Suspension Bridge Spanning Remote Canyon Tough To Build

LINCOLN CITY, Ore. - Where the trail passes beneath moss-covered limbs in an old growth forest stand, you can hear the sound of crashing water before you see the falls.

"It's about 200 yards now," says Charlie Severson, a member of the U.S. Forest Service's Hebo Ranger District staff, as he leads some visitors to a first-time viewing of Drift Creek Falls. "I like to look at people's faces when they first observe it."

The look on their faces this day is one of awe as the trail breaks out of the trees and takes them onto a long, narrow, recently completed suspension bridge spanning Drift Creek Canyon.

A hundred feet below, the creek rushes over boulders. From the canyon wall just downstream from the bridge, a 75-foot waterfall from an unnamed tributary leaps over a moss-covered cliff and plunges into a pool below.

"This is it," Severson says. "It" is the longest suspension trail bridge in any national forest in Oregon and Washington, a regional Forest Service bridge engineer says.

It's also the most spectacular, Severson says, because nowhere else does a bridge and waterfall meet in such a magnificent setting. He says he's sure once the word gets out about the new trail and bridge east of Lincoln City, people will flock to see it.

When they do, they might stand at the canyon's edge and contemplate the difficulty of constructing such a huge span in such a remote location.

The bridge was built for $170,000 by a Seattle company after an accidental death in 1993 ended an initial effort by a Forest Service bridge-building crew.

Carroll Vogel, the Seattle contractor who built the bridge, says the death occurred when a Forest Service foreman became tangled in a rigging line and was pulled into the chasm while trying to move an excavator across the canyon on an overhead cable.

Vogel, whose company specializes in building suspension bridges in remote places, says the man, Scott Paul, was an experienced bridge builder who was trail foreman in the Mount Baker Ranger District of Washington's Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Paul was also a friend of Vogel and of his construction crew, and their biggest satisfaction was being able to finish the job for Paul, Vogel says. The bridge and a 1 1/4-mile trail to the falls opened Sept. 12.

"When it was done, I walked across and I just knew that Scott would be happy that he had the bridge that he had dreamed of," Vogel says.

It wasn't an easy bridge to build. Vogel's crew started work in August 1996 and most of the job was done this past summer. The weather often turned rainy and miserable. And because the site is a quarter-mile from the nearest logging road, the biggest challenge was bringing in the materials.

A helicopter flew in the bigger pieces, as well as buckets full of concrete for the support footings and for the anchor points for the 1 1/4-inch cables.

Vogel and his two-person crew moved smaller pieces down a muddy temporary trail on trail cycles modified for hauling. They also yarded a small excavator and other equipment across the canyon by cable.

After erecting 29-foot-tall pylons (support towers) and overhead cables, Vogel and his crew spent their days working in midair above the canyon, putting together the walkway - a 30-inch-wide structure with chest-high safety railings.

The trail from a Forest Service road to the falls was already built but not officially open while the bridge project was going on. Many visitors came to watch anyway.

They asked if the bridge builders were afraid of heights. "We tell them it's not that we're afraid," Vogel says, "but that we have a healthy respect."

The workers, who were used to working in lofty places, wore safety harnesses. Vogel says it's no accident that the name of his company is Sahalie, the Chinook work for "way up high."

When you walk across the bridge, you can feel it sway.

But engineers say it moves no more than 2 inches and is capable of supporting 165,000 pounds - more than the weight of two log trucks.

The combination of the moving bridge and the extreme height causes some hikers to end their trek without walking across the canyon, Severson says.

The trail and the bridge represent the fulfillment of a dream that staff in the Siuslaw National Forest's Hebo Ranger District have had since 1989.

Before the trail, Severson says, the falls area was virtually inaccessible, visited only by a few anglers.

The idea for the project won the support of Siuslaw Forest headquarters and won funding initially for the trail and parking lot and finally for the bridge.

Altogether, the project cost $225,000.

After crossing the bridge, hikers can relax at a picnic table and viewing area, or hike another quarter-mile down to Drift Creek, where they can look up at the bridge and waterfall.

There's a little more work to be done, such as putting in benches for hikers to use on the uphill hike out. A marker dedicated to the memory of Paul will be installed before a dedication ceremony next spring.