Suiattle River Road (Oct 26, 2014)

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suiattle_river_rd_coverConditions: driving tour
Gear: nothing special
Map:
Area: Darrington, WA
Reference: Day Hiking North Cascades
Stats: 49.83mi by car (round trip)

If someone were to ask me about my recollections of the Suiattle River Road before the floods of 2003 & 2006 washed out huge portions and closed access for 2 days more than 11 years...here is what I would say...

The Suiattle River Road was my introduction of the "real" mountains of Washington 18 years ago. I started out doing some trail maintenance with WTA on the Annette Lake trail (I90) but that quickly progresses to a whole lot of volunteer work and in my early years...that was mostly spent along the Suiattle River Road. Countless days working both the Green Mtn trail and the Huckleberry Mtn trail. Days and days and days... Hurling mud, clearing brush, water dips, fixing slumped trails. I saw these beautiful mountains of my adopted home state and that was it...I was in love...

Day trips with WTA along the road turned into overnighters and then those overnighters turned into wonderful gatherings starting on Friday evenings in Green Mtn Pasture. Back in those first days I was driving my Saab 900. Since then I've not only used up the Saab but I've gone through a 2000 Subaru Outback...the "Roadrunner"... (a 12yo and nearly 225k miles on it when I sold it) and now I'm on yet another wagon...a 2012 Jetta Sportwagen TDI...nicknamed "Dirty Gertie". Sad now thinking back to the Subaru that she only say 2-3 years on that road before the first major flood prevented her from having more fun out that way. She came and went...only to be replaced by a German who now struggles with the lack of clearance (but that's another story)...

That "cult" of Green Mtn as Greg Ball called us had countless campfires in the pasture to whittle away some cold evening. Once we were even surprised to find our beloved pasture invaded by SAR (vehicles and hovering helicopters) when they were rendering aid to an injured hiker up on Vista Ridge. We should have known something was up that weekend when we showed up on Friday to find the pasture infested with goats with blue spots on their rears and two banjo playing trail workers banjoing away (ok...so what would you call it?) on the back of their pickup...and yes...their arms were blue to the elbows... That same weekend our trail crew helped out an injured hiker out of the Buck Creek Campground who had a serious leg fracture. One of these days I'll find that official "Thank You" letter that was send to each of us.

I loved that road. It was beautiful. Still is by the way... The views of Green Mtn from the pasture. The outhouse that we decorated in the pasture with a doorbell (the mounting plate is still there), a touch light, a big Mouth Billy Bass mounted on the wall, and inside...toilet paper cozies...oh...and one of those small plastic jiggling hula dancers. That didn't last long...vandals ended up bombing the outhouse...

We worked countless days on the lower stretches of the Huckleberry Mtn trail trying to breathe some life into it. It was a wallowing muck-hole down low. Severely overgrown/brushy in other areas. On my drive today...I couldn't even find the newer trailhead (the old old trailhead was lost to the floods years ago). I looked and looked but couldn't find the trailhead. Even before this new road construction there used to be a barricade on the road and a wide turn around spot...the "newer" trailhead with the misspelled Huckleberry Mtn trailhead sign was hard to find...covered in brush down low and not well beat in. This trailhead area looks like it's had a huge amount of work done on it and I think the trailhead got obliterated.

I biked the closed road once to the end once back in June 2011. The road today is so different than the road three years ago and very different than the road I remember of 11 years ago. Today the road was slick but that was to be expected with the storm last night. Lots of leaves. The newly graded section seem loose/unconsolidated. Wasn't too bad though. But still...the place looks so different than I remember. So much new road. Lots is overgrown (side roads and campgrounds). It's as if the place I remember no longer exists. So much of the old road was down next to the river. For good reasons many of those at risk or full on washed out sections were rerouted to the north...higher up...and the river is out of sight now.

