How PNTA and our partners battled blowdowns and years of wildfire damage to restore access to the Boundary Trail in the Pasayten Wilderness
Pressed up against the jagged peaks that guard our northern border between the arid Okanogan and the glacier-clad ranges of the North Cascades lies the 531,000-acre Pasayten Wilderness. Like all designated wilderness areas, this stunning roadless expanse may only be accessed by muscle power. Yet, by virtue of its geography, its trails can be as difficult to access as any in the lower ‘48.
One of its most iconic trails is also the hardest to reach. For nearly 100 miles, the Pacific Northwest Trail traverses the rugged interior of the Wilderness, tracking just below the international border. In the east, the PNT merges with the Boundary Trail, passing through open plateaus, climbing Cathedral Pass and meandering toward the legendary Pacific Crest Trail and the dramatic peaks that mark its western border with North Cascades National Park.
For most of its length in the Wilderness, the PNT can only be reached by long footpaths running from trailheads at least a full day’s walk to the south. No roads, only a handful of long, rugged trails reach it from the north and west.
“I’ve led plenty of backcountry trips all over the country, but I’ve never worked anywhere it took two full days just to reach a worksite and set up camp.”
-Sean Miller, PNTA crew leader
Wildfire and Maintenance Backlogs
While its remoteness adds to the cost and difficulty of working on the Boundary Trail in the Pasayten Wilderness, compounding those challenges is a vanishingly short season interrupted by summer storms and regularly cut short by wildfire.
Over the last 19 years, nine major fires have crawled across the Wilderness. And while they have played an important role in forest health, they have caused massive damage to trails; destroying foot bridges, destabilizing slopes, and leaving hazardous holes along trails where fires burned hot enough to consume tree roots and other organic material beneath the forest floor.
In the summer of 2017, the Diamond Creek Megafire was particularly devastating, having burned 128,000 acres in the Wilderness – including 22 miles of the PNT/ Boundary Trail. In late July, it sent trail crews and visitors alike scrambling to evacuate the area under a closure order and to abandon their carefully made plans for the season.
Despite efforts to restore trails the following year, by late summer the PNT remained inaccessible to stock and all but the most ambitious and agile of hikers. Then Mother Nature announced other plans. New fires ignited in the Wilderness including a blaze at Holman Pass that caused a closure of the PNT in the Wilderness for a second year in a row.
Redoubling our Efforts
A few months later, as larch needles turned shades of yellow gold and fell upon a fresh blanket of snow, the wildfires burning in the Wilderness finally went dead out. PNTA and our perennial partners formed a planning committee to coordinate efforts in the new year. It was obvious that significant resources would be needed to restore access and change the fate of this scenic highlight of the Pacific Northwest Trail.
Working together, the PNTA and US Forest Service, Back Country Horsemen of Washington, Washington Trails Association and the Pacific Crest Trail Association hatched an ambitious plan to reopen over 200 miles of fire-damaged trails in unknown condition, and they hoped to do it in a single season.
Jason Ridlon, an experienced packer, sawyer, and Vice President of the Back Country Horsemen of Washington, was one of the masterminds planning the effort, coordinating BCHW volunteer work parties with the efforts of other trail maintainers and pack support for trail crews.
A COALITION OF TRAILS
The team identified several areas of concern. There were tangles of trees just west of Louden Lake, long stretches damaged by wildfire through burn areas, and there was plenty of work needed around Spanish Camp. Both sides of the West Fork of the Pasayten River were reported to have tons of logs and the climb to Frosty Pass from the east was strewn with trees jumbled up like piles of pick-up sticks.
It would take a kind of expedition style approach with each group working to help the others gain access into the Wilderness along the paths of least resistance to reach the worst hit trails.
The Association’s new Regional Coordinator, Sterling Collins-Hill sketched out the upcoming season for PNTA’s Performance Trail Crews with the aid of his counterpart in Eastern Washington, Kristin Ackerman. Together, they laid out a long list of worksites along the Pacific Northwest Trail and an ambitious timeline. To finish, they’d need an early start, but the Pasayten was notorious for disrupting early summer work parties with unhelpful snowstorms.
