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Originally published Wednesday, October 27, 2010 at 7:00 PM

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Pacific Crest Trail soon back on track — 7 years later

Since 2003, flood damage has rerouted the famed Pacific Crest Trail over poor trails and along a road, but a final bridge replacement will soon put hikers back on course.

Special to The Seattle Times

Barring any havoc-wreaking surprises from La Niña this winter, a 45-mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the Glacier Peak Wilderness that has been closed by storm damage since 2003 will be passable again by next summer.

"It will make a lot of people happy," says Gary Paull, wilderness and trails coordinator for the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, which includes the affected trail section. The popular PCT, a National Scenic Trail, traverses the West Coast from Mexico to Canada.

Besides countless Northwesterners who use portions of the PCT, hikers from around the world regularly tackle the entire trail in one season — an annual average of 300 "thru-hikers" who for the past seven years have been forced to detour on a network of more difficult, occasionally substandard, trails, plus three miles of road walking.

Paull, a 35-year U.S. Forest Service veteran, and two other Darrington-based staffers have overseen the huge restoration project — involving eight destroyed foot bridges and 4.5 miles of new, rerouted trail — from start to near-finish. Paull will be among the happiest when the $1.2 million endeavor is complete, likely in summer 2011.

"A lot of other projects need attention, too," says Paull, who monitors the health of trails throughout the 1.7 million-acre Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie forest.

Final bridge

The final task, the most formidable of the entire project, is in its final stage: spanning the fast-moving Suiattle River with a new bridge with above-average odds of surviving the next storm-fueled cataclysm.

By mid-October contractors had assembled two huge girders out of multiple I-beam sections, each section weighing more than a ton. A complex cable system was used to hoist them across a rare spot on the flood-scoured Suiattle — a narrow channel (roughly 70 feet wide) with solid bedrock (impervious to floods) on both sides of the river.

The girders will ultimately be anchored on top of tall concrete pillars built on top of the bedrock. That will lift the bridge's decking (six feet wide, made from Alaskan cedar) 18 feet above the river's normal level — high enough, Paull hopes, to keep it safe from future floods and debris surges.

"We were fortunate we found a good, narrow spot for the new bridge," says Paull, who spotted the site during a helicopter flyover a few years ago.

"All the other bridge options were upstream from here, and we would have needed giant bridges to get across what is now a much wider river channel, and none of them had this bedrock footing. Plus this is one of the prettiest bridge sites I've ever seen."

The flood of '03

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What made all this effort necessary?

Flashback to Oct. 17, 2003: A monumental storm dumped 10 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, triggering rampaging floodwaters that destroyed eight PCT footbridges, including the 265-foot Skyline Bridge that crossed the Suiattle on the west side of 10,541-foot Glacier Peak.

The detour created subsequent to the washout is five miles longer, involves some steep climbing over occasionally indistinct tread (notably over Little Giant Pass) and requires three miles of road walking. On the plus side, thru-hikers got to travel over gorgeous Buck Creek Pass.Die-hards avoided the detour and attempted bridgeless crossings of the Suiattle, and over the past two years accumulated logs have allowed some thru-hikers to make a relatively safe crossing.

The new bridge simplifies the effort, but it lies two miles west of the old Skyline Bridge site. New trail leading to the bridge extends the hike by 4.5 miles.

Hikers will also have to drop to a lower elevation, about 2,300 feet (compared to 2,700 at the Skyline Bridge) to cross the Suiattle before starting a big climb.

One bonus: That new, extended PCT now intersects with the western terminus of the Miner's Ridge Trail, which leads to magnificent Image Lake. Thru-hikers will now have the option of taking that sky-high route to Suiattle Pass to continue north on the official PCT.Paull points out that the new route weaves also through a stout grove of old-growth trees near Noname Creek about a half-mile northeast of the bridge. "I think we've gained four miles of scenic value," Paull says. "I would venture to guess that it goes through some of the most spectacular old growth on the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail.

"Ideally, I would have much preferred to have left [the bridge] where it was," Paull says. "I don't like moving trails around until I absolutely have to."

Originally, that was the goal — just replace the obliterated Skyline Bridge about a half-mile west of the original site. Work was already under way when the powerful Election Day storm of 2006 hit.

More famous for impacting Mount Rainier, the 2006 storm did substantial damage in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, too, scouring away so much material at the new bridge site that work was abandoned.

The 2003 storm also wiped out a major bridge over the Suiattle River on the popular Milk Ridge Trail. The state supplied a replacement bridge in early 2006, but the big storm later that year washed away so much of the river bank that the bridge was now too short.

Serendipitously, when the new PCT bridge site was located, it was determined the state's bridge could work there. That's the one being put in place now.

Seasonal restrictions

Why so late in the year? Wildlife and bird mating patterns restrict such activity until late summer. Even when the girders and decking are in place, wooden ramps leading to the bridge plus the final trail portions will not likely be finished until early summer.

While Paull acknowledges seven-plus years is a long time for the trail to be restored, he points out that it is a tough task for a shrinking agency such as his to secure funding for trails in a struggling economy.

Of the eight bridges wiped out along the PCT in 2003, just six were replaced (and one is already broken); two are now fords. The Milk Creek Trail, with no funds for a replacement bridge over the Suiattle, is no longer maintained and is vulnerable to vanishing in the years ahead. The Suiattle River Road, also under repair in 2010, will travel just 19 miles east of Highway 530, no longer 23.

"Disappearing roads and trails are a real issue people need to recognize in a time when funding is so hard to secure," says Paull, who spent much of his youth exploring this area. "I'm just happy we're so close to completing this project."

Freelance writer Terry Wood is also editor of the Expert Advice library on REI.com and a contributor to The REI Blog.

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