Welcome to the Toutle Valley!

I'm starting this blog to help visitors find the many things to do around Mount St. Helens and the Toutle Valley.  Our area is surrounded by adventure, high and low, but it's sometimes genuinely hard to find information about these special places.  Before our volcano erupted, the Spirit Lake Hwy followed the Toutle River all the way to Spirit Lake and Mount St. Helens with easy-to-find adventure around every bend.  The route was lined with campgrounds, river access, logging roads, trails open to all,  and vast areas to explore. 

Today its different--With all the passes, permits, and rules, it's a tangle of red tape to just understand where you can go for a walk.  Don't dispair!  I know all the secrets... and I might even be asking for your help to make the area more accessible. 

Consider this blog your Insider's Guide to the Toutle Valley.  

Posted By Toutle Trekker

When I grew up, in the 1970's, elk hunting was a lifestyle, a die-hard tradition that was passed down like religion.  I remember my first trip to Elk Camp on the 200-line.  (Logging roads are numbered and the railroad term "line" denotes a road.)  The main camp was fashioned from old railroad ties with an Army tarp roof. It was located in the old growth on Weyerhaeuser land way up high on a ridge.  It had a barrel stove and dirt floor.  It smelled like smoke and mud and whiskey.  I loved it.  But things sure have changed...

The eruption of Mount St. Helens impacted this region in unprecedented ways.  Big game and big game hunting went for a roller coaster ride.  First, the animals were wiped out by the eruption, and in response all hunting stopped.  Then, as the fireweed and other good elk food returned, so did the animals.  Elk birth rates doubled, and their numbers exploded.  By 1985 hunting returned but was limited to draw permits.  Success rates approached 100%.  Permit applications (and funds generated) soared.  Everyone was happy and elk were EVERYWHERE.  Herds with 200 elk were common.  In the winter, sometimes 1000 elk would gather in the North Toutle valley.   All the while, the little trees planted outside the Monument were growing fast, too. 10 years passed, then 20 years, and those little trees started to shade out all that good elk food.  By now the animals were clearly overpopulated.  In 2006, it all came crashing down.  Elk were starving; politicians chimed in with finger pointing; the public was outraged.  The state instituted emergency feeding a few times.  The population needed to be reduced, so the hundreds of cow tags were added.  But by now it was too late.  Another elk killer--hoof rot--was chewing into the St. Helens herd.  (It always amazes me how nature moves faster than human bureaucracy can react.)  The state was too slow to start the herd reduction, and too slow to stop it.  The elk today must deal with a trifecta of pressures: little feed, many cow tags, and hoof rot.  Consequently, now even seing a single elk on a day hunting in the blast zone is a success.

And hunting has changed in big ways.  Now families need to purchase permits from Weyerhaeuser just to hunt timberland.  Public lands have their own permit requiremens, and federal and state lands are often locked behind private pay-for-entry gates.  High-tech mapping applications that identify land ownership are needed more than map and compass.  Elk are no longer public resources held in trust for the benefit of all forever.  Game animals are now commodities being peddled by both public and private interests for the biggest returns.  And management of our game is now being sold and subcontracted to interests like Weyerhaeuser.  After a day hunting, my family was pulled over by private security and state WDFW enforcement working together for the benefit of Weyerhaeuser's permit system.  With three hunters, the state game warden was only interested in the license and tags of the youngest member of the group.  Why?  Because this teen might need his own $350 Weyerhaeuser permit and his license proved his age!

All is not lost.  There are still a few places to hunt by following only public rules on public land.  Unfortunately, the public Toutle State Forest is entirely in a draw only area for elk, but it is open for general deer, bear and other game.   The WInston Block of DNR land is accessible behind Weyerhaeuser's locked gate on the 1900 road. The DNR has not confirmed that that route is a legal easement that the public can use, so to be safe, have a Weyerhaeuser permit or a very good lawyer if you head to state land via the 1900!  While we wait, the Winston Block can be accessed from the north off Highway 12 near Mossyrock.  Additional blocks of state land exist along county roads along the Cowlitz/Lewis County property line.  Federal land, if you can get to it, is open.  Most hunters focus on the Lewis River Valley south of Mount St. Helens.  

  More information on public land opWDFW Hunt Planner (wa.gov)en to hunting:

 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

I wanted this story be about success.  I've been waiting to write for two years now, working behind the scenes.  It should have been a snap, easy-peezy.  Just one phone call and the illegal "no trespassing" signs come down, the public is allowed back in, all is operating as intended (and required).  Unfortunately, it hasn't quite work out that way.    

Posted Gate
I discovered that 260 acres of public land on the Toutle River was (is) being improperly restricted.  The land is accessed by a legal, written easement "for all road purposes associated with the ownership of the land".  Instead, the access road is gated and posted with bold "no trespassing" signs.  It should be a simple fix:   The land is in public hands and is dedicated to public use.  It was given, free of charge, to the local Conservation District by the state of Washington with along with this access road easement.   I have a copy of the easement; I have the deed requirements that outline how the land must be used. These include a provision specifically requiring uninterrupted river recreational access.  Don't take my word for it.  These documents are on the county's property website at the bottom under "conveyances" for everyone to see.

