Bob has something of a penchant for old huts, inherited from Eric – who was the first president and patron of the Nelson Ski Club, which established some of the early huts in the Nelson Lakes Area, including Kea Hut (built 1933-34), high on the slopes of Mt Robert.
Over recent years, Bob and others have revived the Nelson Ski Club to restore the now-historic Kea Hut. With skills developing and momentum going, the group decided to tackle more backcountry projects. Next was re-cutting and re-marking the Paske Hut Track, then the Begley Track above Begley Hut. The focus on these areas naturally led to nearby Connors Creek Hut.
As Bob writes: ‘Connors Creek Hut has an unusual history, although details remain sketchy. It was probably built by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in 1954, and constructed by bolting together two ‘single man’s quarters’ (as they were then known), used when the first power pylons were erected through the Wairau Valley. The hut still clearly shows the centre beam and the floorboard layout – one half is the mirror image of the other. Nearby Rainbow Hut was similarly constructed.’
A routine DOC hut inspection had identified significant deterioration, particularly in the weatherboards and structural timber. Bill, Bob and Val went to the hut in June 2019 and concluded that the hut was salvageable. Bill Gilbertson determined that the roof was sound, along with the floor and much of the framing. Importantly, the piles and bearers showed little deterioration, no doubt due to the treated timber. Bill, Marion and Bob made another visit in November 2019 to estimate the work and materials needed to rebuild the hut to allow an application for funding to the Back Country Trust.
The Connors Creek Hut team included: Bill Gilbertson (a licensed builder with experience in building backcountry huts), Marion Gilbertson, Bob and Val Chittenden, Iain Dephoff and Diana Gabric, Roger Gaskell, Simon Field, Steve Johnstone, Gerald Gaskell, Cate and Ingrid Huygens, and Bob and Jill Dickinson. As well as estimating and ordering materials, Bill shouldered the lion’s share of the work.
DOC’s Graeme Omlo volunteered his own time to clear the long grass around the hut. He dug a new toilet hole, shifted the toilet, supplied chopping blocks and an axe, as well as assisting with the actual rebuild.
Work occurred over several periods in February and March 2020, before Covid-19 temporarily halted progress, then began again in May, with more stints in July, August, October and December.
A summary of the work undertaken: exterior cladding removed and some framing replaced; three windows replaced; new Coloursteel exterior cladding and insulation installed; interior and ceiling relined with plywood; new ‘Sparky’ wood-burner installed to replace the open fireplace; new shelves, drying rack and bunks built and a second-hand stainless-steel bench installed; new mattresses supplied. The concrete entrance pad was extended, along with flagstones carefully placed by Ingrid, Diana and Marion. A new woodshed was built allowing the entrance porch as storage for packs, parkas and boots. Lead roof nails were replaced with Tec screws. Finally, the woodshed and hut was painted in traditional DOC colours.
The hut is an ideal location for use by horse trekkers, mountain-bikers, trampers and climbers and is especially well positioned for a family with young children to have their first stay in a backcountry hut.
Special thanks are due to the Nelson Honey Company (Philip Cropp), which holds the lease for Rainbow Station and station managers Gene and Amie Thomas for granting access to the site whenever needed. St Arnaud DOC staff were very supportive: John Wotherspoon, Phil Crawford, Tracey Grose and Daryl Stephens. Grateful acknowledgement to the Backcountry Trust for the funding!
What’s next for the Nelson Ski Club team? They hope to re-cut the track into the head of Connors Creek.