So much else changed and so much was at risk. The campgrounds are overgrown. The roads into them are full of small trees and bushes. Downey Creek though is surprisingly in GREAT shape. Lots of moss. I pulled in with my car...it still feels so strange to think I actually drove into the campground...and the place is covered in a thick bed of green moss and is sprouting mushrooms everywhere. The Boundary Bridge is now no longer a bridge to nowhere. The bridge is extended to cover the south end of the bridge that for years just ended and one could look at where the river had rerouted itself washing out the other side. Years ago, a year or so after the flood, a remember sitting on the edge of the bridge with Kim, our feet dangling off the edge and over the water. We'd brought a bag of cherries and as we ate them we spit the pits into the river down below. The bridge is now a bridge again and access is restores to so many great hikes on that side. Other bridges have been fixed as well. Sulphur Creek Bridge is now longer...and whole again. No need to haul bikes or gear up a makeshift ladder up to the bridge decking. The bridge over Sulphur Creek has been touched up too.

I was a different person the last time that bridge was open. I was working for Eddie Bauer back in those days (though not for much longer). I'm now on my third job post washout. I was working retail apparel back then...now I'm in the aerospace industry. I had a functioning set of knees back then. What I didn't know at the time was that their time here on early was coming to and end...osteoarthritis was slowly destroying them. Now...I'm sporting new hardware...titanium...in both knees.

I had recently (1999-2000) finished taking the Alpine Scrambling class with the Everett Mountaineers and would embark on a really wonderful time in my life climbing the mountains of Washington. But...so little of that was along the road due to access issues. With the new knees, the best part of my climbing "career" is likely behind me. But, with the opening of the road it is as if what is old is new...what is new is old. After all these years I'm returning home.

And strangely enough...the whole time the road was closed...so much has come and gone in my life. So, in a very strange way...this opening of the road feels like a gift to me.

It wasn't a certainty though that the road would ever open up again. First the 2003 floods which was an epic "100 year" flood event. It always takes time to rebuild after events like this but before that could even happen there was another even worse 100 year flood event only 3 years later in 2006. Two groups fought hard to keep the road closed (Pilchuck Audubon Society) but thankfully their extreme views weren't shared by most. No...converting a 23 mile long road into a birding trail was not my preferred option or the option preferred by so many others. A campaign started to open up the road, options were presented at an open house (and no Mr. Lider...you do no...and did not...speak for so many people who were there) and after considering the public response it was determined that full access would be restored. Construction ended earlier this summer and yesterday was the ribbon cutting ceremony to officially open up the road. In my drive of the road today it was nice to see other hikers (Magellan and family) and Hulksmash. But it wasn't just hikers out today. There were hunters. There were also several whitewater kayak groups ferrying kayaks to the river at the end of the road (Suiattle trailhead). So yes, this road is loved and appreciated and it is open again for all kinds of users. Now if any of those Pilchuck Audubon Society members want to walk the road while they are birding...I'm sure they will walk the entire road...if not just on priciple.

I should also mention that the Green Mountain Lookout was there...was refurbished on site...and then by actions of the extreme left was threatened with removal. Wilderness Watch filed a lawsuit saying the work to fix the lookout was outside that which was permitted within Wilderness. They (WW) won the suit, but in the end due to a special act of the US Congress (in a kind gesture to the communities of Darrington and Oso after the landslide in Marc 2014) the lookout was saved...it was permitted to remain on site. I had hoped to hike up to the lookout today and was willing to deal with the cold and snow but the wind (35mph gusts) meant the safe choice for solo travel was to save the trip for another day. The lookout isn't going anywhere. I did drive the Green Mtn Rd for a bit...it's muddy and slick down low and some of the mud in the middle of the road is high enough to start scraping Gertie's bottom. When I continued up a bit further I hit some rock under the car...not good for a low clearance car like mine. I suspect that when the road dries out it will improve and make it easier for low clearance cars to get to the Green Mtn trailhead. Today though...not worth the risk of damage.

So what's ahead for the future? Well...I'm going to have to plan lots of trips up this road next summer. Green Mtn being tops on the list. There is also Sulphur Mtn, Suiattle trail into Miner's Ridge, Meadow Mtn, Circle Peak...the list could quite possibly be endless...

So I feel like I've come full circle in a weird kind of way. I'm looking forward to what the future holds.

Let's just hope that 100 years floods are just that...spaced 100 years apart.
 
Suiattle River Road Slideshow

suiattle_river_rd_map

(click on map to view a larger version)

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