Most critical would be the site of their first projects. It would need to be an area that would melt out early, have running water, and be close to the parts of the trail in the worst condition. Next, they planned their approach using access trails, like the Andrews Creek Trail, which would offer the path of least resistance north.
A NEW PARTNER
Critical help also came from a new partner. On December 2nd, 2018, REI Co-op, awarded PNTA with a National Trails System Act Grant to support trail restoration in the Pasayten Wilderness. With additional financial assistance provided by our trail community to our Youth Crew Heroes campaign, the Association would be able to double the number of Performance Trail Crews based in the Wilderness the following year.
On December 2nd, 2018, REI, awarded $25,000 in grant funding to the PNTA to support trail restoration on the Pasayten Wilderness and to strengthen our youth service programs under their National Trails System Act Grant program.
Finding Conservation Leaders
Two special trail crews from opposite sides of the Cascades were assembled for the ambitious project. Most were new to trail work, but none to hard work. Some members of the high school-aged crew from the east side had bucked hay bales on farms in the Okanogan Valley before they trained to buck logs with PNTA. Others had drilled with their local JROTC chapters. For these young people, the unique responsibilities of a trail crew member would be learned at their first summer job.
Based on the opposite side of the Wilderness was a larger trail crew made up of Western Washington University students. Many already had experience doing conservation work and had grown up camping and exploring in the Puget Sound, experiences that inspired them to practice trail stewardship while pursuing degrees in ecology and careers in natural resource management.
Regardless of age or background, signing on for a season laboring on a backcountry trail crew can be an exciting and daunting proposition for anyone. Whether it was to be their first seasonal summer job or their last, it was bound to be an experience they would never forget. Signing up to labor in service to our public lands is a commendable act unto itself. Lasting out the season is another feat altogether.
Once considered a rite of passage, only a third of students spend the summer break working today – half as many as did a generation ago. Those that do find work take part-time service jobs that impart soft skills and offer part-time scheduling.
On a PNTA Performance Trail Crew, they sign on to work up to 80 hours in a single hitch which begins when the crew piles into a work van and starts the long drive toward a distant trailhead.
The logistics of reaching remote trails and the nature of the work demands a lot of a crew. The grind of a long hitch can feel like running back-to-back marathons, but trail stewardship jobs provide a real alternative to the kinds of frontline service jobs typically available to students. On a trail crew, they test personal limits, practice teamwork and learn to solve problems using only the tools they take with them.
Clearing the Boundary Trail
The previous summer, volunteers counted over 1,000 downed trees in the area. Until the crew arrived on the scene no one really knew how many new trees had fallen across the Boundary Trail that winter.
The plan of work for the Association’s trail crew based in the Eastern Pasayten was simple and ambitious. The five person crew would spend the summer clearing as many logs as possible from a 75 mile stretch of the Boundary Trail. Starting at the Cold Springs Campground, just outside of the Wilderness boundary, the crew would work west and end their season when they reached the Pacific Crest Trail or when wildfire or fall snowstorms pushed them out.
Each trip would take the crew deeper into wilderness requiring longer travel time and pack stock support. Their progress would be relatively slow and deliberate. Wilderness regulations require the work be done the old-fashioned way, with laborsome hand tools, like axes and antique crosscut saws.
INTO THE WILD
On their first hitch, the crew started east of the wilderness boundary on the Loomis State Forest, an area that hadn’t seen maintenance in some time. They set out to repair turnpike, fix trails braided with networks of cow paths and clear any downed trees they found along the way. (Cows can make some convincing-looking trails in grasslands.)
It was an area of the Okanogan Highlands that the three high-school aged students from Tonasket were familiar with. What came as a surprise was tent camping — in snow. Although it was summer, it didn’t feel like it in the Pasayten at 6,000 feet, and the crew was quickly tested by surprise snow flurries, biting cold weather, electrical storms, and crewmates struggling with personal challenges. Some had never been apart from their families or cell service for so long.
