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How to use natural bridges

Kristy AthensOne thing Mike and I learned quickly on our land was that when you’re building or repairing something, it doesn’t have to look pretty; it just has to work.  We took this philosophy to heart when installing bridges in our woods.

Of our seven acres, approximately one was a woodlot that hadn’t been messed with since the first cut, probably in the 1930s when the house was built.  Our entire property sloped from the highway (our east border) westward, toward the White Salmon River, and this woodlot was at the bottom.  Since our parcel was basically in the middle of a half-mile slope from the top of the 1,000-foot ridge to the east and the river, water moved through at a pretty good clip during the winter rains and spring thaw.

The result: “water events,” a euphemism that we grew to dread.  As I mention in Get Your Pitchfork On: The Real Dirt on Country Living:

“Swales that meandered in winding paths straightened their routes, taking out good soil on the way.  Places in the swale that once had a small dip were gouged out three feet deeper and three feet further back; we put big rocks and logs in to try to slow the erosion.  Trees were weakened and fell. …  We were constantly monitoring the property to try to forestall further damage.  Mother Nature was unmoved by our efforts.”


Our woodlot was on its way to becoming a ravine, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying it in the interim.  Bushwhacking was difficult and hard on the understory, so Mike took on the project of establishing a few trails through the woods.

If you combine the idea of installing paths and the reality of water picking and choosing its courses through the woods, you see the issue: we had to cross swales.  We didn’t want to build actual, arched bridges for a couple of reasons: we wanted to maintain a natural feel in this little forest, and with every “water event” changing the width and course of each swale, we might build a great bridge only to have it fall into the swale the following spring.

So, we decided to work with the materials at hand: boards from the woodpile and downed trees.

Plywood footbridge

These extra boards that were lying around the barn worked for a while …

Half log foot bridge

We repositioned this broken piece of Douglas fir to traverse a particularly boggy spot, stabilizing it on the ends with rocks so it didn’t roll back and forth

Fallen tree

Very considerate of this cedar to fall and help us cross this section!

Sticks in muddy trail

Where the ground was mucky, we laid dozens of 2- to 4-inch-thick sticks across the trail to give us purchase

Kristy Athens’ nonfiction and short fiction have been published in a number of magazines, newspapers and literary journals, most recently Culinate, Jackson Hole Review, High Desert Journal, and Barely South Review.  She is the author of Get Your Pitchfork On!: The Real Dirt on Country Living (Process Media, 2012), which was reviewed on The Walden Effect in October.



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