Bruce Kimball navigates his way across one of two river crossings he has to make to connect to Index-Galena Road to reach his cabin on May 9 in Index. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Bruce Kimball navigates his way across one of two river crossings he has to make to connect to Index-Galena Road to reach his cabin on May 9 in Index. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Wilderness awaits beyond the washout on Index-Galena Road

After 15 years, construction has begun, restoring connection to the Wild Sky and Blanca Lake.

INDEX — If you look hard enough, you can see remnants of the Index-Galena Road.

Chunks of asphalt line the shores and lurk beneath the water’s surface in a newly formed channel along the north fork of the Skykomish River.

When the road was built in 1911, people here probably didn’t know that almost a century later it would be consumed by a raging Skykomish, destroying a half-mile stretch that would separate civilization from wilderness.

At the turn of the 20th century, the road was just a means to an end, and Index was still a town of dreams built on wood and stone, gold and silver.

In the new millennium, Index’s economy relies not on precious metals or timber, but recreation. The small mountain town of less than 200 is a stopping point for destinations in the Wild Sky Wilderness and beyond, including the ever popular jade green waters of Blanca Lake.

Since 2006, the sunken half-mile of road has divided people from hiking, kayaking, cabins, campgrounds and even mining claims on the other side of the wash-out. Instead, visitors and property owners and prospectors must take a 40-mile detour, via Beckler River Road and up the steep gravelly switchbacks of Jack Pass, a route that isn’t open year-round.

The portion of Index-Galena Road between milepost 6.4 and 6.9 is the last piece left to fix after the flooding. The construction languished in a drawn-out planning process, while funding was secured, and while county officials figured out how to best replace the section of road. Three years ago, another obstacle arose, when the Sno-King Watershed Council appealed the project’s shoreline permit to a state board, arguing the plans didn’t adequately protect water quality according to county standards, or consider that construction would place fill dirt in the river’s migration zone, the range where the river could move naturally over time.

“We feel that the North Fork Skykomish River is poised to make a shift to the south,” wrote watershed council board member Bill Lider. If that happens, Lider argued, “the County will have just wasted $30-million in taxpayer dollars.”

Lider, a civil engineer, is a Lynnwood-based activist who frequently challenges county land-use decisions.

The appeal was struck down by the Shorelines Hearings Board, and again in February by a Thurston County Superior Court judge.

It’s currently back in the state Court of Appeals, but the county has decided to move ahead with construction anyway. Public Works Deputy Director and county engineer Doug McCormick said the project has gone through extensive environmental review.

“We prevailed, in both Shorelines Hearings Board and appeal in Thurston County court,” he said. “We feel very comfortable and confident in moving forward with this project.”

After 15 years of waiting, trees are now being felled to make way for the new road.

This new one will go higher up the hillside and will be nearly a mile long, to avoid another bout with the Skykomish. It’ll feature new culverts and a 180-foot-long bridge to help with fish passage, reinforced slopes and retaining walls. Crews will also remove chunks of the abandoned road, what environmental planner Crilly Ritz referred to as “asphalt island.” That’ll be replaced with new soil and more than nine acres of native plants and trees.

“By relocating the new road out of the 100-year floodplain, we are reducing flood risk to the road and providing more room for the river,” McCormick said in a statement. “Every element of design and construction has been carefully vetted by the county and partnering state and federal agencies to ensure all environmental requirements are met and every consideration is made to minimize disruption to the river and its surrounding habitat.”

Construction is estimated to be $20 million. That doesn’t include the costs of planning, amounting to another $8 million. Federal funding accounts for most of the expense.

The road should be done by fall of 2023, or maybe sooner if weather cooperates.

Locals hope the new road will bring renewed interest to the region, and revitalize business in Index, the so-called “gem of the forest.”