Partners and Packers
Lead Packer, Kurt Langlois cinched down the saddlebags on his mount and prepared for the 22 mile ride back from the Pasayten Airstrip where he and Wilderness Ranger with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Gregg Bafundo had rendezvoused with Sean Miller and the rest of the PNTA trail crew working at Bunker Hill.
Langlois, Bafundo, and other packers with the US Forest Service had the critical job of packing the Eastern Pasayten Trail Crew into the Wilderness and packing them out. Two riders and seven stock animals carried the crews’ gear and provisions to a new camp each hitch as they inched further west along the Boundary Trail.
Most of the mules were burdened with a pair of bear-proof aluminum panniers containing the crews’ food and kitchen equipment that tipped the scales at nearly 70 pounds. The other animals carried tools and the packers themselves on a grueling but gorgeous 50-mile round trip between the PNT and the nearest trailhead. On this hitch, it was Slate Pass.
They left the crew at the old Pasayten Airstrip knowing a huge task awaited them. The next six miles of trail east of the Pasayten River was rumored to be so heavily blanketed in fallen trees that visitors and Rangers alike had needed to rely on GPS units to navigate through thick brush and tangled blow downs where the Boundary Trail used to be.
The Battle for Bunker Hill
On his 2015 thru-hike, Michael “Flanders” Sawiel felt the effects that wildfire had on the Boundary Trail first hand. For the next four seasons, all who attempted to traverse the Pasayten Wilderness on the Pacific Northwest Trail would know the frustration and danger of tangling with “blow downs.”
As seasoned hikers know, each tree that’s fallen across across the trail presents a unique obstacle. A small tree might be simple to step over, but at waist height, larger logs become a more serious impediment. Worse still, when several trees conspire to fall in large jumbled piles, they create impenetrable thickets so thick they have to be scrambled over or avoided altogether with off-trail navigation. For a backpacker, each pile can present a gamble between taking the most direct route and risking a serious fall onto rocky terrain or sharp broken limbs below.
It takes real determination to overcome obstacles like these. In wilderness, visitors should always be prepared for rugged conditions and unexpected challenges. But the deteriorating condition of the Boundary Trail made it a special case; it was no longer meeting the standards of a National Scenic Trail. More to the point, it wasn’t very much fun to hike.
Sean Miller, a seasoned crew leader who’s worked trails from Florida to New York to Nevada, led the effort to change that during the summer of 2019. On one hitch, their crew would have a little extra help with them, by way of a volunteer with first-hand knowledge of the PNT and its condition near the Pasayten River.
Like anyone traveling to the Boundary Trail in the Pasayten Wilderness, Michael Sawiel drove a long way just to reach the nearest trailhead. After the slog from his home in Sisters, Oregon, he shouldered a full pack loaded with overnight gear and hiked toward the crew’s basecamp 12 miles away to reinforce them in the struggle to retake Bunker Hill. The crew was camped near the Pasayten River and planned to inch their way toward the hilltop 3,000’ above.
By this time in the season, it was late August. The fireweed was in bloom, temperatures soared and the younger crew members had found their rhythm with the saw. They became adept at reading the forces bound up in the tangled logs — a critical skill for a wilderness sawyer. They worked alone at the smaller logs, and in pairs with the big saw to clear mile after mile of trail.
PLAY IT AS IT LIES
Much in the same way that downed trees create unique challenges for hikers, cutting each log requires special problem solving too. The backcountry sawyer must “play it as it lies” and plan each cut thoughtfully to conserve energy and minimize the risk of injury.
The next morning, Sawiel joined Miller and the rest of the crew for a spartan breakfast at dawn. By now, the crew’s routine was well established and they were eager to start early. Under the shadeless skies of the snag forests where they toiled, August’s afternoon heat rose to an uncomfortable peak that the team aimed to avoid.
With volunteer assistance, the crew hoped to get more done and enjoy shorter days. Having the PNT thru-hiker on hand also provided some relief from the big saw and let them take longer to recover between turns pulling on the seven-foot “misery whip” (an old-timey term that still resonates with anyone who has used a two-handled crosscut saw for an extended time).
