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Hiking upon history at Railroad Bridge Park
In the 1920s, one could stand here and watch trains from Port Townsend and Port Angeles ship cargo — mostly timber or passengers — through the Sequim-Dungeness Valley to the other reaches of the Olympic Peninsula.
In the years since, the roaring and churning of the steam engines has been replaced with the low rumble of a river that preceded the railroad trestle into antiquity, and likely will continue rolling into the foreseeable future.
Railroad Bridge Park is one of this county’s true gems, its crowning glory a railroad trestle that was built nearly 100 years ago and is now a pedestrian and bicycle path, and part of the Olympic Discovery Trail.
The trestle here spans the indefatigable Dungeness River as it snakes its way north to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
But Railroad Bridge Park is much more than that. It’s also home to the Dungeness River Audubon Center, a collaborative learning base, and 28 acres of unique and varied Olympic Peninsula habitat.
Fortunately for us day hikers — even those with four-legged friends — the park offers several winding trails on which to spend an afternoon. My wife, Patsene, and I took Daisy, our Northwest Farm Terrier, to the park sometime close to her 14th birthday — that’s 98 in dog years, in theory. Oddly enough, the railroad bridge itself is close to 100 years old.
According to a history provided by the center, grading for the bridge and railroad bed started in January 1914, with equipment and materials brought by ships and barges to Port Angeles. The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, later called the Milwaukee Road, built the bridge.
Timber for the bridge was cut at railroad saw mills while iron jigs used to size and bore the timbers and the steel for the bridge likely were made in railroad yards and foundries near Chicago. Construction of the bridge began in the summer of 1915 and took about four weeks to complete. The bridge carried the first trains in July 1915.
That seems a far cry from this lazy Saturday. Ambling up the steps — OK, using the ramp, as it’s easier for an old dog — the bridge and nearly silent rushing water below seems built just for us. In fact, in our two-hour visit, we see fewer than a dozen folks, half of them whizzing by on two wheels.
About the only sound we hear beyond the gurgling mini-rapids are birds in song — and dozens of them. Bob Boekelheide, center director, says the lower part of the Dungeness River is a good habitat for a wide variety of birds, providing “an unbroken mix of mature coniferous and deciduous trees” for several miles. They see everything from song sparrows and spotted towhees, to Wilson’s warblers and Pacific-slope flycatchers. Since I couldn’t tell one of these from a duck, I simply enjoy the chattering above us. (The center does host bird walks each Wednesday; check out www.dungenessrivercenter.org).
Moving west across the trestle, I ponder the work it took to refurbish this monstrosity, a 600-foot bridge-turned-wooden-walkway. Daisy doesn’t seem to appreciate it or at least she kept mum about it — out of reverence for the beauty around us.
Once across the trestle, we dip down to trails below the bridge. What was once an easy amble for a young and middle-aged dog has turned into a lesson in inevitable aging. Daisy simply can’t hop over the occasional log, leap across a stream or manage a short, slightly steep slope. We carry her past the rough spots.
These trails are not only home to various birds but also a number of amphibians and reptiles, from frogs to salamanders and even a few snakes. On a hike last year in Colorado, Patsene came upon a rattlesnake and I thought she’d fling herself off the mountain (Actually, she handled it fine. I wanted pictures but didn’t have a 600 mm zoom on the camera.) Fortunately, the snakes around here are generally benign common or Northwest garter snakes.
With picnic tables and a picture-postcard view of the river, this is a great spot to spend a lunch break. Our trio instead meandered the trails south of the bridge, viewing this river’s grand march toward the strait.
It’s a humbling view from here, to know this river was here eons before us and will be here after we go. That’s what made us linger, too.
Reach Michael Dashiell at firstname.lastname@example.org.