Pieces of Index-Galena Road meet the North Fork Skykomish River in Index. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Pieces of Index-Galena Road meet the North Fork Skykomish River in Index. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The flood

George W. Bush was still president, and Jay Inslee was about to win his sixth term in Congress, when Index saw one of the worst floods it had ever seen in November 2006.

The rivers in Snohomish County swelled to more than 33 feet, blasting a 30-foot hole through the French Slough levee.

Homes were hit hard by trees, logs and roots that came rushing downstream. Afterward, one man told The Daily Herald he evacuated his cottage, only to return the next day to find a 130-foot tree skewering his home “like a toothpick through a martini olive.”

A few miles up the road, the river gnawed the banks back 15 feet and devoured two cabins. The water “worked like a saw blade” as it destroyed homes along the river, a resident told The Herald.

Index saw the worst road damage in the county, officials said at the time.

The total damage estimate exceeded $20 million.

Bruce Kimball, a retired corporate pilot who lives most of the year in Kent with his family, is one of a handful of people who own property beyond the washout, which otherwise is mostly undeveloped land.

Bruce Kimball drives along an empty Index-Galena Road on May 9 in Index. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Bruce Kimball drives along an empty Index-Galena Road on May 9 in Index. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

From his cabin by the river, Kimball had a front row seat to the flood. He said he liked to come out to witness the most dramatic weather patterns, for the highest rivers and deepest snows.

This flood was caused not by snow melt, but by continuous rain, he said.

“It rained biblically,” he recalled.

The river roared as it kept rising and rising, Kimball said. From inside his cabin, he could hear the sounds of boulders being tossed down the Skykomish, and logs crashing against the bridge. He stayed up for hours, unsure if he would be safe. He didn’t go to sleep until he saw the water begin to recede.

The next day, Kimball saw that the road on either side of his cabin community had been destroyed.

He was stuck for weeks.

With time on his hands, Kimball decided to make a website to communicate with others who may want to know what’s going on beyond the washout — such as other property owners or hikers. He said he’s been making websites basically since the internet was invented, and he was one of the only people in the area who had a satellite system, so he could connect to the internet.

And so was born.

The website, with its black Helvetica over white background, is utilitarian and sometimes funny. On it, he gives the latest on his communications with county officials and law enforcement; road and weather conditions; sightings of strangers and possible trespassers — including the Russian campers and “the Galena mystery man” — and the difficulties of getting propane. One Wednesday evening, he shared his woes about being unable to find chanterelle and morel mushrooms, likening the search to the “snipe hunt” he went on as a Boy Scout. (Later, he updated that he found chanterelles. “There were two, but I shot the first one,” he wrote. “I was afraid it would get away.”) In another post, he made a movie recommendation: Holes, starring Shia Labeouf.

Despite the road closure, Kimball spends about half his time at the cabin. He said he bought it in 2000 as his “retirement activity.”

To get there while the pass is closed, he navigates his way around the washed out portion of road, bushwhacks his way through the forest and hops on some rocks to cross parts of the river. Once he makes it back on the old road on the other side, it’s another couple miles of hiking.

As a property owner, Kimball has special permission to go to his cabin. The county is discouraging people from entering the active construction zone. Those hoping to take advantage of the recreational opportunities on the other side will have to go through Jack Pass, now open for the summer.

Openly carrying a 9mm handgun, Kimball sees himself as a kind of Lone Ranger character. He keeps an eye on the community and talks to any strangers he sees in an attempt to deter crime, whatever kind may come to these parts. As one of the only people with access to the internet, he’s also one of the only people who can call 911 and communicate reliably with the cops.

Kimball is one of a few “committed diehards” who regularly cross the washout. He’s seen other property owners sell their cabins because they had no way to visit. Others don’t come nearly as often as Kimball, or stay nearly as long.

