Archive for March, 2021


March 31, 2021

We had a short hike to the third failed bridge on the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette River, a Wild and Scenic River that runs from Waldo Lake to Westfir, Oregon, where it empties into the Middle Fork of the Willamette. It had rained on the way to the trailhead, but the rain had stopped, and the five of us were ready to deal with what we thought would be the easiest of the three failed bridges we were tasked to totally decommission.  I had looked forward to the day, remembering a short hike, a smaller bridge, spending a short time there, and then we would have removed all the failed bridges.

The hike was not as easy or as short as I remembered, uphill from the start, trail muddy and slick, my pack, including an electric reciprocating DeWalt saw and a battery, a Pulaski in my right hand, meant I was carrying 30-40 pounds going uphill.  I had hiked to the top of Spencer Butte in Eugene the day before, and my legs reminded me that every step.

We arrived at the bridge, which looked the way I had remembered it two months earlier. It was angled down to the stream in a V, a good 20 degree angle going down and 30 degrees going up the other side. A big log lay on the far side. 

The bridge. Notice what happens to the green on the right side, across the stream.

Having decided to work on the far side, I crossed the bridge, holding the wooden rail that we would soon cut off, being careful not to slip. The rails were then removed with a chain saw, falling into the creek. The log on the far side was removed and slid into the creek. There were about 70 planks remaining that needed to be removed.  These were chemically treated and we wanted to keep them out of the river. Each was nailed into large 24-30 inch diameter stringer logs below using 8 inch helical nails, meant for staying.  That meant also that they would resist being removed. 

By us.  Five to six nails per plank.  Do the math.

The crew leader told us to pace ourselves, and I took that to heart.  The rain had started again, although I only noticed it by seeing drops splashing into puddles. Wearing a hard hat has advantages.  The planks were attacked by the other four with pry bars and crow bars to try to loosen the nails.  The first few planks were removed easily with the nails in them. My job was to cut the nails out with a grinder, rather than trying to knock them out with a small sledge hammer.  The grinder worked well, the nails smoked, then bent, so I could then remove the molten end and stack it on a nearby log, where we would later collect and remove them.

Crew member grinding off the visible nail on a stringer, stream below.

For the first few planks, I just had to move them a few yards on level ground to where I was stacking them, using the long nails as handles.  When I had the plank in the stack, I cut off the nails, then went to the next plank, which began to become further downhill from me, as the crew continued working.  The ground was getting progressively muddier.

About forty planks remaining.

While some of the guys could pick up a plank and actually throw it, it was all I could do to pick one up; throwing was impossible.  I would raise the end, try to pull it a couple of steps uphill, rest it on the muddy ground, then rinse and repeat.  There was a lot of rinsing from above.  

It was also a bad day for tools.  he grinder suddenly stopped grinding a nail, and after hearing noise but not seeing any motion, I discovered that the disk had had a catastrophic failure, disappearing into the woods somewhere at 120,000 rpm, leaving behind a small arc of a piece near the center.  There was no telling where it went. I was glad to have a plastic shield on my hardhat, and not just for Covid protection.

We had about half the bridge apart by noon, at which time it had been raining significantly for 2 hours, so we ate standing, after we had crawled up the bridge with now every other plank removed. 

In the afternoon, we worked up from the bottom of the V, where the planks were harder to remove. We started using the grinder on those nails that the disk could reach, the reciprocating saw on the other nails. We left behind nails in the log stringers, which needed to be removed with the grinder.  The thin cawsall blades lost their bright yellow paint within seconds of being used. After about the fourth or fifth nail, they broke.  Two other disks broke on the grinder, too, although that was not with my use.

I was now taking each plank, sliding it to the bottom of the V, then lifting and tipping it towards the far end. I slid it up a wet, slippery stringer, keeping myself between the plank and the creek, until I could push it off on to semi-solid swampy ground.  I then crawled over the stringer, pulled the plank up to the pile, put it in place, catching my breath, and then going down to help on the next one.

We are all volunteers.

