WALLOWA LAKE — Eighteen years ago in mid-July, an angry wall of mud, trees, rocks and fury roared down BC Creek on the east flank of Chief Joseph Mountain. It wiped out homes, ravaged riverbanks and importantly for hikers, tore out the bridge across BC Creek that allowed access to the scenic upper portions of Chief Joseph Mountain.
The damage is mostly healed now, and on Saturday, Sept. 26, volunteers took steps to fix one of the last remaining insults — the bridge across BC Creek’s troubled waters.
“We’ve been working with the Forest Service to get that bridge replaced for two, maybe three years, “ said Rick Bombaci, Project Director of the Wallowa Mountain Hells Canyon Trails Association (WMHCTA).
A bridge across a small stream might not seem a big deal to mountain hikers. But BC Creek is anything but your average alpine rivulet. Named for prospectors Breeden and Camp, who filed silver claims in the creek’s headwaters in 1905, (according to Oregon Geographic Names) it tumbles from the back side of Chief Joseph Mountain to the West Fork of the Wallowa River, plunging about 4,000 feet in four frantic, waterfall-bespeckled miles. The Chief Joseph Trail (USFS Trail 1803) crosses the torrent at a steep, slippery interlude where the hiker is balanced perilously between a whitewater cascade and the lip of BC Creek Falls which plunges an unforgiving 70 feet or so straight down.
For this crossing, a bridge is a necessity.
“It’s a dangerous spot,” Bombaci said.
A previous effort to replace the vanished bridge failed. In 2018, the USFS and WMHCTA developed a plan to maneuver the David Wheeler Memorial Bridge up the slope to serve as the BC Creek crossing. The big metal and wood structure had been stranded and rendered useless when the river cut a new channel around it during the 2002 debris flow event.
But the plan to move the bridge never worked out.
“The Forest Service engineers determined that the quality of the rock that the bridge would be anchored to was not stable enough to put that big steel bridge up there,” Bombaci said.
It was time for a simpler solution.
So after consultations with the U.S. Forest Service, the WMHCTA swung into action.
The approved plan was to fall a large Douglas fir tree across the creek and transform the tree into a single-lane log bridge, complete with handrails for safety. The Forest Service would build the structure. The WMHCTA volunteers would carry the materials to the construction site and help with bridgework in some circumstances.
“It will be a more modest structure, but a very serviceable one,” Bombaci said.
In early September, John Hollenbeak, USFS trails coordinator who works out of Joseph, put his chain saw to work, and laid the 100-foot-plus tree down. It fell almost perfectly into place, spanning the 65 feet needed for the bridge. Hollenbeak, other USFS employees, and WMHCTA volunteers including Russ West, Joel Malstrom, Jon Larson, and Mike Hansen, trimmed the branches and shaved off all the bark by scooting along the fallen “bridge,” then winched the ends into place. Finally, Hollenbeak trimmed a flat walking surface into the underside of the log’s rounded trunk.
All that remains now is to roll the log over, add the handrails and secure the new bridge’s ends into the banks.
“At this point its primarily a Forest Service job,” Bombaci said, “because the nature of the terrain and the nature of the work is a bit more dangerous than what would be reasonable to expect volunteers to do.” Volunteers, he added, will help install the handrails.
Getting the 4x4 timbers for handrails to the bridge site required carrying them about 1½ miles over uneven, rocky trails that rise about 200 feet in elevation. The WMHCTA stepped up to the challenge.
On the crisp morning of Saturday, Sept. 26, with the Wallowas wearing the season’s first mantle of snow, about a dozen volunteers hand-carried 24 stout 4x4 timbers from the Wallowa River trailhead to BC Creek. The timbers would become the uprights that supported the handrails.
The volunteers included more than the WMHCTA regulars. Hikers from outside the county who were headed up the trail also lent their time and energy to the project.
“Visitors from all over the country stopped to help,” Bombaci said proudly. “There were hikers from Ashland, Portland, Boise, Clarkston and even Texas and Mississippi. Really all I had to do was just talk to people and they offered to carry a timber or two. Some even thanked me for inviting them to participate.”
Some volunteers carried multiple timbers — including Hansen, who backpacked more than his fair share to BC Creek three at a time. Others took one or two, and some groups of visitors took turns carrying their load.
“We’re happy to help fix a trail that we’re hiking,” said Kaelan Young, who hails from Mississippi. “It’s a beautiful place.”
With fall and wet weather setting in, it’s likely that the bridge won’t be completed by the USFS until next year, Bombaci said. But when it is, access to the flank of Chief Joseph Mountain and its remarkable views will be open for all.