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Bridge OUT! New Thinking About SHT Bridges Is IN

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Bridge OUT! New Thinking About SHT Bridges Is IN

By Denny Caneff

I was offered a lot of advice when I took the job of SHTA’s executive director in June of 2017. Much of it had to do with bridges. Having come from a river conservation organization previous to landing here at SHTA, one bit of advice struck me. “You’re not getting out of the river business. We have over 200 stream and river crossings to worry about.”

Another advisor put it more ominously: “You’ll get sick of hearing and talking about bridges.”

I can’t say I’m sick of the bridge discussion, but I want to believe I’ve gotten wiser about it. Some of that wisdom is rooted in what I learned about the Association’s history with bridges from a retired DNR park manager. He offered that the founders, many of whom came from natural resource agencies, assumed every stream and river needed a bridge for the convenience of hikers. That tradition stuck.

But that tradition is weakening by the month, for many reasons. As anyone who’s volunteered to help build one, bridges are expensive and complicated to build.  They live a perilous life, suspended above what one day is a placid stream, and the next, after a six-inch rainfall, becomes a violent torrent. Many of the bridges on the SHT were built without engineering and experienced construction assistance, built to minimize cost, and built well before the vagaries of climate change, which challenges all landscapes everywhere, natural and constructed.

If it’s deep, don’t cross

Maybe the first light about the fate of bridges went off when, four or five years ago, the third (we think) bridge over the Encampment River washed out. While we warn trail users that there’s no longer a bridge at that river crossing, we have learned that hikers can and will cross a river without a bridge, using well-placed stepping stones. And as far as we know, they have had the good sense not to cross the Encampment when it’s in (obvious) flood stage.

Doing this challenged the old notion here that hikers should be able to cross a river 24/7/365. We realized that no other silent sport or outdoor recreation activity – cross-country skiing, sailing, kayaking, biking – makes a similar guarantee. If you’re hiking on the SHT and you come upon a rushing river with no bridge, use your good judgment, which should be: if it’s deep, don’t cross. (By virtue of North Shore topography, SHT streams are “flashy,” in that water will rise and fall quite quickly after big rains.)

This bridge used to span Crow Creek, until high water knocked it out about a month ago — dramatic evidence of the difficulty of maintaining bridges on the SHT. This one will not be replaced.

Bridges (or not) to the future

Depending on the nature of a stream and how the SHT approaches and crosses that stream, we will likely NOT replace a bridge that fails. Case in point is the recently crunched bridge over Crow Creek, on the SHT west the West Castle Danger Rd. trailhead in Lake County. Most days of the year, making a water crossing there (boulder hopping) will be easy and fun. The worst that can happen, structurally speaking, at that site, without a bridge, is that SHT-designated boulders move around. But this is way less headache than designing a new bridge, ordering the lumber and hardware, preparing the footings on the bank, schlepping the materials by hand to the site, and mobilizing the volunteers to build it.

To those volunteers who’ve enjoyed building bridges over the years: don’t worry, we will have plenty of construction projects in the coming years in the form of boardwalk and stairways to replace the numerous failing ones on the SHT.

This is likely the third of four bridges the SHTA has built over the Split Rock River – and lost. Bridge #5 is being carefully thought out to avoid this same fate.

Splitting the difference at Split Rock

There’s no doubt in our minds we will replace the lost bridge (the most recent was the fourth) over the Split Rock River. By fall, we hope to have three design options to choose from. We’re in that conundrum of, “What kind of bridge do you build when you don’t know how you’ll get the materials and construction equipment there?” Walking things in 2.5 miles, uphill, from the Hwy. 61 wayside is out of the question. Hiring a helicopter, and making an (for the moment, undetermined) overland route from the north of the bridge site are in the planning mix.

We don’t expect to start building that bridge until 2019. Meanwhile, if the Split Rock River is deep, don’t cross it! (A wet-footed crossing is entirely possible and enjoyable at normal water levels.)

This article was published in the Summer 2018 Ridgeline Newsletter. Join or renew your membership today to receive our newsletter in your mailbox when it’s published.