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appeared in Methow Valley News Summer Guide 2012

There’s something undeniably appealing about a bridge. Bridges invite us from one location to another, and as prosaic as the actual crossing might be, somehow the act of traveling over an open expanse of water registers as exceptional. A foot-traffic-only bridge merely adds to the allure, and the upper Methow Valley is lucky enough to have three such bridges barely off the beaten path: the Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge, the Sa Teekh Wa Bridge, and the Spring Creek Bridge. All warrant a visit, and a hot summer afternoon is the perfect time to take a tour of the cable bridges of Okanogan County.

You don’t have to understand the difference between a suspension bridge and a cable-stay bridge to appreciate the beauty and functionality of the Methow bridges, but even a basic awareness of these two types of bridge construction will allow you to establish your superiority by enlightening other bridge visitors about the architecture, whether they like it or not. Simply put, a suspension bridge’s main load-bearing capacity comes from cables hanging between two towers and anchored on the far ends of the bridge. Smaller cables or rods then suspend from these main cables and hold up the weight of the deck and its load. In a cable-stay bridge, the load is born by towers or columns, over which the cables run and support the bridge deck.

The oldest and farthest up-valley bridge is Mazama’s Tawlks-Foster Suspension Bridge, which is the primary crossing of the Methow River and connects MVSTA’s Rendezvous and Mazama trail systems with the Wolf Ridge, Winthrop, and Sun Mountain trails. In the winter this trail system is a Nordic mecca; in the summer the trails are open to hiking, biking, and horseback riding. The bridge’s 11’ travel width is to accommodate the Pisten Bully grooming machines that keep the trail packed and tracked for Nordic skiing.

Completed in 1995 and spanning 280’, the Tawlks-Foster is a traditional suspension bridge built with a floor-beam supported deck and no stiffening truss. Among other things, this means that the bridge is slightly dynamic: when you walk purposefully on it, it bounces, which is fun for the whole family, except mom.

In the summer, the Tawlks-Foster Bridge can be reached from Mazama by a short (1.5km) walk on the Methow Community Trail from the Suspension Bridge parking area. The bridge area features river access (at low water), a picnic shelter, and salmon-spawning in late summer.

Tucked into the north end of Winthrop’s boardwalk, the Sa Teekh Wa Bridge can be reached on foot during the time it takes to finish a single-scoop ice cream cone from Sheri’s Sweet Shop. Across the bridge sunny meadows, a level path, and the burbling river below beckon to the visitor to explore the short trail that runs along the Chewuch River. Built in 2006 to connect the emerging North Village to downtown Winthrop, this cable-stay bridge spans 222’ and leads to a trail that features interpretive signs detailing the area’s rich human and environmental history, from indigenous people to lumbering times to salmon habitat.

The Sa Teekh Wa area, named for a traditional summer gathering place on the Chewuch River for native peoples, celebrates the tribal past as well as the changing future of the region. A partnership between many local, regional, and national organizations focused on fish habitat, restoration, and educational outreach resulted in the interpretive trail system.

Just a short distance downstream, below the confluence of the Chewuch and Methow Rivers, sits Winthrop’s new centerpiece: the Spring Creek Bridge. Unveiled in 2011, the Spring Creek cable-stay bridge spans an impressive 385’. At first glance it appears decidedly modern; however, the bridge’s design replicates 19th and 20th century bridges (albeit with contemporary engineering) and is compliant with Winthrop’s western motif.

Against all odds (challenges such as permitting struggles, budget overruns, and contractor insolvency seemed destined to doom bridge efforts), the Spring Creek Bridge effectively solved the problem of pedestrian traffic throughout Winthrop’s two different centers of commerce separated by the river. With pedestrians and cyclists no longer subjected to the dodgy crossing of the vehicle bridge downstream but instead able to travel safely to the ice rink or the gym, the first phase of the Susie Stephens Trail has come to fruition.

The long-term vision for the Susie Stephens Trail (named for a former Methow Conservancy employee and bike safety advocate who was killed elsewhere in a traffic accident) includes pedestrian access all the way to the Red Apple Market and post office, but roadblocks such as easement refusals, irrigation ditch concerns, and funding challenges are currently stymieing these plans.

But trail proponents are optimistic that the trail is feasible and practical and, as with any obstacle, they are tackling issues as they arise. As one might expect, they’re crossing each bridge as they come to it.

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