Helicopter delivers new bridge to Eagle Creek trail

With only hours to spare, in between rain showers, in a narrow gorge within a gorge, crews installed a new bridge on the Eagle Creek trail in the Columbia River Gorge - by helicopter. Forest officials celebrated as crews airlifted the old Tish Creek...

Helicopter delivers new bridge to Eagle Creek trail

With only hours to spare, in between rain showers, in a narrow gorge within a gorge, crews installed a new bridge on the Eagle Creek trail in the Columbia River Gorge - by helicopter.

Forest officials celebrated as crews airlifted the old Tish Creek bridge away, then lowered a new bridge into place, making a narrow window of clear weather on Tuesday, the last day the job could be done before October.

"I think it's still sinking in how exciting this is," Rachel Pawlitz, spokeswoman for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, said. "It was a bit of a nail biter there."

The old bridge was destroyed by a storm in December 2015, and has been sitting on the trail ever since. U.S. Forest Service officials spent 2016 securing funding to replace the bridge and hiring contractors to get the job done. They announced the replacement was ready to go at the beginning of February, but only had until March 1 to do it.

That narrow window is thanks to the endangered northern spotted owl, which nests in the area from March to October.

The replacement was complicated further by an especially wet February, which didn't allow many opportunities for a helicopter to navigate the narrow Eagle Creek gorge in the fog and rain. Getting ground crews to Tish Creek was problematic too, requiring a volunteer trail crew to dig through ice and snow to make a path.

All the hard work and planning came together in the end. Minutes after the helicopter flew away, word came that the new bridge was in place, ending a year-long closure of the small section of the trail.

Crews replaced the old 41-foot metal truss bridge with one made of durable fiber-reinforced polymer. The project was paid for by a $110,000 grant from the Federal Lands Transportation Program, with additional funds from the U.S. Forest Service.

It will take another few days for the bridge to be completely secure, but the continued closure shouldn't be a big inconvenience, as the Eagle Creek trail is still inundated with ice and snow. For now, though, it's a cause for celebration for forest officials and local hikers alike.

"We know that people felt really strongly that they wanted to see this bridge be replaced," Pawlitz said. "It's nice for us to get a solution in there for everyone."

--Jamie Hale | jhale@oregonian.com | @HaleJamesB

Downed bridge closes part of Eagle Creek trail

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