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Cascade River (WA) Bridge Debris Removal Update

Posted: 12/24/2003
By: Thomas O'Keefe

Designated a Wild and Scenic River in 1978, the Cascade River in Western Washington is one of the region's most scenic and challenging class V runs.While the river is an incredible whitewater resource known to paddlers from across the country, there have been at least three fatalities and several close calls in the rapid known as Bridge Drop. This rapid comes early in the run and just downstream from the first major drop known as "Starts With a Bang." At moderate to high water these rapids come in quick succession and for all practical purposes represent one long and demanding section of class V whitewater.


For many boaters, one of the scariest features of this section was the debris from an old bridge, the Lookout Creek bridge that washed into the river during a flood and debris slide in 1980. This was actually the second failure for the steel in this bridge because it had been salvaged from the remains of the Tacoma Narrows bridge "Galloping Gertie" that failed during a windstorm in 1940. The remains of this bridge were firmly lodged among the boulders creating a massive and permanent strainer that gave Bridge Drop its name. While we may not know for sure whether this bridge debris was directly responsible for the fatalities, it certainly complicated things and added another dimension to the rapid. Furthermore, leaving the debris in the river directly conflicted with the non-degradation and enhancement policy of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.


In 2000 Chris Joosse and Nick Newhall with the Washington Kayak Club worked to educate paddlers and resource agencies on the hazards at Bridge Drop. They produced a comprehensive catalog of images to document this remote site and the associated hazards for the paddling community and educated resource agency staff who have a responsibility for river management (see their Bridge Drop web page for additional background and photos). This convinced Jim Chu, Wild and Scenic River manager with the Mount Baker - Snoqualmie National Forest, that removing many tons of bridge debris from the river would clearly be consistent with the language and spirit of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. And if it could be safely accomplished, it was their obligation to do so. The action would enhance aesthetic and scenic attributes of the river and potentially improve safety for members of the public who use and enjoy this river for recreation. Jim has been a great friend of rivers and once again demonstrated an ability to make things happen.


Although the river corridor is managed by the National Forest, the County was responsible for the bridge and Jim contacted Skagit County where engineers Janice Marlega and Barb Hathaway tackled the challenges of developing a plan to remove the bridge debris. After several different plans were considered, the County contacted local loggers to see if they could set up a skyline logging operation to hoist the steel beams out after cutting them into smaller sections at river level. Public agencies stepped up to the plate and permits were promptly approved. As water levels dropped to record low levels during the summer of 2003 the stage was set to begin removal. But when a high risk of forest fires resulted in a moratorium on construction activities in the National Forest and difficulties in obtaining a helicopter, which was required to set the cable across the river, it seemed like the removal might be scrapped for the year. However, everything finally came together by mid September and over a couple days the debris was hauled several hundred feet up and out of a river to a landing along the side of the road. The next week County crews hauled the steel away to a salvage yard. The County engineers pointed out that while the large steel pieces were removed some smaller debris remains in the river.


A few notes on safety

While the bridge debris has been removed this sequence of rapids remains a challenging class V section of whitewater that should not be taken lightly. If you do not know the rapid it is essential that you scout the long sequence before committing and be sure to set overlapping safety. Given the removal of the debris at Bridge Drop and record flooding in the Skagit that occurred in October 2003, we can and should expect major changes in this rapid. Proceed with caution as you would on any class V exploratory. Starts With a Bang is a very appropriate name for the first major drop on this run. Make sure you are warmed up and ready for it. Flush drowning remains a real hazard in this section as trouble at the start can mean a swim of up to a quarter mile in length. This is an incredibly beautiful place and an awe-inspiring section of whitewater--be safe and treat it with respect.

Bridge Drop as it appeared before the removal operation began

Working at record low water levels, the work crew was able to access the steel beams and cut them into smaller sections.

A skyline logging operation in which a cable was suspended across the river was used to haul the beams out.

One of the steal beams is hoisted out of the river canyon.

High above the river, the cableway operator hoists the steel beam sections out of the river canyon.

Photos provided by Barb Hathaway, Skagit County

Thomas O'Keefe

3537 NE 87th St.

Seattle, WA 98115

Phone: 425-417-9012
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