THIRD BRIDGE


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

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