At one point, where I had a decent look at the bottom of a plank, so I could use a crow bar on a nail, my foot slipped off a small log, and I fell into the stream.  I moved back, realizing that (1) my gaiters were doing a good job keeping water out, and (2) they could only do that for a few seconds, before I got my feet wet.  I flopped a bit, like a blue fish out of water, as I tried to get out myself, and finally recovered my footing.  We cut the nail out with our remaining saw blade before it broke.  That was the end of that remaining blade, and even if it hadn’t broken, the batteries were all dead.

I was beat. I wasn’t doing the work the others were, but the lifting of each of the thirty-five planks under my jurisdiction was plenty.  I counted the number of planks left—15, then eventually 14, and finally down to 3.  At this point, we were all told to come across the stringers, since they were going to be the next thing cut, and crossing the stream at stream level appeared dicey, not something any of us wanted to do. 

I crossed to the north side of the stream where we had arrived. The crew leader used the chain saw to cut out the last two planks that we were unable to salvage.  He then cut the large stringers, which dropped into the stream.  We were done. The sun came out, and we dragged our weary selves and tools back to the vehicles.  This was by far the toughest bridge. We were all experienced with the work, but everything about this bridge was more difficult.  

Next year, the hope is that three replacement bridges will be built there.  I’m still trying to decide whether I want to be in on that job. 

Maybe in low water.

The bridge has been decommissioned and the stringers will eventually be carried away. My stack was on the far side, right of center, and the green patch is just a memory.

Notice the nails that need to be trimmed. All the tools are carried in and out. The North Fork is about 200 yards downstream


March 15, 2021

I wished I hadn’t hiked Spencer Butte the day before, I said to myself arriving at a nasty climb on the North Fork trail, 2 miles into our work day, where we had already done along the way considerable sawing and moving mud to clean up a trail damaged by numerous uprooted trees with associated root balls, AKA “rootwads.” I was I crew leader to boot, mostly because I was willing to organize the group when the usual leader was taking a well-deserved week off.  Three others signed up to go out with me, each of whom had decades of experience more than I dealing with trails. 

I trudged up the climb I had done a couple of months before, one that seemed to go on and on, when I saw an orange hardhat ahead, where Chris was trying to dig out a rock. Half the trail tread was gone, sloughed into a pile of rocks and mud below.  Tom joined me, and we started filling the hole with rocks.  The good news was that there were a lot of them available. The bad news was…well, it was Rock Work, and if I start handling rocks, my arms are going to be toast before long.  

Tom and Chris working. I’m resting, taking pictures. Somebody needs to document the work.
The completed job…at least until the next season maybe.

Tom was stronger. He went and got rocks, putting them in. I sat among the rocks, picking them up and shot putting them into the hole. Chris gave up on the trail rock, as it was a lot bigger than thought and deep into the ground.  After we had enough rocks, we made the pile even with the usable tread, then covered it with dirt, tamping it down, making it look like undisturbed trail.  Then we continued uphill further, until we reached a ridge about 300 feet above the river.  It was another half mile to the next rootwad, and Chris and Tom would keep on going.  I stayed to fix it, which I did with Steve, doing additional trail repair nearby where the trail was starting to erode.  At least there was no rock work with this one.  I went yet another half mile to a bridge across Leapfrog Creek, a normal intact bridge, where I had lunch and checked on the radio with Tom, who was waiting for Chris, who as usual had gone even further ahead.  

When it became time to hike out, I was beat with 3 miles to the cars.  The hill we climbed, we could descend but all I seemed to notice were the uphill sections on the way back. After a mile, I was able to leave my tools under a log that we would work on the following week. That at least freed my arms to complain only about gravity, rather than holding something against gravity. Climbing the nasty hill at the end, muddy steps, branches and logs to negotiate, required two rest breaks for all of 75 yards gain.  

Pass the jelly. My arms were toast that night.  Rock work.

I know a couple of guys whose first day with the Crew was carrying rocks. They never returned.  I was luckier.  I had my first experience my twelfth time out,  I looked it up in my trip diary. I remember having to fill buckets with small ones and carry them to where rocks were being placed in the middle of a muddy trail at Terwilliger Hot Springs.  The further afield I had to go, the more difficult the carrying became.  It was work to dig the rocks out, put them in the bucket, then carry the bucket, eventually 100 yards, then empty it one rock at at time. That was one trip. Eventually, I decreased the load in the bucket, preferring to walk more than to carry more.

