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After 7 Years, Repairs of Storm-Damaged Pacific Crest Trail Nearly Complete

God willin' and the creeks don't rise, literally, a long-closed stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington will reopen to backcountry travel in 2011.

Suiattle River just upstream from new PCT bridge siteImpassable to all but the hardiest souls since October 2003, when a colossal rainstorm triggered floodwaters that wiped out 8 trail bridges, a 45-mile section of the PCT in Washington's Glacier Peak Wilderness is undergoing its final, and largest, repair project--spanning the wide, fast-moving Suiattle River.

Once the gap is closed, probably by midsummer next year, thru-travel on the scenic west side of 10,541-foot Glacier Peak will be possible for the first time in 8 years.

It's great news for PCT thru-hikers, who since 2003 have had to navigate a steep, challenging detour around Glacier Peak's southern and eastern slopes. The detour adds 5.5 miles to a thru-hiker's trek and includes 3.5 miles of road walking.

It's enough to elicit a trace of euphoria from Gary Paull, a reserved fellow who for 19 years of his 35-year U.S. Forest Service career has served as the wilderness and trails coordinator for Washington's 1.7-million acre Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

1999 upgrade of Skyline Bridge over Suiattle River"It's an exciting time," says Paull who, with district trail coordinator Dawn Erickson and bridge engineer Peter Wagner, has administered nearly every aspect of The Big Fix on the PCT since the 2003 storm.

For this special REI Blog report, I accompanied Paull last week during one of his inspection tours of the bridge and trail-relocation projects. This long-running repair effort illustrates the complexities trail managers face when trying to keep trails open in an era of tight budgets and competing land-use agendas.

Hikers, typically unaware of the nitty-gritty of trail maintenance, simply want to know: Why have repairs taken so long? A little history provides some clues:

2003

A huge storm on Oct. 17 pummels the region, dumping as much as 10 inches of rain during a 24-hour period. The impact:Post-flood view (2003) of former site of Skyline Bridge
• Roads, campgrounds and trails throughout the forest suffer major damage estimated at more than $11 million.
• The PCT alone loses 8 bridges. The largest: the 265-foot Skyline Bridge that crossed the Suiattle River, 108 miles south of the Canadian border. Rampaging floodwaters demolish the bridge and scatter it downstream for miles.
• Another major bridge over the Suiattle, on the Milk Creek Trail (about 7 miles west/downstream from the PCT crossing), is also lost.
• The Suiattle River channel doubles in width in some places, triples in others, expands to nearly a 1/5-mile wide where Downey Creek flows into it.

2004

• Applications submitted for government funding to repair the PCT. Paull's role in the process? "I’m a just mid-level, money-grubbing bureaucrat," he says with a smile.

2005

• Funding is secured for PCT repairs.
• Serious field work to create a new Suiattle River crossing begins.

2006

• The first of 3 environmental assessments and public comment periods involving bridge repair conducted.
• First contracts issued to repair PCT bridges other than the Suiattle River bridge.
• New PCT bridge site for crossing the Suiattle River is identified (roughly a half-mile downstream, or west, of the Skyline Bridge site); design work begins.
• Early in the year, a state grant funds a replacement bridge over the Suiattle River on the Milk Creek Trail.
• In November another big storm, the infamous "Election Day" storm, hits the Northwest, causing more flooding and erosion. Its impact:
     o Ruins the new PCT bridge site on the Suiattle River a half-mile downstream from the Skyline Bridge site.
     o Damages the Milk Creek Trail bridge site over the Suiattle River by widening the river channel, meaning the replacement bridge, not yet installed, is now too short for the job.

2007

• Repair work on other damaged PCT bridges continues.
• While viewing the Suiattle River from a helicopter, Paull and Wagner spot a possible new PCT crossing over the river channel--a narrow gap with solid bedrock (good for bridge foundations) on both river banks.

2008

• Bridge repairs in the White Chuck drainage completed.
• Repair work continues on a newly rerouted portion of the PCT where it crosses Milk Creek (at 3,800 feet).
• Basic maintenance on the PCT between Red Pass and Kennedy Ridge completed for the first time since 2003.
• Agreement reached to use state-provided Milk Creek Trail bridge for spanning the Suiattle at new, narrow site.

2009

• Bridge over Milk Creek on the PCT is moved downstream a half-mile; trail is rerouted to the new crossing.
• Contracts are awarded and work begins in late summer on 2 key PCT repairs:
     o Bridge installation over new site (about 3 miles west/downstream Skyline Bridge site).
     o Extending and rerouting the PCT itself to new bridge site.

2010

Artist's rendering of where new PCT bridge deck will sit over the Suiattle River• Work continues on both Suiattle bridge installation and trail rerouting projects.
• Remaining sections of PCT on west side of Glacier Peak, between Indian Pass and Suiattle Pass are cleared for first time in 7 years. One 3-mile trail section near Vista Creek had been clogged by more than 150 fallen trees.

Here are the components of the finished Suiattle River bridge:

• Decking will be supported by dual, 80-foot steel I-beams; each beam consists of four 20-foot sections bolted together at the bridge site A system of cables will move them into position over the river.
• Decking (6 feet wide) and railing will be rot-resistant, untreated Alaskan cedar. The deck will rise roughly 18 feet above the river's normal level.
• On the north side of the channel sits a dry channel that Paull says will become an overflow channel during future floods. Hikers will cross it on a 40-foot elevated walkway, also supported by I-beams which sit on concrete pillars anchored into bedrock.
• Ramps totaling 60 feet will connect the 2 bridge segments.

