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The WTA crew in Bird Creek Meadows was hard at work restoring trail damaged by the 2015 Cougar Creek Fire. Photo by Meagan Mackenzie.

Building Bridges

All over the state, WTA is fostering stronger connections between people and places | by Anna Roth

What WTA volunteers do is incredible. As they build bridges to reopen routes into wilderness, repair wreckage from winter weather and break ground on brand-new trail networks, volunteers are also working side by side, connecting with each other and forming lasting friendships.

Volunteers exchange numbers or find each other online to coordinate future work parties together. And often, returning volunteers bring friends or family along to introduce them to WTA’s trail maintenance community. Each year more people join WTA trail crews, increasing our ability to address trail maintenance needs and joining a strong, supportive volunteer base.

Volunteer Hayden Osborn poses on the newly completed staircase at Meadowdale Beach Park. Photo by Chris Osborn.

By mid-October, more than 4,300 volunteers had donated more than 135,000 hours of work on public lands, setting up 2017 to break all our previous records. WTA crews work year-round, focusing in the winter on low-country trails and those in urban settings. 

We kicked the year off in Meadowdale Beach Park, an urban oasis near Edmonds where multiple trip reporters had noted a rotted, eroded staircase that posed a danger to (or at least detracted from) their hike. Thanks to support from Snohomish County Parks, WTA held 12 work parties there in January to solve the problem.

As we made progress, trip reports flowed in from volunteers who had worked on the staircase, updating WTA’s hiking community with the project’s progress. One report from a father who brought his son out lauded the new skills they had learned and the people they worked with.

“(Hayden) learned how to drive rebar with the double-jack and use a gas-powered drill. Our crew leader, Austin, was very patient and did a great job making sure everyone got a turn with the drill and rebar. By the end of the day, my son felt so confident he was volunteering to drive the rebar!” Chris Osborn wrote.

The river crossing over Royal Creek used to be a precarious downed tree. Now, thanks to many volunteers, safe access has been restored to popular hiking area in the Olympics. Photo by Charlie Romine.

Close-to-town projects in parks like Meadowdale happen all over the state. WTA crews worked at Mount Spokane State Park too, as well as Lake Whatcom in Bellingham and Beacon Rock State Park in the Columbia River Gorge, where Ryan Ojerio, WTA’s Southwest regional manager, found some serious damage last winter.

In mid-February, Ryan filed a trip report after scouting the trail with assistant crew leader Lee Young. The last sentence of his report read: “All trails at the park, including the Beacon Rock Trail, are not suitable for hiking right now.” That meant an entire trail system just minutes from two major metropolitan areas was out of commission.

And yet in just a matter of weeks, Old Man Winter let up enough for the first crews to venture out. Over the course of 14 work parties, 69 volunteers built a bridge, repaired and reinforced tread and built a staircase. They completed the major repairs on May 24 and finished off with a “brushfest” in early June. Their work helped reopen the popular park in time for prime hiking season.

While crews in Southwest Washington repaired an existing trail, volunteers in the Bellingham area were starting work on a whole new trail system. Popular with locals for decades, Lake Whatcom has never had an official trail network, and it wasn’t until 2007 that Whatcom County began working to develop a system near the lake.

This year, all that work came together, and on National Trails Day, WTA joined Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, local residents and a Washington State Parks crew to break ground on the first official trail in what will eventually be a 96-mile, multi-use system of trails just 20 minutes from downtown Bellingham. This new location will help spread out hikers and offer alternatives to popular locations like Oyster Dome and Larrabee State Park.

 The crew at Hamilton Mountain taking measurements for a new bridge. Photo by Ryan Ojerio.

State parks are excellent for anyone needing a nearby dose of nature, hence their heavy usage. Like Larrabee and Beacon Rock, Mount Spokane offers a smorgasbord of hiking options year round, so it’s no surprise that the trails get a lot of traffic.

