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Date with the Duckabush

To hike the entire length of the Duckabush is to experience the scope of what our Trails Rebooted and Lost Trails Found campaigns are working to achieve — a trail system that connects all different kinds of hiking experiences. Which is why WTA has led volunteer trail crews there for nearly a decade | By Anna Roth and Rachel Wendling

The Duckabush River Trail offers the very best access to the forests and mountain vistas on the east side of the Olympic Peninsula. Here, visitors find a variety of hiking experiences: from low-key riverside rambles to multi-day backpacking trips into the heart of Olympic National Park.

But like so many trails across Washington, its existence isn't a given, especially after a 2011 wildfire left behind massive damage. Its effects are still being felt today.

Every winter since the fire, storms bring down trees and wash out sections of the trail. Every single spring and summer since 2012, WTA has crews come out in force to clear the trees and fix the trail tread. They work through all kinds of weather for multiple days at a time to get enormous downed trees out of the way before the informal start of hiking season.

In 2019, they not only cleared the way for early season hikers, but for more WTA volunteers who had been tasked with the challenge of clearing the harder-to-reach upper sections of this iconic trail.

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The lakes and mountains of the Olympic high country are accessible via the Duckabush River Trail...when it's clear. Photo courtesy Rebecca Wanagel.

Crews cleared a path for families out for a stroll and backpackers in search of a wild adventure. With the support of members and volunteers, they'll do the same — and more, next year.

Seeing the Forest For the Trees

As on so much of the Peninsula, hikers flock to the forests of Hood Canal to bask beneath monolithic trees. As they hike along the Duckabush River's edge and then deeper into the forest to Little Hump (the first significant climb on trail) visitors pause to gaze in wonder at arboreal giants lining the trail. It's hard to envision the tops of these behemoths, reaching skyward, the tops out of sight no matter how far back you tilt your head.

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A hiker rambles past enormous trees on the first section of the Duckabush River Trail. Photo by Krista.

But once you reach the base of Big Hump, the forest character changes. Lush greenery and healthy trees give way to charred tree trunks and brown understory. Dead trees, burned by the Big Hump Fire in 2011, stand tall and forbidding.

Some are many feet in diameter; hikers seem puny next to them. And each year, toppled by winter storms or snows, more of these giants give way and fall, blocking the trail. These dead and damaged trees are one of the big reasons WTA crews need to return to fix the trail year after year.

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A BCRT crew works to clear part of the Duckabush River Trail in 2015. Photo by Nutmeg.

The big hump fire

On Aug. 31, 2011, an ill-fated combination of warm summer weather and an improperly extinguished campfire led to a blaze along the quiet, forested banks of the Duckabush River. In only a matter of days, the winds whipped through the river valley and caught a foothold in the dry, flammable duff coating the forest floor.

After the first week of September, the fire had ballooned to nearly 500 acres. A week after that, it was more than 1,200 acres.

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Matchsticked trees from a 2015 trip report, four years after the fire had passed through. Photo by GoatPackin.

For weeks, the eastern flanks of the Olympics filled with a thick smoke, and hikers were turned away from trailheads within the Three Brothers Wilderness. The trees and vegetation present in the Olympics, as well as the notoriously steep and rugged terrain, made for slow progress for firefighting crews stationed in the area.

The dangerous conditions made on-the-ground fire suppression near impossible and diverted most to water-dropping helicopters. It wasn't until late September, when the weather turned that the flames finally fizzled.

In the aftermath, 3.5 miles of the Duckabush trail were left in shambles. Charred and fallen trees created blockades across the trail. Low bridges and rock walls shoring up the trail had been destroyed by the flames and impact of fallen tree limbs.

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A volunteer assistant crew leader hikes up a USFS-cleared section of the Duckabush River in 2012. Crews worked through the season to clear the trail and reopen it. Photo by Nutmeg.

The trail remained closed for almost a year due to the hazards — finally reopening in July of 2012 after benefiting from countless hours of volunteer trail maintenance from WTA.

These dead and damaged trees are one of the big reasons WTA crews need to return to fix the trail year after year.

Despite being officially 'open', the trail was still in far from perfect shape and the aftermath of the fire is still being felt to this day. The singed tread required an overhaul throughout much of the burn, while seasonal wind storms piled on more and more fallen trees every year.

Hikers negotiate the burn area of the Duckabush River Trail. Each winter, more trees fall, creating a maze of obstacles that require on-trail gymnastics to negotiate. Photo by seattlematt.

One strong summer of devoted volunteer maintenance was never going to be enough to make the trail hikeable again. So, we kept coming back.

One Trail, many Options: Why a single trail can matter so much

The damage the Duckabush Fire did was enormous, and the undertaking to keep the trail open in its aftermath has proven to be a years-long commitment. So why did the forest service prioritize it? And why has WTA returned year after year to work on it?

Only the Duckabush Trail offers access for stock, families, backpackers and day hikers. It starts out wide and flat, then gets increasingly steeper and more challenging as it plunges deeper into the park; the perfect route for hikers of all stripes.

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Day hikers and backpackers both seek out solitude and a respite in nature on the Duckabush. Photo by Jasper and the Girl Scouts.

Other access points, like the Dosewallips River Road and the trails in the Staircase area do offer entrance to the forest and park, but the routes can be harder to reach.

"At Staircase, the trail past Nine Stream isn't passable to stock, and the Dosewallips River access requires a really long road walk before you get to the trail," explains WTA Field Programs Manager Alan Carter Mortimer.

