Glacier Peak Wilderness finally ready for project planning

Major storms in 2003 and 2006 washed out many spots along remote Suiattle River Road, the only access to the Pacific Crest Trail in central Glacier Peak Wilderness. As a result, PCTA volunteer maintenance crews could not easily access the trail for more than a decade in this area.

The trail was also heavily damaged by the storms. For example, the 2003 storm swept away the PCT bridge across the river, making for a harrowing crossing for hikers and horseback riders alike. It meant that equestrians could no longer travel through Glacier Peak Wilderness. Hikers had to crawl under or climb over old growth logs. The result was a PCT reroute through the wilderness that lasted for years.

Because resources for recreation programs in most agencies have rapidly diminished during the last two decades, the backlog of work needed on the PCT in this area has grown. Simple drainage and brushing work accumulated during the 11-year road closure.

A road wash-out.

A road wash-out.

But this summer, U.S. Forest Service crews charged with keeping open the Suiattle Trail #784 and the PCT spent two days on horseback getting to the PCT. They worked the trail both north and south. Added to their list of projects was the reconstruction of the Suiattle River Bridge.

To provide a bit of perspective to the problem the Forest Service crews and PCTA volunteers now face, here is a bit about the dynamic nature of this natural wonder: Glacier Peak is the second most active volcano in Washington, second only to the infamous Mount St. Helens. It’s still growing, and eleven active glaciers dress her ruggedly hewn slopes. There are three rivers flowing to the west, Skagit, Suiattle, and Sauk, that all run milky gray-green all summer because the melting glaciers drop eons-old silt as they recede slowly up the slopes. In winter these rivers are torrents and only crossable where a bridge is intact. This is an incredibly remote and rugged landscape. Future volunteer trail crews will have to hike 15 to 20 miles (self-supported) with just a drop of tools by packers.  Many of these crews will be limited to just six members because of the limited number of flat spaces to pitch tents.

GP-kennedy-creek-bridge

In October 2014, the Forest Service cut the ribbon to reopen the Suiattle River Road. In partnership with the Back Country Horsemen of Washington (Trail-Dusters as well as Skagit and Pierce County Chapters) and the Washington Trails Association, the Pacific Crest Trail Association began planning for a major push into the reopened wilderness. The North 350 Blades (PCTA’s Seattle-based volunteer chapter) led the charge with the first full week-long crew. Because the North 350 Blades was founded in 2010, they had never worked in this area and just a few WTA crewmembers could remember having been on a crew this deep into Glacier Peak Wilderness. Led by Barry Teschlog, Blades chapter president, this crew of 12 marched nearly seven miles up the recently cleared Suiattle Trail to camp near the PCT. Hats off to the WTA crews that spent weekends getting the Suiattle Trail cleared.

During the Blades’ week in the wilderness, the sawyers cleared 70 trees ranging from 12 to 42 inches in diameter and left just one partially fallen tree for the Darrington Ranger District to blast because it was unsafe for the volunteers. The crew also cleared brush from a mile and a half of trail and reconstructed about 300 feet of tread. By the end of the week, they had maintained almost six miles of the PCT, working south toward Vista Ridge. From the same base camp the following week, a WTA crew worked to the north, clearing the way for Forest Service crews to deal with the more challenging obstacles.

One of the many logs across the trail.

One of the many logs across the trail.

So what’s next? The North 350 Blades and the Washington Trails Association are already planning for more crews during the 2016 season. More than 100 logs wait for the 2016 crews on the PCT between Red Pass and the Suiattle River. Logs are often the obvious and easy part of trail maintenance. Ten years of deferred brushing can be a daunting task when done only with hand tools. Getting rid of mounds of cuttings is often more work than the cutting itself. No one wants to see a National Scenic Trail lined with brown dead brush; that is too much like passing through a clear-cut, not a pleasant wilderness experience. And let’s not forget the drainage work. The trail is not the place for water, but after years of neglect, it is inevitable that the tread becomes the stream. The North 350 Blades have their hands full, but with willing partners, including the Back Country Horsemen of Washington and Washington Trails Association, there is more than just hope.

As we look into the 2016 season, we see volunteers lining up to clear the Pacific Crest Trail all the way south to Red Pass. Because of a major landslide, the Forest Service will need to do blasting to reconstruct that bit of the PCT to make it safe for horses and mules. From there, south to Steven’s Pass, it is just good old tread work: braided trail in the meadows, slumping tread on the side-hill, and brushing, brushing, brushing. Did I forget to mention logs?

A broken bridge.

A broken bridge.

As the North Cascades’ PCTA Stewards Program grows, the PCT will be divided into two- to five-mile sections and adopted by volunteers who commit to scouting and brushing annually. We hope many of these future stewards will attend the PCTA Trail Skills College to gain skills needed to lead crews on the PCT.

PCTA is planning for a couple all volunteer, week-long crews next year in remote northern parts of the wilderness that will require a full day of hiking to get to basecamp. This work will depend on how much the Forest Service crews get done this season. The work here has been severely hampered by the Blankenship Fire that closed much of the Glacier Peak Wilderness to long-distance hikers from July 15 to Sept. 4. The PCTA is committed to take up where they end their work this fall and continue clearing, brushing and restoring the trail toward Stehekin. For folks interested in joining small crews that are mostly self-supported or others who would like to join a week-long, pack-supported crew, contact PCTA North Cascades Regional Representative, Bill Hawley at [email protected]

Vista-Ridge-Crew-2015

The Vista Ridge crew. Sign up. We’re looking for help.

Author: Bill Hawley

Bill Hawley is our North Cascades Regional Representative. He's in charge of the PCT from Rock Creek in southern Washington to the Canadian border. His regional office is located in North Bend, Wash. Bill was out hiking the PCT “back before it was the PCT,” and has been a life-long devotee. He was an active volunteer before joining staff.

Photo by: Nathaniel Middleton