Cowlitz Property Info | Properties Listing Grid (cowlitzinfo.net

I contacted the Conservation District and made presentations.  I pointed out all the multiple agency goals for public access to our rivers and public lands. It seemed like such a little thing, an easy no-brainer win for recreation. JUST CHANGE SOME SIGNS.  But nothing is simple when dealing with Weyerhaeuser.

 It seems the mega-corporation--the largest landowner in the United States--will not allow anyone access on that 260 acres accept their paying clients.   All recreationists in the West know about how private land can block public land, giving exclusive access to private interests.  This is exactly what is happening here, with the recreational lease-holder of Weyerhaeuser's getting exclusive access to that 260 acres.  The Conservation District managing the land (with conflict of interest up to their eyeballs) doesn't want to ruffle the feathers of a powerful corporation that owns nearly half of Cowlitz County.  I've called and clawed and complained for two years now.   And what outrageous thing am I asking?  Change the "No Trespassing" signs on the gate to  "non-motorized access allowed", which is the way it was before Weyerhaeuser started their recreation fee program.  I haven't ask to open the road to vehicles, or to remove the gate, just modify the sign, and simply allow the public access to public land to walk, bicycle or horseback ride that easement route to public land.  But no.  Nope.  No way.  Big W wants to control not only their land, but everyone else's too.  The agency, after nearly two years of prodding, reluctantly asked the company about the issue, but was told in a fashion to "sit down and shut up", which they dutifully did.   Both the Consevation District and Weyerhaeuser are much more concerned about keeping the public from wandering onto the lease, than the public's right to access public land via a public easement.  And consequently, the lease holder gets virtual exclusive access to the public's land.  

Since these threatening signs are designed to keep regular hunters and anglers from legally accessing public land, they may actually be a violation of Washington law! (RCW 77.15.210) To paraphrase, it is illegal tharass, intimidate, interfere with or disrupt the lawful pursuit of hunting and fishing.  How is posting a legal access route to a river with public land NOT a violation of this law?

easement blocked
So what to do?  I'll keep chugging along, bringing the issue to more and more public officials.  Maybe someone, somewhere out there cares about the publics' rights, too.  If you know of such a person, please pass this on... 

UPDATE: The state Department of Transportation, who "gifted" the land to the Conservation District in the first place, doesn't want anything to do with enforcing their deed restrictions.  After multiple calls and a request from our state representative, the DOT finally did review the situation.  What did they say?  The same excuse that the Conservation District is using:  The public can SWIM the river to get to the land, so it is technically available for uninterrupted recreation even with the road closed and posted.  There is a lesson here for any community that has mitigation put in place to compensate for a harm.  Do not trust.  Make sure there is a strong enforcement of promises or you will lose.


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

Imagine the ideal State park.  Of course there would be camping and the typical marshmallow-coated fun, but my “dream” park would have things to do year round.  In summer I could camp, bicycle, or hike the park’s trails, and in the winter I could snowshoe, sled, or cross-country ski there.  The best parks also have water.  I would connect my “dream” park with a beautiful lake.  Don’t forget the fish, because I love fishing…and make them big.  Add features like a boat launch, trails, restrooms, and picnic area at the lake.  It’s nice when camping to have park paths connect with larger trail systems.  Wake up in the morning and leave the tent or RV and hike or bicycle past the lake and deep in the backcountry.  The park should be fairly large, at several hundred acres, and easy to get to.  Make it on a paved road, and not too far to drive, perhaps near a national treasure that is already attracting visitors.  Put it near a science center and a visitor center for extra pizazz.  It helps if the land is already public, and wrap it all in a spectacular view.  That is my ideal park ...and here it is:

 

DNR land could make a great park
320 acres of isolated and unused state Department of Natural Resources land sits surrounded by the Mount St Helens National Monument.  In fact, all of the maps on Monument billboards have the land marked as part of the Monument.  It isn’t.  State law allows DNR land to be transferred or leased for park and recreation purposes. 

The land is hilly, but not steep, and could support a camping park, snow park, day-use area, or a combination of all of these.  Old logging roads lead to both Coldwater Lake and the Castle Lake viewpoint and toward Elk Rock.  These old roads could easily be converted to trails, linking with the Pacific Crest Trail and the Boundary National Scenic Trail.  Coldwater Lake has full facilities and would be a short two-mile walk, snowshoe, bicycle, ski or jog away.   But for now its just a dream...


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

Where is the missing top of Mount St. Helens?  Many people think that the top of the volcano was blasted into the sky and became the cloud of ash that circled the world.  But that isn't true.  The ash that was erupted was "new" material from deep within the earth.  The "old" top of Mount St. Helens slid into the Toutle River Valley.  This landslide filled the valley up to 300 feet deep with chunks of the old summit.  The material consisted of loose layers of rock and ash along with pieces of glacier.  The largest mudflow resulted from the de-watering of this huge landslide. These "lahars" inundated all the low lying areas along the Toutle, filled the Cowlitz, and clogged the Columbia River shipping channel.  

