SALTESE - Even the aspen aren't as golden as the new deck across Dominion Creek.
One hundred feet above the water, the century-old railroad trestle will soon have a much lighter load to carry. Its new wooden surface will open miles of former Milwaukee Road passage through the forest toward St. Regis. Instead of electric-powered locomotives, the route should lead bikers, ATV riders and snowmobilers deep into the western Montana backcountry and out again.
"This isn't your everyday work site," U.S. Forest Service project manager Beth Kennedy explained as she eased her Ford Explorer on the last bit of open, level ground before the Dominion Tunnel. About 2.5 miles east of the Route of the Hiawatha bike path to Idaho, the future Route of the Olympian clings to a man-made ridge with little room for parking, let alone dump trucks and excavators.
Disguised by decades of overgrowth, the road sits on a towering wooden crib structure full of boulders and dirt that fills a narrow gulch between hillsides. One of the first tasks the DJ&A engineering crew had to tackle was filling the sinkholes where that old roadbed had drained away.
Scattered along it are a pair of trailers where the workers sleep on the site (no electricity or water hookups), a bowhunter's camp, a small staging area for stacks of golden-brown bridge decks and railings, and a cramped parking area by the tunnel. Turning around is rarely an option.
All summer, the crews have been rebuilding this short passage. Milwaukee Road gangs originally dug it in 1904, finishing just in time to use the 450-foot tunnel as a haven during the 1910 Great Burn.
The trestle also survived in fine shape, although its roadbed deteriorated soon after the railroad went bankrupt in 1980. Now thanks to $850,000 in federal stimulus funding, travel should resume shortly.
The old tracks sat in a 655-foot-long bathtub-like channel flanked by 168 concrete ballast boxes. Those 4-by-16-foot boxes weighed 9,600 pounds each. Each had to be detached by the excavator, pivoted 180 degrees and hauled off.
In their place went the new wood decks, pre-cut to match the curves of the trestle. More than half a foot thick, the new decks will provide a 12-foot travel path with 3-foot sidewalks on either side. Engineer Corrie Kegel said 80 percent of the work should be finished before snow flies this fall.
But the route still won't be ready for public use until sometime next year. Kegel said there've already been vandalism incidents from people trying to sneak across the bridge while workers are still moving heavy equipment about. Gates and barriers have been rammed and pulled up. New gates will go in place this fall.
"After that, it's up to the public to use their brains," she said. Sideline cables will be one of the last things installed on the trestle, and they won't be up until spring at the earliest.
Who can use the trestle has been the subject of much public discussion, Kennedy said. Unlike the Route of the Hiawatha, the Route of the Olympian will not be restricted to bikes only. It has a long tradition of motorized use, from hunters and anglers prowling the St. Regis River drainage to snowmobilers in the wintertime.
The draft management plan now on the table envisions a summer season where the upper portion of the Olympian would be limited to bikes and walkers. But the shoulder seasons would return to mixed use, and snowmobile grooming would continue in all the places it has previously happened.
Part of the complication is the still-tangled ownership of the railbed. The Forest Service owns nearly all of the 30-mile stretch between Taft and St. Regis, except for a 100-foot-high trestle crossing Saltese. But other sections have long been access to people's homes, becoming de facto public roads.
Kennedy said turning the route into a full-use road could actually rule out some motorized uses. For example, unlicensed children would not be able to drive on it, as they can on a less formal trail. Full road status would also require all ATVs be street-legal.
A public scoping session that wound up earlier this year drew more than 100 comments about how the Olympian should be managed. Forest Service staff are sorting and analyzing those comments now, and a team of trail managers will be touring the route later this week to explore how different plans might play out on the ground.
They're also studying the economic impact of a future trail - things like where a snack bar might do the best business or how many shuttle services could coexist there. The Route of the Hiawatha had attracted two dozen riders from Washington, Idaho, Utah and British Columbia on a rainy Tuesday in mid-September.
The Olympian's territory lacks the huge concentration of tunnels and trestles, but it compensates with access to great fishing and rest stops.
It also features moose and mule deer, bugling elk and howling wolves, lots of huckleberries and towering larch trees. Everyone wants to keep their use options open and respected.
"This piece of road is the most heavily used in the whole ranger district," Kennedy said. "There are some stretches where the Milwaukee Road and the Northern Pacific (a competing railroad) run side-by-side, where maybe we could have both bikes and ATVs running at the same time. It's like trying to explain a Rubik's Cube in the dark."