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Three Days in the Life of the Salmonberry Trail Valley Segment Planning Team

Jim Rapp | 11-02-2017

Story first published in different form on Oregon Parks and Recreation’s Salmonberry Trail website.

Background: The majestic coastline, forests, and farmlands of Northwest Oregon are sewn together by a historic passage known today as the Salmonberry Corridor. This scenic but rugged corridor was once home to the Pacific Railway and Navigation (“fondly” known for decades as Punk, Rotten and Nasty) rail line that connected the windswept coast of Tillamook County to the fertile Tualatin River Valley in Washington County, and linked with other rail lines to take freight and passengers into the City of Portland. This corridor is now being planned for the 84-mile long multiuse Salmonberry Trail. In between the Coast and the Valley, the future 84-mile-long Salmonberry Trail will follow the Nehalem River into Oregon’s Coast Range and then pass through the spectacular Salmonberry River Canyon.

The future Salmonberry Trail’s “Valley Segment” includes approximately 22 miles of “rail to trail”. This segment starts at the Tillamook County line just west of the rural unincorporated community of Timber and near to the summit of the Coast Range, and drops 1500 feet in elevation to the City of Banks on the west side of metropolitan Portland. This Valley Segment crosses over 16 historic trestles and bridges along the way, and passes through young Douglas-fir forests in areas near the Tillamook Burn fires of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and the farmlands of the Tualatin Valley. A plan for the Salmonberry Trail’s Coast Segment has already been completed (with Parametrix as the lead consultant), with detailed plans for the Nehalem River and Salmonberry Canyon segments coming in 2018.

The Valley Segment Plan effort will listen and take into consideration the ideas of adjacent landowners and communities in defining what the future bicycle/pedestrian pathway will look like, suggest trailhead locations and designs, determine how the many of the spectacular wooden train trestles can be re-used, examine the possibilities for a parallel equestrian trail, and calculate what it will all cost.

For more information, see the Salmonberry Trail Website: http://salmonberrytrail.org/

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In early July 2017, a team of Parametrix planners, engineers, GIS analysts, plus Dennis Wiley, Salmonberry Trail Project Manager for the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, set out to walk the future Salmonberry Trail’s 22-mile “Valley Segment” over the course of three days. This walk kicked off master planning for this segment.

This is the story of those three days in July. Our team’s mission was to observe and record all manner of conditions along the rail corridor that might influence how the future trail is built. And let’s just say our trip didn’t exactly go as planned. Read on!

Early on the morning of July 6, our team assembled on high up on the east side of the Coast Range where the abandoned rail line enters Washington County and first crosses an unnamed gravel road near the county line. It proved an inauspicious start. With no rail traffic since 2007, the intervening years of rampant plant growth and regular road grading made just finding the rail line crossing difficult. Even with all the mobile GIS and camera technology we were hauling around with us!

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The team bright-eyed in the morning, and still smiling about eight hours later!

 Already an hour behind schedule, our field team finally headed downhill on the existing Gales Creek Trail to the rail corridor. Our team’s shuttle drivers took the 2.5 mile, 10 minute drive east to our first rendezvous point in the community of Timber. The field team emerged from the undergrowth almost four hours later, having only advanced from rail mile 796 to 793 - tired, hot, and scratched up - but with heads still held high. They had worked their way through a green wall of vegetation clogging the entire rail corridor.

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For the rest of this first day, and the two more that followed, the wall of green only varied by the plant species in front of us. While the species changed as the rail line dropped to lower elevations, the sheer density of growth never did, except where we crossed a trestle or a road, or passed close to farmsteads and rural homes. Blackberry brambles were the worst. On the third day, several areas of the rail corridor were virtually impassable, short of risking a large loss of blood!

This became the central story of our three days. Even reaching a snail’s pace of walking a mile per hour felt like moving at light speed and was a cause for celebration. And remember, we weren’t loaded down with backpacks, and we were walking on a dead flat ground for the most part, except for the numerous places where we had to scramble up and over downed trees and landslides.

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Parametrix GIS analyst, Chad Tinsley, with a Go Pro strapped to his chest. He captured the entire trip on digitally.

 Day 2 saw us reach one of the really great features of the future trail – the 1,400-foot-long Walcott Tunnel. This tunnel is dangerous in its current condition, but someday this will be the first of several reopened tunnels that westbound hikers and bikers will use to reach the Salmonberry River Canyon and the Tillamook Coast.

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Walcott Tunnel

We also walked across two large and new landslides/rock falls near Highway 47 on the west side of Stub Stewart State Park. The slides covered the rail line for over 200 feet. Our team’s geotechnical and structural engineers were really excited to see this – they started right in mentally designing the fix as we hiked!

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The reader should be aware that entry to the entire 84-mile-long corridor is currently illegal and presents significant dangers and hazards in its current condition. But not from this harmless rail loving snake!

Despite these challenges, the team did get to the City of Banks by the end of the third day, and along the way made several discoveries that will be important in building the future trail. Things like, the gravel rail bed is mostly in good shape, as are the 16 bridges and trestles. This will keep construction costs down. Future trail users will get a real visual treat when crossing the high wooden trestles, except for the vertigo!

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Without the need for further excavation or retaining walls, there was usually enough flat area within the rail corridor to build a ten-foot-wide paved trail for hikers, bikers, AND a parallel soft-surface equestrian pathway. Truly multiuse! And, as railroads are sited to avoid steep grades, the new trail will be at maximum only 2% to 3% slope and thus accessible to all skill levels, ages, and physical condition.

People all along the future trail route turned out to be pretty nice too. We visited with a newer resident of Timber who was in the midst of restoring the old post office and adding a bike repair shop. We met a number of farmers, and one local resident who, on seeing the team emerge bedraggled from the bushes, ran over thinking it was an emergency and asked if she could help. We also came across four Portland teenagers who had driven out thinking the trail was already open - they had a copy of the Willamette Week newspaper article from last year about the Trail. We advised them, as we did everyone else we met, that there was no trail yet, and that walking the rail right-of-way was illegal, unsafe, and based on our experience, actually not all that much fun at present.

9Plus … lots of dogs! The shuttle team learned early on that a sudden explosion of barking in the distance was a sure sign that we were finally nearing a rendezvous point (more reliable than our walkie-talkies!)

We hope that the Valley Segment trail plan (and the Coast Segment plan that was completed earlier this year) helps move the vision for this unique multi-user, multi-regional pathway forward to the day when everyone can get out on the trail, and enjoy Oregon’s great outdoors.

In the meantime, at the thought of future field trips scheduled for the Valley Segment, we made a note to self: bring a big gas-powered weed whacker!

About the Author

authorJim Rapp is a Senior Planner at Parametrix with over 40 years of industry experience. His work with trail and natural resource planning dates back from his 16 years as Assistant City Manager and Port Director of Ketchikan, Alaska, and City Manager of Sherwood, Oregon. He has led trail planning and funding projects for Metro, Oregon Parks and Recreation, the Port of Tillamook Bay, the cities of Forest Grove and Reedsport, and Indian Nations.