Gary Paull indicates the anticipated height of new PCT bridge walkway over the Suiattle RiverThe narrow channel, the bedrock for bridge foundations, the overflow channel and the 18 feet of clearance above the water give Paull hope that a long-term solution for a Suiattle River crossing has been found.

"I was pretty excited when we saw this spot from the air," Paull recalls. "I told the engineer, 'We've got to go back and check this out.' It wound up being bedrock right into the water at this relatively narrow spot.

The old Skyline Bridge, Paull points out, was supported by timber piers planted in the river gravel. A torrent of downed trees in the raging Suiattle battered the 265-foot walkway into oblivion. The Milk Creek Trail bridge was a strong, high-rise, clear-span design (meaning no pillars), but it is believed an inverted tree, with a high-floating rootwad traveling at high speed, snagged the bridge and sent its steel beams 200 yards downstream. Paull hopes/believes the 18-foot height of the new bridge will ensure its longevity.

How has rerouting affected the trail?  Take a look at 4 maps Paull provided, which show:

• An overview of all damaged water crossings.
• An overview map of the repair options considered for areas of heaviest damage.
• The PCT's pre-flood trail alignment.
• The new, post-repair trail alignment.

Rerouting the trail will add about 4.5 miles of distance to the PCT and take hikers about 400 feet lower than the 2,700-foot level of the old Skyline Bridge. "That's the tradeoff," Paull says. "Ideally, I would have much preferred to have left it where it was. I don't like moving trails around unless I absolutely have to.

South foundation for PCT bridge (concrete still inside its form) sits atop solid bedrock"It makes the trail longer," Paull concedes, "but it goes through some absolutely gorgeous stands of huge old-growth along the way. Some of the trees are 6 to 8 feet in diameter and up to 700 years old. So you have a net gain of 4.5 miles of hiking enjoyment." Paull smiles at the hoped-for persuasiveness of his sales pitch.

On the other 7 damaged water crossings, Paull says 5 have bridges and 2 were converted to fords due to flood-widened channels. PCT hikers traveling south to north will find repairs at:

• Ledford Creek (now a ford; 4,200 feet)
• Upper White Chuck River (4000 feet)
• Baekos Creek (3,990 feet)
• Chetwot Creek (3,730 feet)
• Sitkum Creek (now a ford; 3,852 feet)
• Kennedy Creek (4,050 feet--bridge completed in 2007, snapped into a still-useable V-shape in 2008. "It looked like some really big rocks rolled down on top of the snow during winter," Paull says. "We're probably going to give up on that one and just have a ford.")
• Milk Creek (3,800 feet)

Will fording be tough? "Not usually," Paull says. "But if you're up there during a big rainstorm, you might have to wait a while."

Gary Paull stands among several I-beams that, when connected, will span the Suiattle RiverBeyond the challenges nature imposed on the restoration of the PCT, Paull had other battles to tackle during the repair process. Among them:

• Scarce funding for trails.
• Reduced Forest Service staff.
• Wildlife considerations (construction activity is prohibited prior to July 15 to avoid disrupting mating patterns of endangered birds; falling teams not permitted after Oct. 15).
• National Wild and Scenic River designation attached to Suiattle River (any activity that would alter its natural flow, which can unexpectedly change due to natural forces, is prohibited).
• A failed 2009 appeal by wilderness advocates who objected to mechanized construction methods. Helicopters, for instance, carried 2,750-pound I-beam sections to the bridge site. For the trail relocation that leads to the new bridge, chain saws (to clear hundreds of fallen trees), rock drills and blasting (to extract large rootballs and boulders from the new tread) were used. Their use was preceded by:
     o A 49-page environmental assessment.
     o A separate, 20-page analysis that discussed the pros and cons of the use of motorized equipment.
     o A review of extensive public comments on the reports--165 comments; a dozen comments, Paull says, is a more typical number on other projects.

"It's never as easy as you would like," Paull says.

Gary Paull admires some towering old-growth Douglas firs that the rerouted PCT pass through en route to the Suiattle RiverThough the bridge will likely be installed before winter arrives, Paull declines to name a specific grand-opening date. "There's a lot of blasting the trail contractor has to do to get stumps and rocks out of the new trail," he says. "We don't want people going down there while that's going on. I don't think we're going to open it this year."

Estimated combined costs for bridge installation and 4.5 miles of trail construction/rerouting: $1.2 million. Paull has no shortage of additional projects to administer, yet acknowledges he is happy to have seen this one through.

Paull started exploring trails near Glacier Peak as a teen, surreptitiously driving his mom's 1968 Impala over unpaved roads to access them. Does the low-key Paull, 55, feel a special emotional attachment to the PCT and its nearby trails? He pauses. "I might have to have a beer before I can get into that," he says. "Obviously, it's substantial."

Posted on at 5:02 PM

Tagged: Gary Paull, Glacier Peak Wilderness, Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest, PCT, PCT detour, Pacific Crest Trail, Suiattle River and trail repair

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ebeyslew

This is great news!! Is the new section of trail going to be accessible to livestock?

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TedEvans

Sounds like they could use another project manager!

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TedEvans

Sounds like they could use another project manager!

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DavidB

This is the best summary of events and actions that I've seen since 2003! I plan to hike this section of the PCT with Boy Scouts next summer. I assume that the campsite on the east side of Vista Creek is no longer accessable since the bridge is out. Are there any other campsites on the trail reroute to the new Suiattle River bridge before getting back to Miners Creek?

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Pack-It-Out

David i know this response is a bit late. If no camping is available @ Vista Creek, the new reroute ends up back on the Suiattle trail close to Canyon Creek. Lots of established camping there.

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