Riding With the Salmon River Road Crew
By MALCOLM TERENCE, TRT Contributing Writer
All summer long, Salmon River folk appreciate the crew that maintains the winding county road. Come winter time, with its slides of rock, mud and shattered trees, with snow and ice in the higher elevations, in that season they love their road crew.
Most the work on the 100 miles of roads in county jurisdiction falls to three men who run a wide range of equipment on the narrow chip-sealed road beds that wrap around the Salmon River canyons.
To sample their assignment, the TRT rode with them last week, just after a small storm dropped a skiff of snow all the way to the mouth of the river.
The lowest stretch of road is a civilized two-lane blacktop with a centerline. That doesn’t mean that it’s low maintenance but Chuck Nichols, the assistant foreman who heads the local crew, said that the recent slides were still minding their manners.
Eight miles upriver the road narrows and wraps around Grants Bluffs. One hundred fifty feet down in the gorge below, the river gushes through noisy rapids that rafters have given names like Freight Train and Last Chance. The cobble in the river was scoured clean by the pulse of the last big rainstorm and then ran the clear green color that steelhead fishermen love.
The bluffs are a stretch that give out-of-towners a humbling warning of the many miles of one-lane bluffs still to come. On one ledge, a tagger years ago painted “Begin Freeway.” Nichols occasionally maneuvered a joy-stick style controller on his large county pickup, a move that lowered the blade and swept some fresh rock fall to the side.
He mentioned that the father of his co-worker Jack Robinson once almost spilled a D-9 Cat off a lowbed on these bluffs. Nichols was not there then and neither was Jack Robinson, but Betty Ann Hanauer was and she gladly shared the story.
The blade of the bulldozer snagged the rocky bank, she said, and nudged the lowboy partway over the edge. The Cat was even further skew over the precipice but a few chains held.
Hanauer remembers that Jack’s father Spike Robinson readjusted all the chains and then had a long conference with the lowboy driver. Then Spike, who had just bought the D-9 at the Masonite sawmill in Hoopa, started it up and both the tractor and the lowboy moved a few feet forward in tandem.
Disaster was averted and the chains re-secured one more time for the remaining ride up the river.
Slides have closed Grants Bluffs repeatedly over the years, sometimes for weeks or even months. In a slide three decade ago, the boulders were the size of living rooms and county blasting specialists would come every day to set new charges. Too much dynamite and the whole road bed might drop into the gorge.
Traffic was halted the whole time, but every day one of the Forks of Salmon school teachers would scramble over the ever-changing pile of rubble to get to work. She was eight months pregnant at the time.
These were road adventures with happier endings than some. Just a few miles fpast the bluffs, Nichol’s rounded a bend where an Orleans woman had driven over the edge and been killed.
Nichols drove the road with due caution, slowing, and occasionally backing up, to clear the rocks that had fallen since his last pass.
A mile further, he passed the point across from Morehouse Creek where a couple lost their car completely years ago but saved themselves and their dog. The slide was so big and moved so fast that the car was swept into the gorge and never seen again, probably buried in rubble.
The woman in the car was Dawn Peshka, a Eureka dentist just headed home from Otter Bar kayak lodge, and she said it took some talking at the time to convince her insurance company that the car had disappeared without a trace.
Nichols said that a boulder in one of the recent slides was so big that the local equipment couldn’t budge it. A county blaster was requested and he showed up with devices that Nichols described as a “misshapen, orange Frisbee.” He filled a hole with a liquid activator, hooked up some wire and placed it on the boulder. After everybody moved around the corner, pow! The blast reduced the boulder to a pile of gravel.
Nichols recalled that he first learned to drive on the Salmon River road when he was eight years old. His family had moved down to Hoopa where his father had a television repair business but they’d drive upriver to visit his grandparents, Jesse and Christie Stanshaw.
