Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest staff, the PNTA, and SWITMO volunteers scout potential bridge and cable car sites for crossings over Rainbow and Swift Creek, on the PNT.
The Swift and Rainbow Creek crossings in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest (MBS) have presented formidable challenges on the Pacific Northwest Trail for decades. Without bridges in place, PNT hikers make two back-to-back, heart-pounding crossings. The ford across the icy waters of Swift Creek can be waist deep, even in early August.
Both of these drainages are notorious for producing high flows of water from snowmelt. Among all of the Cascade Volcanoes, Mount Baker, known to the Lummi Tribe as the “white sentinel,” is second only to Rainier in the volume of snow and ice it holds.
Two early season hikers teamed up to make the first crossing of the year. One hiker was allegedly swept under the torrent at Swift Creek, but made it across with the aid of a partner, shaken, but not seriously injured.
But the crossing proved too much for many this year. Those hikers who arrived in early August assessed the danger and chose to turn back, rather than risk an unsafe crossing. This comment posted in the PNT Hikers Facebook Group on August 4th illustrates the situation:
“FYI: Four of us just completed North Cascades complex and were unable to cross Swift Creek (between Lake Ann and Baker Lake) due to high, swift moving water (on July 29). Just a lot of melting snow still. We had to climb back up to the Mount Baker highway and drive around to Baker Lake… a PNT hiker, camped next to [Swift Creek] and tried to cross from 7 to 9 a.m. He got out about a 1/3 of the way up to his waist, and when he reached into the middle of the river with his pole, he couldn’t reach the bottom. We ran into him 2 hours above the crossing, and we all turned around together.”
After the tragic loss of two Pacific Crest Trail hikers who apparently drowned attempting fords in the Sierra this year, we are reminded that risks we face in the backcountry are very real.
The options thru-hikers have at Swift Creek are very limited; they can either ford or backtrack and begin an inconvenient, 100 mile detour along blacktop highways to reach Baker Lake to the south where they can resume their westbound journeys.
Consider for a moment, the context of a thru-hiker’s entire 1,200 mile adventure — between the eastern terminus at Chief Mountain and Hannegan Pass, most PNT thru-hikers have successfully followed a continuous route for nearly two-thirds of the trail. For thru-hikers, who face a series of challenges which all test their will to preserve an unbroken chain of steps, the desire to forge ahead despite all odds is very strong.
SWITMO volunteers, Doug Shepherd and Dave Hess and MBS Staff meet at the Swift Creek trailhead before a scouting trip (not pictured: PNTA Executive Director, Jeff Kish)
TAKING STEPS TOWARD A SOLUTION
The PNTA and our volunteer trail maintenance partners in Whatcom County, SWITMO, have been meeting with MBS staff throughout 2017 to explore long-term solutions to aid hikers in the crossing of Swift and Rainbow Creeks, as well as to identify other future improvements to the trail corridor on the forest.
Promising new solutions are on the horizon for the MBS portion of the PNT, which will unlock the region’s potential to offer some of the finest long-distance hiking trips along the entire trail corridor.
A recent scouting trip explored the feasibility of two possible solutions for the crossings. One possibility under consideration for Rainbow Creek is the installation of a cable car. While this solution has been used by the NPS in North Cascades National Park over the Chilliwack River, there is no precedent on our National Forests for this type of infrastructure, and additional consideration is needed before approval can be granted.
The PNTA and collaborators also evaluated future trail relocations off of motorized tread in the area, such as where the PNT currently climbs the steep and winding section of Highway 542, between Hannegan Pass Road and the Mount Baker Ski Area.
Funding for engineering studies and NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis will also need to be secured before these projects can proceed. The PNTA will continue to post updates about the progress of this ongoing work on our website, and share opportunities for members of our community to donate to the project and other ways to get involved.
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