Eight long and rewarding days later, the crew began the long hike south toward the trailhead at Slate Pass.With Sawiel’s help, they had cleared 258 logs from the trail. Yet, it would take another week-long hitch to finish the job and gain the summit of Bunker Hill.“
“The long hikes into the Pasayten carrying a heavy pack and working in hot weather, sometimes with no shade, were very challenging. But clearing out Bunker Hill by cutting over 150 trees in a single hitch was my proudest accomplishment of the season.”
-Adonis Haskins, trail crew member
Reopening Trail 2000
Erica Pan, a quiet WWU student majoring in conservation hadn’t told her crew mates that she had never been backpacking before joining the crew.
It was their third hitch of the season and this time they set up a spike camp about 15 miles north of Harts Pass. After enduring some soggy hitches clearing the Pacific Northwest Trail in temperate rainforests west of the Cascade Crest, sweeping views and fair weather in the high Pasayten were a welcome reward.
Her team had been working in the Wilderness for nearly a week, and although Pan was new to backcountry camping, no one seemed to have noticed. She had taken well to life in the backcountry, and trail work in general. She had become a skillful crosscut sawyer, and the glue that held her crew together with a subtle sense of humor and stoic disposition. By this time in the season, the crew had become a well-oiled machine.
THE HOLMAN WILDFIRE
The crew was working in concert with several partners to restore the damage caused by the Holman Fire last year. The late season fire had closed a special stretch of Trail 2000, shared by two National Scenic Trails, and thru-hikers and other visitors had to detour around the area until it could be repaired this summer.
Amber Deming, Lead Wilderness Ranger, with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest spent over thirty miles in the saddle helping to pack the crew’s gear and supplies to their worksite, and dedicated volunteers with the North 350 Blades had already cleared 32 logs from the trail so that they could spend the week focusing on “dirt work,” restoring the tread damaged by the fire and winter’s toll.
With the area around Holman Pass restored to equestrian standards, with the help of volunteers with the Pacific Crest Trail Association, on their next hitch, PNTA crew leader Cat Sullivan moved her crew west of the PCT to focus on restoring the Devils Ridge Trail.
CLEARING DEVILS RIDGE
Although the trail junction is not yet marked with the emblem of the young National Scenic Trail, from Holman Pass, the Pacific Northwest Trail continues west toward a skyline studded with peaks and North Cascades National Park.
The area around wooded Sky Pilot Pass had been in need of logout for some time. Sullivan discovered a massive fir had fallen lengthwise along the trail blocking the descent toward the surreal waters of Ross Lake, among dozens of other downed trees.
It would take the crew three full hitches in the Western Pasayten to reach the end of their service area near Devils Dome where the trail had been serviced the year before by a PNTA-Job Corps trail crew.
Leaving it Better
By mid-September PNTA Performance Crews alone had contributed nearly 6,000 hours of work towards maintaining the Pasayten Wilderness portion of the Pacific Northwest Trail.
While logging out the trail was their first charge, they accomplished a significant amount of tread and drainage repair while clearing over 400 trees from the trail. They also worked in the vicinity of the Tungsten Mine, the old Pasayten Airstrip, Sheep Mountain, and the Ashnola River.
Their work wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance of the US Forest Service, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and the dedicated volunteers that work in the Wilderness: the Back Country Horsemen of Washington, Pacific Crest Trail Association and Washington Trails Association.
ABOUT THE YOUTH CREW HEROES CAMPAIGN
Supporters of our Youth Crew Heroes campaign last year helped to provide funding for an additional trail crew this season — meaning more work was performed on the Pacific Northwest Trail in places like the Pasayten Wilderness, and more youth and young adults were able to spend a summer working and learning outdoors.
This Giving Tuesday, you can help us empower youth from gateway communities to protect trails. Even a small gift can make a difference in the legacy of a young National Scenic Trail and in all the lives that it benefits.