By Chadd Cripe

The Idaho Statesman

IDAHO CITY, Idaho — Leo Hennessy could have retired a year ago. One project pulled him back.

The six-yurt system Hennessy developed for Idaho State Parks and Recreation was badly damaged by the 2016 Pioneer Fire, including the total loss of the Whispering Pines yurt. The system is located north of Idaho City, a small town northwest of Boise. The Pioneer Fire started north of Idaho City in the backcountry and raged for months, charring almost 300 square miles.

Hennessy wanted to see the system fully restored before he left the department — an accomplishment celebrated earlier this month with the completion of the new sixth yurt.

“If it wasn’t for Leo, there wouldn’t be any yurts,” said Mike Allen, a friend of Hennessy’s and frequent volunteer. “You can ask just about anybody.”

The first yurt — Banner Ridge — was built in 1996 as a way to generate revenue to offset the cost of maintaining and grooming the Park N’ Ski system that launches from four parking lots along State Highway 21. The sixth — Stargaze — opened in 2011.

All six will be open this winter for the first time since the Pioneer Fire, and there’s not much winter availability left. They are open in the summer, and most popular in the winter, when backcountry skiers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers and other snow lovers trek a few miles through the woods for the quiet isolation, sweeping views and chance to camp with some of the comforts of home.

“Every day, you have that fresh snow,” Hennessy said. “I think that’s what people come up here for. You wake up and there’s 6 inches to a foot of new snow. You’re the first one to make tracks. That’s an experience that a lot of people want, and it’s hard to get.”

Hennessy has made a career of helping people find new ways to experience the outdoors.

The 63-year-old North Dakota native has been the non-motorized trails coordinator for Idaho Parks and Rec since 1989. He was the trails coordinator in North Dakota before that.

One of his other major accomplishments in Idaho was running point on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. The trail was a 72-mile-project that turned an environmental mess into a paved trail spanning the Idaho panhandle, starting south of Coeur d’Alene in Plummer, Idaho and ending in Mullan, near the border of Idaho and Montana.

He’s known for his willingness to take the uninitiated into the wild — and, in fact, he hopes by retiring this winter he can do more of that.

“I’m going to be out taking people into the backcountry and woods as long as I can,” he said.

His willingness to share his time with others is one reason Hennessy has no trouble finding volunteers to help with his projects.

Non-motorized trails in Idaho don’t have a funding mechanism, so volunteers are critical. Hennessy estimates two-thirds of the work on the latest yurt was performed by volunteers.

“He has really personalized the non-motorized program for Idahoans,” said Jennifer Okerlund, communications manager for Idaho Parks and Rec. “Leo has been the face behind this program for years. He offers his own time to get people outside, and oftentimes he’s helping expose them to new outdoor activities that maybe they wouldn’t have tried on their own.”

The Hennessy Yurt is accessed from the Gold Fork parking lot and sits about a mile from the burned-out Whispering Pines site.

You can drive to the Hennessy in the summer. You’ll want snowshoes or skis with skins to get there in the winter.

It likely will be popular with backcountry skiers because of the surrounding slopes, Hennessy said. It’s not a good choice for cross-country skiers because of the switchbacks on the shortest route from the parking lot to the yurt.

Like all of the yurts in the Idaho City-area program, it was placed atop a ridge with terrific views of the surrounding forest and peaks. As the seventh yurt Hennessy built, it benefited from his experience.

“We’ve taken all the things we’ve learned from the other yurts and combined them to make, I think, the best yurt,” Hennessy said. “Every yurt I built, the last one was the best one.”

He thinks about everything from the location, to the building site, to how the building is oriented. He wants morning light to hit a certain spot. He wants the best views of mountain peaks in the windows. He wants a window with a view of the fire pit and whoever might be approaching.

Inside the yurt, some wooden surfaces have been replaced with more durable stainless steel; the kitchen tools are purchased with an eye on quality so they last; hooks are conveniently placed to hang wet clothing; games and a journal are provided for downtime.

“Nothing was placed in here on accident,” volunteer Brenda Adams said. “Everything has been deliberated on endlessly.”

Outside, the elevated deck provides an easier way to shovel snow — at least until it gets so deep that it’s above the railing, the pit toilet is far enough away to avoid any unwanted smells and a bench in the woods provides a getaway

“We put them up high to get the sun,” Hennessy said. “At sunset, I sit out on the deck and watch the sun go down with a glass of wine.”

The yurt journals are filled with stories about the trips people have taken.

“Some amazing artwork, you’ll find,” Adams said. “You can sit and read through the journals and, of course, add your own contribution.”

Even before the name, there were those journals.

“There’s amazing stories (in the journals),” Hennessy said. “That’s what really gives me the satisfaction of doing this. Being in public service, you don’t get a lot of pats on your back. When I read that yurt journal, that right there shows me I’m doing what I really like to do — trying to help people.”