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Dry River Bridge re-opens, making a trek for the hale & hearty

The key to a beautiful valley

Work on reconstruction of the suspension footbridge on the Dry River Trail in Crawford Notch was recently completed by a crew from Sahale, LLC, a Seattle company that specializes in building trail bridges. After being closed for four years, the bridge has now been re-opened to hikers venturing into this remote wilderness valley. Steve Smith. (click for larger version)
December 17, 2009
That bridge is the key to accessing the beautiful wilderness valley that sprawls 10 miles south from Mt. Washington to Crawford Notch. The structure was seriously damaged by a spring flood in 2005, making it unsafe to cross. It had been closed to hikers until the Thanksgiving weekend just past, when the project was completed for the Forest Service by Sahale, LLC, a company from Seattle, Wash., that specializes in the construction of trail bridges.

Crossing the Dry River without the bridge is difficult and often dangerous except at times of very low water. The name of this big rocky stream is deceptive. During rainstorms it is a fast riser, and in 1971 two hikers were drowned in separate incidents.

At that time, the Dry River Trail followed the bed of the old Saco Valley Railroad, which had a brief but intense run during the 1890s. The lower part of the valley is a canyon-like cut with little level ground. To keep to a gentle grade, the logging railroad was forced to cross the river 13 times in a four-mile stretch.

Within a decade after the line was closed, the river had washed out all of the trestles. In his classic "Logging Railroads of the White Mountains," C. Francis Belcher noted that the Dry River Valley was "one of the most inaccessible of all the White Mountain locations to be logged by railroad."

After the tragic hiker drownings, the Forest Service relocated the trail to avoid all but one crossing of the river in the first five miles from Route 302. This necessitated running the trail up and down the steep side slopes of the valley, resulting in a route that is surprisingly rugged and tiring despite its modest elevation gain.

In 1977 a suspension footbridge was built at the first crossing, and it served trampers well until its structural integrity was compromised by the 2005 flood.

Cristin Bailey, Trails Manager for the Saco Ranger District, had high praise for the four-man team from Sahale, LLC that constructed the new bridge. "They were awesome," said Bailey in a recent phone conversation in which she described the various stages of the project.

According to Bailey, the pieces of the bridge were first dropped on the riverbank by helicopter. Pilot Carl Swenson of Concord, who does much of the flying for resupplying the AMC huts, performed this difficult maneuver 12 times. "He's the master," said Bailey. The chopper also hauled eight loads of material from the old bridge out of the valley.

The Sahale crew then went to work, erecting the towers at either end of the bridge and running the main cables (which were salvaged from the old bridge) over them. Then the new suspender cables and the metal support beams were put in place.

The support beams, which were prefabricated by Sahale, were put together in sections. "There was lots of bolt tightening going on," said Bailey, who was on hand to see the construction. Finally, the new stringers and decking and railings were set on top, and after inspection by engineers the bridge was ready to go. (For other examples of Sahale's bridge-building prowess, see www.sahale.com )

With the bridge now open, the Dry River Valley, though never heavily traveled, will probably see more usage than it has in the last four years. The upper valley is, however, seldom visited after the snow flies. In recent winters that area has gained a reputation as a catch-basin for lost hikers who are driven off the Southern Presidentials by bad weather, strong westerly winds, and/or faulty navigation.

Once down in the valley, these folks have found the trails buried in unbroken deep snow, if they can even be followed at all. That situation will be somewhat better for any trampers who go astray this winter; according to Bailey, three miles of overgrown trail in the upper valley were brushed out and cleared of blowdowns last summer by a volunteer trail crew from AMC's Camp Dodge.

In contrast, the lower mile of the Dry River Trail, coming in from Route 302, is ideal for beginners, or for experienced 'shoers looking for an easy outing. It's one of my favorite short winter treks.

The trailhead is a plowed pulloff just north of the Dry River Campground and a mile and a half south of the Appalachian Trail crossing; the trail sign may be buried in a snowbank. Starting at about 0.6 mile from the road, there are several places where you can make a short side jaunt to look at the boulder-strewn river. An easy extension of the trip can be made by rambling northward on the Saco River Trail, which leaves the Dry River Trail a half-mile from the road. In about 0.7 mile this trail comes near an interesting beaver swamp.

Snowshoers comfortable with steep sidehill terrain can continue up the Dry River Trail to a bluff with a beautiful view up the valley to Mt. Monroe and Mt. Washington, 1.5 miles from the road. The climb to this spot is short but intense, and the descent from there to the new bridge (located at mile 1.7) may be even steeper as the trail tightropes across and then down a high, airy slope.

When I went in to see the new bridge in early December, I used Microspikes to negotiate this pitch, which was icy at the time. On that trek I continued several miles farther into the valley, switching to snowshoes as the snow depth increased. When I ventured off-trail in search of a remote clifftop viewpoint, it became somewhat of a misadventure due to some careless navigation and lack of attention to hydration. An account of that journey can be seen at my hiking blog, www.mountainwandering.blogspot.com.

A group of strong and experienced snowshoers might aim to reach scenic Dry River Falls, 5.4 miles up the Dry River Trail, a spot that rarely sees visitors in winter. That could be a trail-breaking epic.

Last week's storms made for some good snowshoeing around the Valley — a great excuse to take a break from holiday duties and get out there! Happy holidays to all!

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