INDEX — Karen Sample is pushing her daughter in a jogging stroller through the woods outside Index. It’s outfitted with wheels large enough to overcome nearly any obstacle.
She stops here and there to clip the stinging nettles that are encroaching on a narrow footpath, careful to keep the irritating plants from touching her daughter’s legs.
Eventually, the path widens, and the brush opens up into a forest landing. A creek burbles nearby, reduced by the recent heatwave to a tinkle. A pond has dried into a mud puddle.
Even at its “least luscious,” as Sample puts it, this place is infected with green.
“Usually we stop right here,” she said, looking up, arms spread out, “and I’m like, ‘Oh (expletive).’”
With several improvements in the works, this trail at the bottom of Heybrook Ridge will eventually comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, giving everyone a chance to experience it.
It’s called Erinswood, named after Sample’s daughter.
Erin, 30, has cerebral palsy, a group of disorders that can affect the development of a person’s brain and body.
For the people of Index, a mountain town of fewer than 200 off U.S. 2, she’s become something of a muse. It’s because of her, volunteers and advocates say, that they seek more accessible trails.
“Erinswood will be the only ADA trail for many miles in any direction,” said Ann Darlington, board member of the Friends of Heybrook Ridge. “It makes it unique and special, and it’s totally worth it.”
The 0.6-mile loop trail got a boost in January when Snohomish County was given $432,000 by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. Work on the trail will include realignment for watershed protection, compressed rock surfacing, interpretive signs, a few tarred parking spots for vehicles carrying wheelchairs and a toilet facility. If funds allow, benches may also be installed.
So far, there is no estimated completion date, except that the grant must be used within a couple years. The county is still in the permitting and design phase, and the proposed improvements will need to undergo an environmental assessment.
It’s one of a handful of projects that will reshape the county park.
Up the hill, another $210,000 federal grant awarded this year was used to buy 15 more acres, sparing the land from private development or logging. The new property abuts the Leovy Trail, the main line that leads hikers to panoramic views of the South Fork Skykomish Valley, including peaks like Baring, Philadelphia and Index.
A “memory shelter” is also being built, facing picturesque Canyon Falls, on property bought and donated by Friends of Heybrook Ridge in 2014. The shelter will be made from local trees and will have a foundation of local rocks. Designed by Snohomish County-based artist Neil McWee, the memory shelter is meant to be a peaceful place to think and share memories about those who have passed away. A connecter trail from Leovy will link up with the site. Darlington said it will be “a lovely picnic area,” though the spot is not yet ready for public use.
Eventually, the plan is to connect the trails on this side of the ridge to Heybrook Lookout, a fire tower just off U.S. 2 that attracts the masses with its accessibility and sweeping vistas.
More than a century ago, this ridge was clearcut, and the base was the site of the productive Index-Galena lumber mill. Back then, logging happened unrestricted, and no one bothered to replant the area.
The forest came back anyway and has since reclaimed the hillside. In the new millennium, signs of the logging industry have become obscured. On Erinswood Trail, trees have sprouted from the wooden sleds of a steam donkey — a contraption used to haul timber — and bits and scrap of old equipment are hiding in the brush.
When the property owners announced plans to log the ridge, people rose up to do something about it.
The Heybrook Ridge County Park officially opened in 2017.
Darlington has a cabin in Index, along the Skykomish. From it, she has a direct view of Heybrook Ridge. She couldn’t imagine waking up to a clearcut hillside.
“When you’re in those woods, it feels like there’s going to be an elf or hobbit pop out,” she said.
Sample moved to Index with her husband when she was 23. She was a music teacher; he was an audio engineer. Coming from Illinois, she described herself as a mountain girl who was born in the wrong state.
When Erin was born, Sample and her husband made no plans to completely change their lifestyle. They adapted. A couple decades ago, they got a jogging stroller they could use to get Erin to the outdoors, “wherever we can get it to go.” They’ve taken her all over the mountains, to rivers and lakes and oceans. Erin has gone river rafting, downhill and cross-country skiing, and has braved (a small portion of) the Pacific Crest Trail.
Sample admits that, maybe, some of it comes from a certain level of selfishness. She wants to be in the outdoors, so she takes her daughter to the outdoors. But she feels validated when Erin’s eyes light up.
“There’s lots of kids who won’t get opportunities like this,” Sample said. “Parents get stopped by thinking they can’t take their special needs kids out with them.”
Erinswood has been a gift for the Samples — something so close to home, where they can still experience nature with ease.
There are moments, even on this little trail, where if you stand still, you’ll catch yourself in a moment of awe. Moss tangles the forest as sunbeams filter through the canopy. A woodpecker flies by, flitting from tree to tree.
Toward the end of the loop, Sample leans back the stroller to give her daughter a better view. Erin is taking it all in, her eyes moving all around. Occasionally she lets out a sound — not a word, more like punctuation. An exclamation mark verbalized. It’s her way of letting you know her joy.
One day, Sample won’t have to use a special jogging stroller to take her daughter here. She can use a regular wheelchair, with regular tires. And she won’t have to clip back the stinging nettles.
When the trail is done, Erin can enjoy this place and all its critters and greenery — and all that magic of being outside — without hindrance.