Hemloft Lives: Iconic Whistler Treehouse to be Repurposed

It’s been almost four years since Allan Crawford of Canadian Wilderness Adventures acquired the Hemloft (a “secret” egg-shaped treehouse that was tucked sneakily in Whistler’s Kadenwood forest) and the iconic structure still sits in storage.

Or does it?

“To make it fun for people, like the original builder did, I’m thinking of telling people they can go try to find it,” says Crawford with a laugh. “Maybe it’s in a shipping container, maybe it’s in the woods somewhere, nobody knows.”

All trickery aside, Allan hopes to have the Hemloft up and available to the public this year, citing engineering and code regulations as major hurdles. “We had so many people calling us demanding that it be kept free,” he says. “In its old location, people were having raves at it, having weddings at it, lighting it up with Christmas lights and having parties at it. So we decided the liability was too high to leave it up in the woods.”

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The Hemloft in its original home in the Whistler woods. Photo: Kyle Graham

words: Brian Peech

The Hemloft joins Crawford’s growing quiver of recycled and repurposed buildings in the Callaghan Valley, which includes the former Whistler Chamber of Commerce building, the log building that sat unused for years at the corner of Highway 99 and Cheakamus Lake Road, and a recently acquired building from BMW that had been temporarily set up in Vancouver. In the age of reuse/ reduce/recycle, Crawford might be king.

The Hemloft story began in 2009 when burgeoning carpenter Joel Allen, who’d abandoned his career as a software developer, covertly built the unique structure in the forest of a Whistler subdivision. With little experience, Allen, who had been camping out in the woods and sleeping in whatever shelter he could stumble upon, “just wanted to build something cool” and set out to design and construct the Hemloft, hauling piece by piece into the woods under the cloak of secrecy and darkness.

Little did he know that his clandestine tree fort would go on to be featured in some of the most reputable architectural publications in the world, and spawn a cult-like following of both locals and tourists looking to find the hideout.

“I first became intrigued about the Hemloft about a year before it came down,” says Crawford. “Not so much about the tree house initially, but about Joel Allen’s marketing. He had the world searching for this mysterious treehouse that was all over the Internet and wasn’t secret whatsoever. People were hiking in the woods in all the wrong places trying to find it.”

“Sometimes you have to put your money where your dream is, blindly go for it and hope for the best.” – Allan Crawford

Built on crown land, the Hemloft became one of the worst kept secrets in Whistler, with hand drawn maps circulating around town amidst hushed tones and knowing glances. As the years passed, Allen left the Whistler area and was unable to care for the structure.

Thus, it was time for the Hemloft to come down. He initially offered it for free on Craigslist (a tip of the hat to the means by which he sourced many of the materials for the build), but after seeing such an overwhelming response, decided to sell it and donate the proceeds to charity. An application process was initiated, and Canadian Wilderness came forward with the winning bid.

“We offered $5,000, but we’ve spent maybe $20,000 on it already, and we haven’t even started construction,” says Crawford. “It’s all gone to engineering costs to bring it to code. It’s such an unusual project, with nothing built like it previously.”

Crawford expects the final costs of the Hemloft’s resurrection (before maintenance and upkeep) to come in at about $35,000. Recouping these costs while keeping the Hemloft free and accessible was the biggest dilemma for Crawford.

“It’s going to be in a much more majestic spot than the original location,” he says. “And once it goes up, it will be structurally sound, safe and to code. Everything a treehouse probably shouldn’t be, really.”

“I realized that if we charged for it, it would become problematic,” he says. “But I knew it would be a draw, so what I finally came up with was to put it next to a coffee shop where people could come sit and enjoy it. We also want to integrate it into some of our adventure tours.”

If all the permits go through, The Hemloft Cafe, as Crawford plans to call it, will be perched along Callaghan Creek, in the forest with mountain views. “It’s going to be in a much more majestic spot than the original location,” he says. “And once it goes up, it will be structurally sound, safe and to code. Everything a treehouse probably shouldn’t be, really.”

And even if the concept doesn’t break even, Crawford has no regrets. “It’s just great to preserve a piece of Whistler history,” he says. “The child in you will always want to go up into a treehouse, plus there are the aesthetics and beauty and architectural value of it. Sometimes you have to put your money where your dream is, blindly go for it and hope for the best.”