A terrific year of trail work in the North Cascades

The mules arrived several hours after most of the crew had left the ridgeline. One PCTA staff member, several Forest Service personnel, and two crews from the Washington Conservation Corps had organized an early exit from their camp in the Glacier Peak Wilderness. A small wildfire was burning to the west. It threatened to cut off the only road to the North Fork Sauk Trailhead. The Forest Service decided to close the area. The crew descended 3,000 feet and hiked 10 miles out, their heavy packs filled with uneaten food. The pack string arrived and hauled out the trail crew’s shovels, picks and assorted hand tools. I talked to the crew afterwards. They laughed about the experience.

A Washington Conservation Corps crew working on the PCT near Grasshopper Pass in the Methow Valley Ranger District. Photo by Michelle DiMeglio.

The weather this summer in the Washington Cascades was challenging. A record heatwave caused rapid snowmelt, swollen rivers, and heat stress in June.  Lightning sparked fires and scrambled planned trail maintenance projects in July and August. The window for trail maintenance is never long in the North Cascades. It was shorter this year, but coordination and perseverance helped us get a lot done.

A Washington Conservation Corps crew member watches the sun set in Norse Peak Wilderness. Photo by Kage Jenkins.

Trail projects in the Cascades are typically remote. In most cases, volunteers and agency staff need to cut fallen trees along miles of access trails to enable pack-supported crews to reach and repair damaged sections of the PCT. Things don’t always go according to schedule. I stood next to Lemah Creek in June while the creek ran violently with snowmelt. PCTA seasonal staff had hoped to clear logs off the trail on the other side of the creek that day. My friend Deb who has spent four decades with the USDA Forest Service reminded me that “the wilderness does not pay attention to our schedules.” And yet, PCTA has trail maintenance goals, and in the North Cascades we only have a few months a year to achieve them.

PCTA and our partners at the USDA Forest Service, Washington Trails Association (WTA), and Backcountry Horsemen of Washington (BCHW) agreed a few years back that repairing the bridge over Delate Creek in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness was one of our high priorities. The Delate Creek Bridge enables the PCT to cross the outflow of Spectacle Lake about 16 miles north of Snoqualmie Pass.

The part of the bridge you walk on, known as the decking, had been in place since Gerald Ford’s presidency and the wood was beginning to fail. With the help of a donation from Dwayne Olson, PCTA bought new decking and was able to facilitate repairs. The Forest Service stacked the lumber for several months so that it would dry and become lighter.

2,660 pounds of lumber is hauled into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness by Three Peaks Outfitters to rebuild the Delate Creek Bridge. Photo by Jason Ridlon on the mule photo. Jason Ridlon, President of the Backcountry Horsemen of Washington

PCTA, WTA and USFS crews cut dozens of logs off the Pete Lake Trail and the PCT to open the route to the bridge. The raging June creeks delayed our efforts but our friends at BCHW coordinated with Three Peaks Outfitters, a local guide service with tremendous packing expertise, to haul 2,660 pounds of lumber eight miles from the nearest trailhead to reach the bridge. PCTA’s North 350 Blades volunteer chapter then organized a project in September to repair the bridge.

Volunteers camped under thick tarps. Soaked thru-hikers trundled across the bridge and offered words of gratitude as volunteers pried up the old lumber and pounded new six foot long boards into place. One volunteer, Robert, graciously joined the crew at the end of the project and helped carry the crow bars and hammers out of the wilderness.

Volunteers from PCTA’s North 350 Blades Chapter replace the decking on the Delate Creek bridge in Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Photo by Michael DeCramer.

The rebuilt Delate Creek bridge. Photo by Christian Naegele.

Maintaining the PCT takes teamwork and flexibility. I’m lucky that I get to work with such an abundance of passionate people. This summer, PCTA’s partnerships with conservation corps were an excellent complement to our volunteer crews.

Conservation corps programs provide training and onramps into natural resource careers for their members. In the summer of 2021, PCTA utilized federal grant funding from the Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office and private support from generous donors to hire crews from the Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) and the Northwest Youth Corps (NYC) to work on the PCT in the North Cascades.

WCC crews spent 48 days in the backcountry partnering with PCTA. One crew was packed into Norse Peak Wilderness by a volunteer llama packer. That crew cleared loose material and erosion from an area burned by the 2017 Norse Peak fire.

Another WCC crew backpacked into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and cut brush off a remote piece of the PCT for a full week. Other crews camped in Glacier Peak Wilderness at 6,000 feet and dug trail tread and moved rocks. A NYC crew worked on the PCT in the Henry M. Jackson and Glacier Peak Wilderness for five continuous weeks addressing brush and drainage issues.

Llamas pack trail maintenance tools into Norse Peak Wilderness. Photo by Kage Jenkins.

All the conservation corps crews were supported by PCTA Technical Advisors. These seasonal staff members provided top-notch training and project management. Jake Rawdin oversaw the NYC crew for a month. When he finished the project, he reflected on their efforts saying:

There were just so many ways in which each one of the teens on this project grew, were challenged, and overcame. Sometimes it was related to the work itself: one member insisted they couldn’t see fine details of slope, and, by the end of their project was inspecting every new drain and correcting slope issues. Another was sure they couldn’t move “that rock,” and less than an hour later it was down the trail and in its hole. Sometimes it was an emotional challenge: being together with the same group and working that hard together for that long, everyone had to learn to carve out the space they needed while also making room for others, a lesson that’s so valuable in becoming a kind and healthy adult.

Northwest Youth Corps crew members cutting a log with PCTA Technical Advisor Jake Rawdin. Photo by Northwest Youth Corps.

The Northwest Youth Corps crew after five weeks of PCT trail maintenance in the North Cascades. Photo by Northwest Youth Corps.

Jake went on to say, “I most want you to know how proud I am of this group. Of how much good they did for the trail, and of how much good the trail did for them. That, I think, is why we do this work.” I share Jake’s satisfaction. PCTA crews put so much effort into trail maintenance in 2021. In Washington, we had a great year. I’m proud of what we accomplished together. Thank you to the volunteers, corps crews, staff, partners, donors and supporters who made it possible!