PCTA volunteers help replace a bridge in the Columbia River Gorge

When a huge tree falls and destroys a bridge crossing a high rocky gorge in the backcountry, the challenge to replace it would likely seem overwhelming to most, even an experienced trail builder. But the seasoned trail maintainers with the PCTA’s Mount Hood Chapter look at such problems, figure out what’s needed, and plot a way forward.

Such was the case recently on the Eagle Creek Trail on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

Over several days last week, 18 volunteers with the PCTA’s Mount Hood Chapter spent a collective 320 hours clearing logs and ice from two miles of the precarious Eagle Creek Trail. The scenic trail, which includes Tunnel Falls, is very popular with local day hikers and is the preferred alternate route for Pacific Crest Trail hikers traveling from Mount Hood to the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon. Mount Hood Chapter volunteers regularly maintain this trail and others in the gorge. That’s how dedicated they are to ensuring the trail experience is there for others.

Let’s back track a little. In October 2015, Mount Hood Chapter volunteers led a crew of New Seasons Market employees up the Eagle Creek Trail to install new planks on the Tish Creek Bridge. Sadly, two months later, a storm toppled a large tree that smashed the bridge, making it unsafe to cross.

The damaged Tish Creek Bridge before replacement. (Photos by Terry Hill)

The trail was closed to hikers at this crossing last summer. Officials with the U.S. Forest Service, who manage the scenic area, moved to get a new bridge made this winter in time to meet a March 1 deadline, when the area would be closed to helicopters because of endangered species concerns.

It looked like the trail might have stayed closed another season. The new bridge was ready for lift off, but the contractor hired to install the bridge could not get to the work site. The trail was thick with snow, ice and downed trees.

The PCTA’s Mount Hood Chapter offered to help. In mid- February, Robert “Pace” Caldwell and a couple of Forest Service folks scouted the area and did some light trail work. Even after they realized that the job of clearing the trail was going to be a big one, they moved ahead, said Roberta Cobb, chair of the PCTA’s Mount Hood Chapter.

It took volunteers digging and chopping a path through snow and ice for four days to make for safe passage to the bridge site. Limbs and debris covering the snow had to be cleared and they cut 18 logs off the trail as well.

“Because of steep and icy conditions, all of our trail crew had to wear traction devices on our boots to work safely,” Robert said. “The first day was continuous rain, the next three days were cold but dry. After our efforts, the contractor was able to get to the bridge site, have the old bridge flown out and the new bridge brought in, on the last day before the closure.”

That was Tuesday.

“I think it’s still sinking in how exciting this is,” Rachel Pawlitz, spokeswoman for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, told The Oregonian. “It was a bit of a nail-biter there.”

William Butler, the bridge engineer for the Forest Service, offered his thanks to the volunteers who made the trail passable. “After hiking the trail yesterday it was very clear we would not have been able to pull this off without their hard work,” he said.

And Dana Hendricks, PCTA’s regional representative, sent a message to the team for all its “absolutely outstanding” effort. “What an incredible and inspiring feat you all pulled off together,” she said. “PCTA is so very, very, very proud of you!”

Roberta, who joined the project for two days, said it was the hardest one she’s been on in years.

“It was endless,” she said. “It was solid snow for two miles. But even when we got through, the volunteers were in there trying to make the trail better.”

Included in the group was a handful of volunteers who’d never been on a PCTA trail project. Usually you hope to ease them in and make sure they have fun. Roberta checked in with them at the end of the project.

“They loved it,” she said. “They told me they had a blast!”

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There’s always work to be done on the PCT. Check our volunteer page for a project near you. We need your muscle and would love to have you involved.

Author: Mark Larabee

Mark Larabee is PCTA's Associate Director of Communications and Marketing. He is co-author of "The Pacific Crest Trail: Exploring America's Wilderness Trail" published in 2016. Formerly a reporter for The Oregonian newspaper in Portland, Ore., Larabee is a nationally recognized journalist, part of a team of reporters and editors who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news. He hiked the PCT across Oregon for a 2005 series for the paper and has been with PCTA since 2010. He lives in Portland.

Photo by: Nathaniel Middleton