Goal is to reduce big backlog of blocked routes
Trail maintenance is one of those things you don’t really notice until you hike or, worse yet, ride a horse on a trail that hasn’t been cleared and encounter an impenetrable tangle of downed trees blocking the route.
Maintenance is an annual necessity, since trees fall every year from wind or snow. Wildfire makes the situation worse, and can result in hundreds or thousands of fallen trees on a single trail.
There are almost 1,100 miles of trails in the Methow Valley Ranger District. In an average year, the district and its partners — groups like the Methow Valley Back Country Horsemen (MVBCH) and the Washington Trails Association (WTA) — maintain 400 to 450 miles, ranger district Recreation Program Manager Rosemary Seifried said.
A new grant will help clear even more of those trails to increase access to the Pasayten Wilderness, crucial for commercial outfitters and anyone who wants to reach the spectacular lakes and mountains in the high country. The two-year, $100,000 grant for the Pasayten Wilderness Project recently awarded to the Back Country Horsemen of Washington (BCHW) is earmarked for trails that lead to the Pacific Crest Trail and the Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, Program Manager Tim Van Beek said.
Their goal is to clear 200 miles, half on feeder trails, and half on the Pacific Northwest Trail, over two years, Van Beek said. “It would be great to open all the trails, but there are hundreds of miles of trails, and thousands of trees down,” he said.
The goal for this season is to clear the feeder trails. Once the trails are log-free, they’ll turn their attention to drainage, brushing and tread work — all necessary to keep trails open — most likely next year, Van Beek said. Several bridges need to be replaced.
The grant covers goals beyond clearing trails. BCHW hopes to bring attention to the need for ongoing trail work, ideally building sustainable funding so all trails can be opened in coming years, Van Beek said.
The grant will also help train people to pack in tools, food and other supplies on horses or mules, so that trail crews can get further into the wilderness and stay for a week or two, Van Beek said.
The support provided by the Pasayten grant is vital, since the ranger district’s pack string is maxed out, Seifried said. Having support from stock means trail crews will be comfortable and functional, she said. The ranger district has 11 people on its trail crew this year and a crew boss, plus two packers for 23 head in the pack string, Seifried said.
“Hopefully, the grant will get us out of the hole [for the main trails], and then we’ll have the bandwidth for side trails,” Seifried said. People are excited about the possibility of trips to high-mountain lakes, but some trails, like Peepsight, Eureka Creek and Ferguson Lake haven’t been cleared for years, she said.
The ranger district regularly teams up with partners like BCHW, WTA, the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, Pacific Crest Trail Association and Pacific Northwest Trail Association — some paid, some volunteers — who help clear 25% to 40% of the district’s trails each year, Seifried said. Because the Pacific Crest Trail and Pacific Northwest Trail are officially designated national scenic trails, the ranger district makes it a priority to keep them accessible, she said.
The grant will help clear six feeder trails — Robinson Creek, Jackita Ridge, Larch Creek, Andrews Creek, Chewuch and Hidden Lakes — all of which connect with the Boundary Trail, an especially scenic route that traverses the northern portion of the Pasayten. While those trails have generally been accessible in recent years, last year was particularly bad for downed trees, and the district wasn’t able to log out all trails, Seifried said.
In the past 20 years, 46% of the Pasayten has burned. The worst blowdowns typically occur 10 to 15 years after a fire, making it extremely difficult for trail crews to keep up, Seifried said.
A four-person crew used to be able to clear an arterial trail in two weeks and even have time to start work on another trail, but last year clearing some trails took three to five times longer, Seifried said. There were 700 downed trees in just a few miles on one trail last year — “it’s epic amounts of work,” she said.
The backlog of trail maintenance is being felt across the state. There used to be 22,000 miles of trails in Washington, but now there only 12,000 are still accessible, Van Beek said.
Although Van Beek is a hiker who doesn’t own a horse, pack support has become his passion. He ran WTA’s backcountry program for almost two decades. It was pretty humbling to learn what it took to make trail work happen — the only way to get something done when you’re working on a trail that’s 20 miles out is with pack animals, he said.
MVBCH members devote countless hours to trail work every year throughout the Methow Valley Ranger District. Last year, they were able to reopen the Billy Goat trail, where they cut hundreds of trees, 5 feet deep, every day, MVBCH president Cathy Upper said. “It’s a trail-maintenance nightmare,” she said. This year, The group also has projects scheduled in the Twisp River drainage, which accesses the Lake Chelan–Sawtooth Wilderness.
Training people and horses
At the Robinson Creek trailhead last week, Whatcom BCH members trained riders and their horses to pack gear. The training was followed by a kick-off event with representatives from the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and trail partners.
The riders learned to pack different types of panniers and the importance of balancing the load. “It’s partly about training people, and partly about training horses,” Van Beek said.
Stephanie Russo brought two horses from Snohomish for the training. Her 27-year-old horse, Tabby, took readily to the unfamiliar load. “That’s a good little pony — he’s just standing there. A lot of horses, doing this the first time, you’d have a rodeo,” Whatcom BCH Chapter Director Joe Remenar said.
The packer needs to be careful not to let panniers bang or rattle, since that can make the horse nervous. As the horse adjusts to the load, it learns to steer around trees, Remenar said.
Working with horses also helps people understand how to brush out a trail — the corridor has to be wide enough for stock, and overhead branches need to be cut to accommodate a horse carrying a tall rider, Remenar said.
Horses can typically carry 60 or 65 pounds on each side, plus lighter gear on their back, a total of about 140 pounds. It’s vital to have the weight balanced so the load doesn’t shift while the horse is walking. Once a horse is in shape after the winter, it can cover 30 miles in a day, Remenar said.
The pack trains typically bring in tools for trail work, a cook tent, propane, and food for a week, then return to resupply the trail crew and pick up garbage. Six animals can support a crew of 12 for seven days.
There’s a range of opportunities for volunteers — they can ride in and help the pack crew load and unload, or learn to pack their own horse. Experienced riders can often borrow a horse if they don’t have their own. And people can help with trail work. “We create opportunities for people to learn in the way they learn best,” Remenar said.
For more information, or to volunteer
For information and volunteer opportunities with the Pasayten Wilderness Project, go to www.bchw.org and click on the photo for the project. People can also email email@example.com.
To volunteer with the Methow Valley Back Country Horsemen, see mvbch.blogspot.com.
The Methow Valley Trails Collaborative also organizes work parties. This year, they’re focusing on bridge replacements on the Louis Lake and Cutthroat Lake trails, deferred maintenance on trails along the Scenic Highway 20 corridor, and work on trails affected by the Cedar Creek Fire. See the Volunteer tab at trailscollaborative.org.