Some hikers love turning the Dosewallips River Road into a backpacking trip (others have even created outdoor adventures using bikes and hiking to see how far they can get into the park before they have to head home to see their families). Staircase offers some hiking appropriate for families and day hikers, but getting into the park past a certain point remains challenging.

Only the Duckabush Trail offers access for stock, families, backpackers and day hikers.

When you hike the Duckabush, you walk a trail that starts out as a day hike, one that stands up to year-round visitors. But as you go deeper, the way narrows into something wilder and lonelier as it heads into Olympic National Park. Taken in its entirety, the trail encompasses the full scope of what our Trails Rebooted and Lost Trails Found campaigns are working to achieve: a trail system that connects a variety of different hiking experiences.

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The lush forest of the lower Duckabush gives way to the expansive meadows and high alpine lakes of the heart of the Olympic mountains. Photo courtesy Becca Wanagel.

From Wide to Wild

Returning to clear the same trail year after year can seem like a Sisyphean struggle. When you work for days at a time clearing a stretch of trail, you want to know it will stay that way. (The WTA trail maintenance philosophy, after all, is that we may be the only maintenance the trail sees for years.)

But when trails are destabilized by wildfire, or go decades without maintenance, restoring them requires a long-term commitment. And along the way, the struggle becomes a labor of love.

"We do this to give back to the trails that have given us so much, and to see hikers able to get back to these great places is the biggest payday of all," says McGrubber, one of the volunteers who return to the trail each spring, ready to cut out whatever trees nature has thrown down in the interim.

An illustration of the work one BCRT crew did to clear the Duckabush River Trail shortly after the fire. Photos by Meagan Mackenzie.

Luckily, while the Duckabush needs revisiting each year, the projects that await volunteers are challenging and varied. Before the trail burned, volunteers focused on improving the tread and installing turnpikes to keep it dry. But the burn refocused our work, shifting us much more to logout in those 3.5 mile scarred by flames. Of course, when trees fall, they cause damage to the trail itself, necessitating tread repair.

Root balls from falling trees can rip out whole sections of tread, which means volunteer crews have to remove the tree, and then fix the trail, twice as much work! Photos by AWM.

For the first few years after the fire, it was all our volunteer crews could do to clear the (many, large) trees that were coming down. Now that we've invested almost 10 years of maintenance there, crews have been able to expand repairs beyond that central burn area and implement improvements to restore the trail as a whole.

In 2016, volunteers built an enormous rock wall to hold the trail in place against erosion from the river. It was a staggering 20 feet tall, 10 feet long, and 3 feet wide. All told, over the course of 18 works parties, volunteers moved 90 tons of rock for this project.

It was an enormous undertaking, but one that was gratifying for the people involved. Volunteer tcuddy summed it up well in his trip report of the day: "This project was supported by thousands of volunteer hours and many days of work parties to, by hand, dig, haul, and place tons and tons of rock. Well done and very glad to have done my part to keep this trail open!" 

The rock wall project from 2015 took most of the summer, and involved a massive volunteer effort to complete. Photo by tcuddy

As volunteer crews cleared out more of the arboreal blockades, both hikers and volunteers have been able to reach further into the backcountry. As they did, they both encountered a different trail maintenance need; brushing. Brushing (clearing out bushes and vegetation from a trail) is usually the first defense in maintaining a healthy trail, but it's also the first thing to get really bad when crews can't reach an area.

In some cases, the brush on the Upper Duckabush was so bad the trail wasn't even visible!

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As hikers head further into the Duckabush River trail, the type of trail maintenance necessary changes. The need for brushing (pictured above) is serious the further back you go. Photo by greymstreet.

The work being done on the lower Duckabush is crucial for volunteers trying to reach the deeper parts of the Olympic wilderness and clear the way for multi-day backcountry experiences. The trail not only provides a pleasant day hike or overnight experience — it also serves as a key entry point into a network of loops, traverses and thru hike opportunities around the Olympics.

Just past the upper reaches of the Duckabush trail lies the stunning, yet difficult-to-reach, Marmot Lake and O'Neil Pass — where WTA led an 8-day backcountry response team trip this summer. It was a trip only made possible because of the years of work volunteers had put in below.

Chainsaws and power brushers helped the Marmot Lake/O'Neil Pass crew bust out a whole lot of work during their extended 8-day stay in the backcountry. Photo by Rebecca Wanagel.

With a clear path ahead of them, the six-person backcountry volunteer crew was able to quickly pass through the Lower Duckabush section and devote their time to the toughest sections of trail. Over the course of a week, the crew cleared brush along the entire section of trail between the Upper Duckabush Camp to Marmot Lake, saw out 40 fallen trees and complete tread and drainage work across the entire length.

The path to Marmot Lake will always be a rugged adventure. But for the first time in years, it has been all but cleared thanks to the work of our summer volunteers. 

There is still plenty more maintenance awaiting as the trail winds deeper into the Olympics. Every year we return to the Duckabush River valley and continue our work farther and higher, we become one step closer to saving these backcountry trails from ever becoming lost.

"The biggest thanks we get is to see hikers on the trail. I think I can speak for us all when I say we do this to give back to the trails that have given us so much, and to see hikers able to get back to these great places is the biggest payday of all." - Volunteer and trip reporter McGrubber

Much more than a single trail

The Duckabush is important, a critical access trail in the Olympics. But it is far from unique. All across Washington, important areas for hiker access need investment to sustain the pressure they'll be under in the coming years. And in the backcountry, trails are literally falling off the map.

Join WTA in our work to build a trail system that can stand the test of time. Get involved with our work as a member or volunteer.