Bridget Wisniewski help leads a class at WTA’s Crew Leader College. She was teaching trail work crews about how to build effective drainage, using a trail on Cougar Mountain as an example. (Britt Lê/Washington Trails Association)

Bridget Wisniewski help leads a class at WTA’s Crew Leader College. She was teaching trail work crews about how to build effective drainage, using a trail on Cougar Mountain as an example. (Britt Lê/Washington Trails Association)

Talking trails: She’s restoring access to the wilderness

Milk Creek trail in Glacier Peak Wilderness was lost but is found. Here’s what you can do to help.

By Rachel Wendling

Washington Trails Association

The Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is one of the largest in the state and contains some of our most breathtaking landscapes — from the ever popular I-90 corridor to the rugged peaks of the northern Cascades. The forest also is home to the iconic Glacier Peak Wilderness — a priority area in the Washington Trails Association’s Lost Trails Found campaign.

Known for its towering trees, incredible views and easy-to-reach meadows, the Glacier Peak Wilderness had something to offer every type of hiker. That is, until an epic storm severed access to one of the most crucial entry points: The Milk Creek trail.

With a missing bridge, access to the Glacier Peak Wilderness, the Pacific Crest Trail and a number of loop and family-friendly hike options have been lost. Due to an ever-shrinking budget, it has been difficult for the Forest Service to keep every trail open and accessible, leaving trails like Milk Creek to become overgrown and lost.

WTA believes that reviving the Milk Creek trail will open up new opportunities for every level of hiker, and create a happier, more sustainable trail system.

Here, we talk to Bridget Wisniewski, forestry technician for the U.S. Forest Service, to learn more about the importance of Glacier Peak and what needs to be done to restore access to this wilderness. Wisniewski began her work with the Darrington Ranger District in 1988 — making this her 31st summer in the area. She knows the Glacier Peak Wilderness like the back of her hand.

What makes the Glacier Peak Wilderness so special?

It was one of the first. Glacier Peak was in the initial 1964 Wilderness Act. I think its ruggedness makes it special, and one has to work to see some of the gems.

I met somebody from New Zealand last year and he just was blown away by the North Cascades. I thought, “New Zealand! Come on, you’ve got beautiful mountains there!,” and he said, “Ours don’t go on forever.” So this is an incredible, special place. Probably like the Himalayas but smaller.

Why do we need places like Glacier Peak Wilderness in Washington?

Exploring is what humans like to do, and these places satisfy that urge that resides in most of us. It just so happens it is near a metropolitan area called Seattle.

Do you think there are any challenges right now for this district?

Here’s the challenge: We have roads that are falling apart. Maintaining the trail becomes secondary when you start adding on the added distance to the trailhead. Sometimes it is still easy to go and hike and do the work, other times you are adding mobilization costs, which take away from doing work on the trail.

With funding cuts, what are you feeling the most?

Each year I have had to deal with a problem with a road. Slumps, washout, potholes, washboard (ripples on the road that look like an old laundry washboard) that have added logistical challenges to the job. This year the North Fork Sauk (FS 49) had a number of places with debris flows and a slump.

I had a volunteer group that was going to have stock support; we canceled because we did not feel comfortable asking the stock volunteers to drive through these areas. It is rough on the trailers, the animals and my peace of mind. The forest’s road maintenance budget was $60,000 — that pencils out to $15,000 per district; that pays for very little work to be done.

We have volunteers fixing the roads on this district by hand — cleaning culverts, cutting down logs, sometimes filling the larger potholes. The volunteer village is stepping up, but is this what we want for the places we love?

What needs to happen to restore access to the Milk Creek trail?

We need to have a bridge across the Suiattle River that stock and people can hike across. The Suiattle River is a scary river to ford by foot or horse.

What can people do to help save lost trails and prevent others from becoming lost?

Write your Congressional representatives. Ask for funding to be appropriated to maintain roads and trails.

What do you hope will happen if we get Milk Creek back?

With Milk Creek accessible to the PCT, we would be able to maintain the 30 miles between the Suiattle River trail and North Fork Sauk a little easier. Milk Creek intersects the PCT about 15 miles from each of those trails. Unlike other sections of the PCT, there are no road connections from U.S. 2 to Stehekin River Road, I think that is about 150 miles of trail with no driving access. We have 30 miles with no hiking access aside from the PCT itself, and it is in the roughest section of the trail outside the Sierras.

How will the revival of the Milk Creek trail impact the trail system as a whole?

It’ll open up a 32-mile loop that’s beautiful and fun. It provides an exit for those who need to leave the trail earlier than planned. Reduces our mobilization costs into this area of the PCT (presently I fly the crew in every three to four years to “catch up” on brushing) and will provide miles and miles of everyone’s favorite trail maintenance activity — brushing.

Washington Trails Association promotes hiking as a way to inspire a people to protect Washington’s natural places. Get inspired to go hiking and learn how you can help protect trails at www.wta.org.

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