Building a Bridge on the PCT: A Girls Scout Gold Award Project

By Maggie Ballew

Anemone, lupine, and huckleberry line the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington’s Central Cascades. But the winter’s heavy snows drop evergreens across the path and the rush of spring water erodes the bones of the trail.

Maggie measures the old bridge.

Near White Pass, not far from the ski area where several generations of my family learned to ski, a rotten puncheon bridge needed replacing. Water damage made the bridge dangerous. Hikers and equestrians were forced to bypass it on both sides, in turn damaging the ground and surrounding vegetation and putting sediment into the stream. Knowing I was in search of a special project in order to earn a Girls Scout Gold Award, Bill Hawley, then the PCTA’s regional representative for the area, proposed the bridge’s replacement.

Initially, we had hoped to salvage a number of the old logs and to reuse the spikes. Plans changed after several strenuous hours without any success. Although the wood was soft and rotten, the steel was as strong as ever! My crew for the first few days was comprised of just me, a high school junior, and my mom. At first, we worked quietly and avoided each other’s eyes so neither would blurt the obvious: “What the heck were we thinking? We can’t do this on our own!” We had both taken trail maintenance, saw certification and first aid courses. But bridge demolition using only basic hand tools wasn’t on any syllabus.

Pulling out the old logs.

Failure began creeping up the trail. I run cross-country for my high school team, and my coach always said that when you feel like quitting a race, try to go faster instead and see what happens. My mom and I got a lot bolder and more aggressive and the bridge parts started giving way. We discovered for ourselves a strength born of desperation and mechanical advantage.

The second day delivered another challenge. Bill returned to cut down a couple of standing-dead cedars up the hill and away from the project site, which we used to support the decking. My mom and I cut the logs into 12-foot lengths for the stringers. But who was responsible for delivering the heavy logs to the project site? Bill was long gone, searching for more downed timber. We discovered much about using the hill’s slope and pivoting over the many downed-log obstacles. Using strapping, we grunted, heaved, and dragged those suckers to the site. My mother compared the effort to natural childbirth.  

Shortly after we dismantled the old bridge and debarked the new stringers, wildfires completely stalled the project for weeks. I began to wonder if a rotten bridge would have been better than the now open gully we were forced to leave behind. As August turned into September and school and cross-country activities demanded most of my time, I didn’t know how I would be able to return to White Pass and complete the project.

When the smoke finally cleared, and we had the sudden go-ahead to use chainsaws to make the decking, Bill quickly assembled a wonderful crew of sawyers. After a cross-country meet, I raced up the trail to below the bridge, where packers with the Back Country Horsemen of Washington were loading mules to haul the heavy planks into the wilderness to the project site. It was incredible to see so many volunteers, so far from their homes, chain-sawing away! Among them were my former instructors Barry Teschlog and Don Sanderson and some other chain-sawyers in training. Being only cross-cut certified, I couldn’t do much, but that didn’t stop Don and Barry from providing on-the-spot instruction and motivating me to seriously consider becoming chain-saw certified. Tom Conner, a BCHW member, generously taught me how to boldly and correctly drive the spikes that tied the whole bridge together. I am so grateful to all of them!

Naturally, I learned a lot about building a puncheon bridge and also about removing bark, identifying cedar, and the temperamental tendencies of mules. But the biggest lesson of all was to develop relationships along the way. A lot of people care about trail work, and there is plenty of trail work for them to do along the PCT. But those who also care about the people involved are the ones who will respond to an urgent call for help.

Girl Scout Gold Award in Washington on the Pacific Crest Trail

Maggie on the bridge she helped build.

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