That winter, I did more rock work at Fall Creek, building a rock wall along a trail. I again had a bucket and had to find rocks. When one does trail work, there is a quick appreciation for places where there are a lot of convenient rocks or a lot of good soil. The finished rock wall looked nice, but within a year, a storm destroyed most of the trail, including the part we worked on, and a Sisyphus crew is now working on it. No good deed goes unpunished.

Rock work in the pouring rain, Fall Creek, February 2019

Two years ago, we did rock work on Brice Creek in the Umpqua National Forest, a popular ten mile trail along the Creek of the same name, where the crew leader one day asked us to dig rocks out of the trail and out of walls along the trail. I was more experienced by then and didn’t say anything, but I had noticed walking to the start of the job that there were many soft holes in the trail where rocks had been removed. I think the idea was to have the trail wheelchair accessible, but the holes just made it more difficult to walk on, let alone push a wheelchair.  I don’t mind rocks on a trail. I use them to push off when hiking. If wet, I am careful walking on them.  That day, we used pry bars and a 9 pound hammer that we swung at a rocks sticking out of a wall as well as out of the ground. At that point, Lacy J. Dalton’s song “The Boys of 16th Avenue” came to mind, and I did wonder why we were doing this. I wasn’t alone, either. That was about as tired as I’ve ever been after a day.

Areas needing work on Brice Creek Trail. The clear spots had already been done.

We use rocks for stabilization, we use them for steps,  and we pull some out so we can get at decent soil underneath to help rebuild a trail. More than once, after carrying a large one, I’ve dropped it on the trail, only to have it land wrong and roll off, crashing down below. That’s a bummer.  Other times, like yesterday I was carrying one, dropped it by mistake, and it ended up being a perfect step where it landed.  Rock karma.

Fall Creek Trail, November 2019

Occasionally, I see a few on the dirt road coming or going. Then I have to decide first whether I can get the car over it without hearing a horrid “Clang,” or whether I should get out of the car and move it, so that I and nobody else has to think about it.  That’s where I try to use my feet.

Because I think if I so much as touch a rock, I am going to be really tired at the end of the day.

Last day working before the lockdown, Fall Creek, 12 March 2020


March 5, 2021

Last time out with the Crew, we met as usual at the Middle Fork Ranger Station near Oakridge.  On the drive out there, it rained hard, a cold rain, clouds backed up along the Cascades, meaning heavy snow up there, and when I reached the meeting point, light snow was falling.  

We caravanned 7 miles up to the trailhead, off Route 1919, where it was both snowing and raining harder.  We were right at water’s melting point as was the case the prior weekend, when I hiked the Middle Fork Trail. It’s interesting at the junction—the snow is prettier, and most of us in the woods would rather have it continue to snow than rain, for it takes more of it to make us wet.

Snowy morning at the trailhead; February 2021.

The Crew goes out rain or shine. We had a run of favorable weather until this past week, until  our job was to take apart another failed bridge.  I picked up a Pulaski and started down the steep muddy user trail we had made, knowing that precipitation would soon change to rain as I descended. It did, and the faint trail changed to mud as I discovered when I slid down the last 10 feet to the main trail below. We immediately crossed one passable but damaged bridge, hiked past a creek where we had removed the first failed bridge and continued a half-mile to the next bridge.

I guess it was raining while we worked. It was hard to notice, with the chain saw working, my pulling 100 pound planks up the hill and stacking them, grinding off the spikes with a grinder, sparks flying a foot or two in front of me.  But when I looked, my rain jacket and pants were soaked. Sometimes out there, I look down, and water pours off the hardhat, my first realization it is raining.  We stayed warm while we worked, took the bridge down by noon and in the rain hiked back out to the vehicles, up the tough, muddy, steep hill.  We packed out all the tools, and after everybody left, I had lunch up there, rain pouring on the car roof. No more snow.  I ate quickly, because I was rapidly cooling off, which on cold days is actually the most difficult part, because one is cooling off rapidly and becoming uncomfortable, even while one is resting. I then started the car, set the heat on high, and when I reached the main road, the Crew Leader was waiting for me, making sure I was OK. I apologized for not telling him I was eating.  Nice to know someone would look for me if anything happened. By that time, the heater was going full blast. I may not have noted the wetness while working, but I sure did notice it then.