In response, mass-dredging ensued. The Army Corps of Engineers also quickly built a sediment dam across the North Toutle valley in an attempt to hold the material in place.  This first dam (called N-1) was quickly overwhelmed.  Over the years, the Toutle River has continued to erode this material downstream, creating big problems for people along the river.  The sand along the Toutle and Cowlitz Rivers is old ash and rock from volcanic activity.

In 1990 the Corps came up with a solution.  They would build one huge sediment dam on the North Toutle and stop the erosion! The idea was simple; slow the river down with a shallow lake behind a big dam.  The sand drops out, and the water flows out over a spillway.  Now towns could be safe. Cowlitz County lifted the building moratorium on mudflow areas and housing developments popped up along our rivers, protected by the dam and higher levies. 

Anyone could see, however, that this "solution" didn't stabilize the river or get rid of the landslide material, it just held it in the upper valley a little longer.  And that is where we are today.  The dam is full, the river above the dam has become a shallow bay of mud, and the Cowlitz River is still clogged with sand.  The Toutle has no stable channel, and wanders over the sediment plain, now picking up material and moving it downstream.  The spillway on the dam has already been raised once to hold more material, with two more raises planned.  Oh, and the dam has no fish ladder.  Returning endangered salmon must be trucked around the mess.  Baby salmon (smolts) must navigate a web of shallow muddy channels downstream on their way to the ocean. Recently, agencies have tried a few creative ideas to hold sediment in place and to reduce the erosive action of the river.  You can see log dikes and piles along the Toutle River in places like Harry Gardner Park or the Mudflow Wildife Area.  These features are designed to improve fish habitat and hold the loose material in place long enough for vegetation to establish.

Learn More: https://www.nwp.usace.army.mil/mount-st-helens/overview/

See it:  Harry Gardner Park is the best place to see the erosion control and habitat enhancement structures.  Along Interstate 5, north of Castle Rock, you may notice large piles of dredge spoils along the Toutle and Cowlitz River.  Some of these sites are publicly owned.  In the upper Toutle Valley,  scan the sediment plain with binoculars for log structure and other erosion control measures. From the Hoffstadt Bridge area the remains of N-1 dam are visible in the valley.  

Trail across sediment dam
 

Hike it:  From Kid Valley travel east on 504 to Sediment Dam Road, which is actually the old Spirit Lake Highway.  Travel about 2 miles to the parking lot at the end.  The trail starts past the restroom, and leads to a dam viewpoint and continues to the dam itself.  It's a nice walk, half on dirt trail and half on old road.
The view from the dam shows the massive expanse of sediment held in place there.  Elk are also common, so be aware.  Sometimes herds of elk graze in the grassy field around the dam.  If you follow the signs and the old roads, the hike makes a nice 1.2 mile loop.  

 


 
Posted By Toutle Trekker

With the upcoming hunting season in "sight", my family headed to the local shooting range to "scope" out our rifles.  (Puns intended!)  We had never been there before, and I was a bit uneasy about practicing at an official range.  But with smoke around and high fire danger the range was a better choice for practicing instead of the family's tree farm.  Afterward, we were all glad we tried the official route for sighting in our deer rifles.  It was so much fun that we have added a new activity for rainy days this winter, too.

The Cowlitz Public Shooting Range is operated by the Cowlitz Game and Angler's Club, but is owned by Cowlitz County Parks.  It is located at the end of Toutle Park Road on spoils dredged from the Toutle River.  As you shoot here, you are standing on the old top of Mount St. Helens which traveled down the river as a massive mudflow.   The US Army Corps of Engineers acquired several areas of property to store this mountain of sand and ash, and when all that work was completed the land was given to the County Parks for a public purpose.  The site is ideal, since the sandy mudflow material could be piled and scooped to form the backstops and berms needed for a range.

 As one would imagine, getting a new gun range started is a red-tape nightmare, and it took years of grants, volunteer hours, unexpected expenses, forty-four special provisions, lawsuit threats, and political name calling to see this new range built.  But, with partnerships and dedication, and a last second donation of large equipment hours, the range was finally opened to use in 2013.  (If you are interested in backstory politics, just search the archives of The Longview Daily News.)

When you arrive at the range, the volunteers will fill you in on all the safety procedures.  It takes a few "rounds" to fully understand the rules, some of which seem arbitrary, like do not touch paper targets during a no shooting time, but there is a good reason for each one.  Children and spectators are allowed, and since the shooting shed is open, face coverings are not required if six feet can be maintained.  Be sure to bring your own firearm and targets along with ear and eye protection.  The shooting benches are very solid, and sandbags are also available.  Targets can be set out between 50 to 300 yards, and there are seperate pistol and long-gun areas.  The range is currently applying for a state grant to expand the trap shooting area.  Check out the details at the range's website.

http://cowlitzshootingrange.com/

 

 

 
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