Zipping Through the Treetops

Members of the SCA International high school crew take a ferry to the trailhead.They will work and camp about 6 miles up the valley behind them – the Big Beaver drainage.

Have you ever seen a zipline through a forest? If you said yes, then it’s probably one of those ultra-touristy, charge-people-a-lot-of-money-to-have-the-chance-to-fly-through-the-trees type of deals. The one I got to experience last week was much different, and much cooler.<p>As a natural extension of my internship with the Volunteer and Youth Programs in North Cascades National Park, I had the pleasure of working with an SCA high-school crew last week. But not just any crew. It was the SCA International Crew – the only SCA outfit to divide work between Canada and the US. Half of the members came from Canada, half from the States. Pretty neat, eh? Now in its 27th year, it was devised by a binational commission that provides funds for projects affecting the Skagit River watershed, which spans the international border in our park.<p>One of their tasks here was to construct a turnpike. A slight misnomer, a turnpike is a raised section of trail bound by logs and filled in with crushed rock and mineral soil to surpass an otherwise marshy area. By the time I arrived, much of the grunt work had been done. That included cable-hauling freshly hewn old-growth cedar logs in ten-member teams (Yes, your mental picture of ancient Egyptians lined up to haul slabs up scaffolding is apt.). The crew filled in the roughly 25 feet of frame with a bunch of rocks and went at them with a sledgehammer to create gravel infill. The next step was to fill that in with mineral soil to provide a smooth, secure walking surface.

The SCA International crew stretches around their uncompleted labor of love – a turnpike.

That’s where the zipline came in. It is not advisable, in a pristine wilderness area, to go around the forest digging big pits to source dirt. It should be done with a minimal amount of disruption to the ecosystem – you know, the whole Leave No Trace thing. Instead, they had planned to get the dirt from a spot farther up the trail where they were widening an existing switchback. There was one little problem though: the distance between the dirt pile and the turnpike was almost 200 feet up a steep hillside. Easy for a stroll through the park, but grueling when countless buckets of dirt are involved.

Crew members reel in an empty bucket to replace it with one full of dirt. Ingenuity and resourcefulness were required to troubleshoot the contraption’s problems. The buckets with rocks on the right act as counterweight to add more tension to the line.

To solve this problem, the park’s trail crew advisor and the SCA crew leaders collaborated to devise a plan to zipline the dirt down the hillside. While the idea seemed simple enough in theory, it took a while to actually get it working. About a day’s worth of work, in fact. The high school crew members played no small part in troubleshooting the contraption. Their problem solving prowess and improvisational ingenuity were impressive. Slack line ratchets were attached to peacord for increased tension. Intricate knots were tied. Extra weights were devised; supporting lines were fastened. By the end of the day, they were sending bucket loads of dirt down the hillside where a team member would pluck it off the line and dump it onto the turnpike.

A bucket coasts through the treetops on the zipline.

I’ve done a fair share of trail work in my day, but never had I participated in a project so elaborate. The moment when that first full bucket of dirt coasted almost 200 feet through the trees inspired equal parts wonder and pride. That childlike fascination with Rube Goldberg contraptions kicked in. We whooped and hollered each time a bucket successfully arrived at the end of the span instead of sagging into the ground or getting caught up in branches. Mostly though, I felt proud to be a part of a project in which teenagers were trusted with an active role in achieving a difficult task. They were the riggers and the troubleshooters. Hopefully they appreciated how unique that opportunity was. I know I did.

The zipline ends where the person in the left corner is standing. She will take the full bucket over to the turnpike where the dirt will be dumped, raked, and tamped into the rock spaces.