He left the area after high school, served in Vietnam and then worked in the South and Southwest as a driver and mechanic. Eventually, he returned and worked for logging operations. Ten years ago, he joined County Roads but had to live in Scott Valley even though his family was from Forks of Salmon.
Now and then, Nichols would stop his storytelling to focus on scraping away more newly fallen rocks. Once, his truck passed a large bald eagle roosting in a snag. The snow deepened a little, as he headed up river, but not much.
I shared a road story of my own. Kate George, the storied mom of the river years ago and the grandmother of Nichols’s wife Muggs, had a checkered relationship with the road crew when she was still alive.
Good roads bring in too many flatlanders, Kate would warn us, and whenever the road crewmen patched potholes near her house, as soon they left, she’d dig them out again with a pick and shovel. Outsiders beware.
The trip continued up the North Fork and a few more places where vehicles had gone off the road, some with survivors and some not.
At White’s Gulch, Nichols crossed paths with co-worker Jack Robinson, a Sawyers Bar resident who was driving a 10-yard dump truck that was fitted with a much larger blade and a huge bin to scatter cinders on the road.
Robinson and Nichols agreed that the morning’s snow had not gotten much deeper at the higher elevations, a switch from the usual patterns.
Robinson, who’s worked on the Salmon River road crew for 24 years, still seems fascinated by the work, which changes every day, especially in the winter. He said that the three workers on the crew often work alone but some projects at active slides require a spotter. “Running the loader, I keep one eye on what I’m doing and one eye on the spotter.”
Robinson said he’d had rocks hammer through the windows on his trucks at least three times, including one that came through the windshield and landed in the passenger seat. “It was this big,” he said, and he gestured the size of a bowling ball. “I’m just glad it didn’t come through on the driver’s side.”
The cinders in Robinson’s rig make icy roads a little safer and are mined in a pit east of I-5. There are massive stockpiles of the cinders and of other road repair materials at the County Yard in Forks of Salmon, where the road crew also has its repair shop, a small office and an array of equipment including trucks, a front loader and a backhoe.
The office also includes a telephone—(530)462-4757—and Nichols said that was the best place to call when locals spotted a problem on the roads. He said his crew appreciated that river locals were landslide savvy enough to know which size equipment was needed for most problems.
Nichols, Robinson and the third crewman Glenn Hall from Fort Jones all rendezvoused at the shop at the end of the work day. Hall said he’d transferred to Salmon River from a non-permanent position the larger Etna crew two years ago because permanent positions were rare. Like Robinson, he liked the variability on the Salmon River crew, where all three men can run any piece of equipment.
They all agreed that the Siskiyou County budget had caused a shrinkage of permanent positions and said they hoped the County did not stop winter snow removal over the mountain passes, a proposal that was floated as a possible budget cut in the future. For that story, see: http://www.tworiverstribune.com/2012/10/salmon-river-folk-crowd-supervisors-meeting/
Nichols continued up the North Fork and the snow grew slightly deeper, two inches at the most, as he gained elevation. He dropped his blade and started sweeping it to the roadside.
As he approached the top of Etna Summit, he told stories of huge snow deposits gathered there many years. I remembered own summit story from January of 1969, when the snow was 20 feet deep at the top and the road crew then had kept open a narrow trough for traffic.
I had caught a ride with the mail truck and Charlie Snapp, the driver, was a man used to winter driving. Near the top, a blizzard was swirling and the chains were clanking on the icy surface. Finally, Snapp lost traction altogether just short of the summit. Fortunately, a logger in a four-wheel drive had stopped up just ahead in the snowy haze to make sure Snapp made it and he used a tow chain to haul us him over the top.
On the way downhill, I told Snapp he needed a four-wheel drive for wintertime and he said, “I got a four-wheel drive at home.”
“Why didn’t you bring it today?” I asked.
“I save it for bad,” he said.
Finally, at Milepost 27 just a little below the summit, Nichols turned around. The snow was still not deep and he seemed a little disappointed that there was barely enough for his passenger to make a decent snowball.