I thought of some of the many times I have dealt with rain in the woods. When I was young at the Camp, I dreaded it, but in summer I never remember being too cold from rain, just wet, and I dried soon enough. The joys of youth.  Or the poor memory of old age.

It wasn’t until I spent 6 months in the Boundary Waters that I learned to deal with rain in the woods, the single best lesson I learned up there. I watched what others wore and did, and I copied them. I had good rain gear. No, it didn’t color match (nobody’s did), but it kept me dry.  I went out in early July to west Basswood, where we patrolled in the motorized zone with a small boat powered by an 8 hp Yamaha. Heading east on Fall Lake in 50 degree temperatures, pouring rain, sitting in the bow, my outer layers were soaked but I was fine. That whole 4-day trip was with on and off showers, and it was an effort to keep a pair of dry socks, but it worked. Dry socks for night are a must. Eventually I had to put on wet, cold socks in the morning. At least they were wool—it only felt awful for a few minutes– until they warmed up. 

I had about 40 days of rainy travel that summer, and I never remembered being miserable in rain as I had once been. I realized I could travel no matter what was falling, the only exceptions being wind, which made it impossible, and thunderstorms, outright dangerous.  There was favorable and unfavorable weather for doing things, not good and bad days. From then on, I was in good shape, with many memorable days of travel where I stayed warm, if not completely dry. I would never look at rainy weather the same way again. 

A few years later, my wife and I headed out on Lake One, knowing a big line of storms was heading our way, but our permit was for entering that day, and we needed to go.  We got a few miles in when it started to rain, and when I looked at the situation, I decided it was easier to set up camp early and wait out the rain while we still had dry gear.  The campsite wasn’t the most scenic, but I have fond memories of being dry in the tent while it rained hard outside. 

Tent bound with my journal, Lake Insula, 2007.

Just because one can travel in rain doesn’t mean one has to seek it out, either. 

The next year, same area, when we were reviewing campsites for an article in the Boundary Waters Journal, we had unfavorable weather on Lake Insula. We got hailed and sleeted on, and it looked like we wouldn’t be able to review all 47 campsites on the lake. The last full day was mostly sunny, however, so we paddled a slug of miles, checked out twenty different sites, discovering some shortcuts on the lake across peninsulas.  We got the information we needed.  The south end of Insula burned in 2011 due to the Pagami Creek Fire, so much of the information is now longer relevant.  Still, we have fond memories of the campsite trip and later stayed on a super 5-star site on the lake, hidden in a lovely bay.  Saw a moose there one night.

Lake Insula, September 2007.
Optimal late season gear. Looks like it even matched,
but that would be coincidental.

I’ve done plenty of memorable rainy hikes here in Oregon.  I led one up Heckletooth Mountain near Oakridge October 2017 the day an atmospheric river gave us a significant dumping.  It was wet, but we were going uphill and stayed warm, and the yellow leaves of the big leaf maples were so bright they appeared like sunshine.  None of us on the hike had any idea of what the colors up there would be like. I’ve been up Spencer Butte in snow and in freezing rain.  It got a bit dicey on top, but my wetness was more from sweating than rain. The snow on top was beautiful, even nicer when few were crazy enough to go up there.

Spencer Butte, 2019.

One of the ways I fall asleep at night is thinking of paddling out or back from Basswood Lake, just beating a storm to the campsite, where in the rain, or snow, or just before it rained, I pitch the tent, get everything under cover, put up the cook tent, where I have dinner with the weather roaring above me.  Then I wait for a lull and wash everything.  I may or may not fall asleep quickly thinking about it or out there, but in either case, I am in a good place. 

Mountain Kittentails, February 2021