Bruce Kimball adds wood to the fire in his cabin on May 9 in Index. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Bruce Kimball adds wood to the fire in his cabin on May 9 in Index. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

By now, Kimball has mastered his arrival routine. Heat up the house, start up the electricity, power up the internet, make some French press coffee. He has “a bazillion channels” on satellite radio, but he only listens to two stations: “Country, and country.” And maybe some Elvis. He said he hunts and fishes and hikes sometimes, but mostly he whiles away his time by working on any one of his various projects — like his upcoming hobby, ham radio. “It could be a hit!” he said. He likes to stay busy.

Kimball looks forward to the day that he can drive to his cabin on the Index-Galena. Now 70, he’s unsure how many more years he can make the trek on foot. With the completed road, he could bring his family more often. And he’s eager to share the natural beauty of the region with others.

The gem of the forest

Debbie Copple, director of the Sky Valley Chamber of Commerce, said she’s been disappointed by how long it’s taken to replace the Index-Galena.

Without the road, it’s challenging to show off what the region has to offer, and to attract visitors. She noted the Wild Sky Wilderness was designated as a wilderness in 2008, but ever since, actually getting there has been a hassle.

It’s been so long since the road was passable, Copple said she didn’t think she could compare what it was like before to what it will be like after the road reopens.

In 2005, before the flood, an average of about 230 vehicles traveled Index-Galena Road daily and 530 on Saturdays, according to the county. That was before Instagram and TikTok were around to show millions of viewers what they were missing out on — before #wanderlust and FOMO drove unprecedented hordes of people to the outdoors.

Construction of the new section of Index-Galena Road in Index. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Construction of the new section of Index-Galena Road in Index. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Sitting just a mile off of U.S. 2, Index might as well be invisible to many who drive by on the highway, on their way to other destinations.

With the road reopening, the small town will likely be treated to a new wave of weekend warriors.

Some business owners are counting on it, like Bill Corson. Recreation is his job.

In Index, his family owns the Outdoor Adventure Center, the River House and — soon — a newly renovated Bush House hotel.

He said he moved here in 2007 because of the scenery, the river and the wilderness. Staying at the historic Bush House, he said, was like staying in a “small Yosemite Valley,” with the sheer granite cliffs of the Index Town Wall dominating the scenery.

Copple said the view from her friend’s chicken coop is better than the view from most people’s houses.

“To be honest, I think it’s the most picturesque community I’ve ever seen,” Copple said. “… I just don’t think you can see ugly up there. It’s just a beautiful place.”

Corson has fond memories of what lies beyond the washout, too, like Bear Creek Falls, where salmon can be seen migrating upstream. And the Skykomish here is especially clear, he said, opening up to wide vistas of the mountains, unlike any other river he’s been on in the state — and as a rafting guide, he’s been on a lot of rivers.

In the Wild Sky Wilderness, he sees opportunity.

Where trails along the I-90 corridor have become saturated with people, as populations in Seattle and the surrounding suburbs keep growing, the Wild Sky has remained relatively undiscovered because of the closed road.

When people can finally visit with ease, they’ll need to pick up last-minute supplies, such as food and wood, at the Index General Store. They’ll want a cup of coffee to perk them up for the journey ahead, or a beer to cool off after a long day outdoors. The River House offers the former; the Sand Bar offers the latter.

With recreational tourism comes jobs, Corson said. At the Outdoor Adventure Center, he said he went from up to 80 part-time employees in the summer before the washout, to less than 30 after. When the road is complete, he expects to increase his staff again.

Copple said she didn’t want to see Index become overwhelmed by visitors. It’s a small town, and people there like it that way, she said.

The goal is to strike a balance, Corson said.

As for Kimball, he’ll miss some aspects of living beyond the washout mostly by himself. He’ll enjoy the convenience, but with that comes traffic, noise and other disturbances that haven’t reached his cabin in 15 years.

He’s learned to appreciate the isolation and the quiet.

“You just wouldn’t even believe how often I am the only human soul in this valley,” Kimball said.

When the road reopens, there’ll be many more souls to join him.

He’s OK with that.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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