Restoring a National Treasure the Pacific Northwest Trail
Washington is known for its winter floods. In 2003 they destroyed roads, trails, and bridges in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest; Blum Creek did not escape that damage.
“It was a terrible year for the Forest Service, and then they got hammered again in 2006 with almost the same devastation,” said Jon Knechtel, director of trail operations with Pacific Northwest Trail Association. Blum Creek Bridge is part of the Baker Lake Trail, a segment of the Pacific Northwest Trail nestled in the North Cascades Mountains just north of Mount Vernon, Wash., off the North Cascades Highway.
Thirty years ago Ron Strickland first envisioned a trail tracing the seasonal migration routes of animal and herders from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean. In March this year, the Pacific Northwest Trail joined the ranks of the National Scenic Trail system, becoming the first national scenic trail to connect two other scenic trails, the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. The Pacific Northwest Trail spans three National Parks, seven National Forests and three states, starting in Montana and moving west into Idaho and Washington. The Forest Service administrates the trail, coordinating land management efforts with other federal, state and private land owners.
Knechtel was instrumental in making that designation become a reality. He began volunteering for the Pacific Northwest Trail Association in 2000 making maps. The next year the board of directors asked him to join them.
Knechtel spent the next nine years focusing on getting the Pacific Northwest Trail designated a national scenic trail. “I went out and did a lot of the leg work, talking with the senators, county commissioners, mayors, hikers, back-country horsemen, and many user groups,” said Knechtel. He donated hundreds hours and thousands of dollars of personal time and expense for the trail.
“After the 2003 flood we invited the association to come in and build a 50-foot bridge were Blum Creek rerouted itself,” said Gary Paull, wilderness and trails specialist with the US Forest Service. “Then the 2006 flood hit and did two things to Blum Creek, relocating its drainage back to its original route and washing away the new bridge,” he said.
In the spring of 2009, the Forest Service brought the association in to shore up and secure the bridge over the original Blum Creek drainage from water erosion. “We are fixing the north side of Blum Creek with gabion baskets to keep the banks in place, and filling in the trail approach for the bridge,” said Knechtel. “We expect to complete the project next year, providing Mother Nature has left everything intact over the winter,” he said.
Restoring the trail for hikers takes an army of volunteers. Jon uses help from the Job Corps for many of the projects on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. “The Job Corps is a two-year program where kids learn a trade while helping out local communities,” said Knechtel. The youth are required to get their high school diploma while developing skills for a future trade. They can choose to study electrical, culinary arts, facilities maintenance, carpentry, painting and many other trades.
“After all of the outdoor experience the kids receive, many make it a career and become rangers with the National Parks, Forest Service or Department of Natural Resources,” said Knechtel.
This fall the kids excavated the banks of Blum Creek by hand to secure locations for gabion baskets. After the baskets were in place, filling them became the next task. “Each basket takes about 12 wheel barrow loads of river rock to fill them,” said Lewis Trout, crew leader with the Pacific Northwest Trails Association. “The baskets are laid out side-by-side to protect the banks from the water’s erosive power,” he said.
The association pays the Job Corps youth a salary for their time and effort. Trail work starts in April and continues until the weather changes in October. “The kids do great work for me,” Knechtel said.
The Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest has worked with PNTA for more than decade throughout the forest building and installing foot logs, bulletin boards, and removing damaged bridges, as well as trail maintenance. “The National Scenic Trails legislature requires an advocate,” said Paull. “This special relationship helps maintain and manage the trail. The PNTA has been managing the trail for over 30 years with projects from the Pacific Ocean to the Continental Divide,” he said.
For Knechtel, the Pacific Northwest Trail designation was only the beginning of a continuing commitment. “I plan on working on the trail for years to come,” he said.