Luckily, hardy volunteers worked in the heat and even smoke of July and August to clear drains, build stabilizing rock walls and cut foliage away, helping clear three trails that provide key connections for hikers looking for close-to-home adventures.

As the days warmed up and snow melted, crews were able to move to higher trails, where partnerships with federal land managers helped major work get done.

May marked the year’s first work party on the popular Talapus Lake Trail, which provides a route for anyone in the Puget Sound area to enjoy a hike in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. A worn-out section of planking had made the route boggy and unpleasant, so 16 work parties and a backcountry response team helped the Snoqualmie Ranger District and a private contractor complete a major reroute. Now the thousands of feet that visit this little lake each year will stay dry on their way there and back again.

Our partnerships fuel not only big construction projects but also important equity work. Support from Washington’s National Park Fund allowed Latino Outdoors to partner with WTA’s youth program for a week of trail work in Mount Rainier this summer. Nine young Latina women between the ages of 13 and 16 spent a week in the White River area of Mount Rainier National Park, installing check steps and water bars and contemplating the future of equity in the outdoors.

The young women, who are part of the Duwamish Youth Corps, also spent time with rangers like Alonso Orozco, who provided inspiration for future careers in the National Park Service. As Michelle Piñon, WTA staffer and Latino Outdoors northwest regional coordinator said, “It is our hope that (with this trip) WTA and Latino Outdoors have … planted a seed, a passion for the outdoors that will be further cultivated in years to come.”

National Trails Day is one of WTA's biggest volunteer days of the year. This group spent the day working on trails around Lake Whatcom. Photo by Anna Roth.

Whether it’s meeting a ranger who looks like you, feeling ownership of a project or connecting with a crew leader, WTA’s community is strengthened when volunteers feel welcomed and their work is appreciated. WTA Fireside Circle member Janice Van Cleve revisited Bird Creek Meadows this summer, where she was proud to see a bridge she helped build on a 2013 volunteer vacation still standing strong, even after the 2015 Cougar Creek Fire.

Assistant crew leader and dedicated volunteer Meagan Mackenzie spent time at Mount Adams as well and came away with glowing praise of the people she met.

“The 10 volunteers I worked with (including our excellent leader and the two assistant leaders) are absolutely incredible! We were so proud of the work we accomplished!”

The project was made possible thanks to the Yakama Nation and the Friends of Mount Adams. While Bird Creek Meadows is still closed, it’s heartening to hear WTA’s projects from past years are standing strong, and we look forward to seeing our work continue there.

It’s thanks to volunteer skill, commitment and dedication that all our projects happen, including one on the Dungeness River Trail. This well-traveled route on the east side of Olympic National Forest now features a new bridge over Royal Creek, made possible thanks to WTA’s partnership with the Hood Canal Ranger District and a grant from the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance.

Whether we’re installing log bridges, connecting volunteers with their public lands or continuing the discussion of diversity in the outdoors, our trail maintenance program does much more than complete trail projects.

For 17 days, 110 volunteers peeled, leveled, notched and finally lifted a 45-foot-long log and handrail across Royal Creek, replacing an old, unsafe bridge that hikers tiptoed cautiously across to access popular destinations like Marmot Pass and Royal Basin. Throughout the project, volunteers (some of whom had never done trail work before) returned not only to help complete the bridge but to spend more time with crew leader Charlie Romine.

As one volunteer put it: “(Charlie’s) a great leader. She very thoroughly explains everything. She takes time to learn everyone’s name and something about each individual. She makes you feel really important and worthwhile when she’s talking to you. She’s really special.”

Making volunteers feel welcome and important is a cornerstone of building a close community of people who care for public lands and for each other. Whether we’re installing log bridges, connecting volunteers with their public lands or working with partner groups to continue discussions of diversity in the outdoors, our trail maintenance program does much more than complete trail projects. We foster a community of caring people and, to that end, making genuine personal connections is as important to us as safely installing a 45-foot-long bridge.

This article originally appeared in the November+December 2017 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.