Remembering Kennedy Hot Springs, October 21& 22, 2003

Before October 20, 2003,  George Winters, Wilderness Ranger for the Darrington District of the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie National Forest was faced with the unhappy task of figuring out what to do about the old Guard Station at Kennedy Hot Springs at the confluence of the Whitechuck River and Kennedy Creek in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area.

Built in 1927, it was beloved by USFS personnel, and visitors of the human and mouse population. For decades, it was a stop-over place for tired equestrian and foot travelers, and was summer home for rangers like Russ Hanbey, Kenneth Vail, and Mike Collier, who  during the summer of 1973, taught children not to collect the frogs they found at the campgrounds, but to enjoy them by observation only. Because it was located within the boundaries of the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, maintenance of the cabin had become minimal, and over time, its walls sagged, and it sank farther and farther into the soil upon which it sat. George had done all he could, and it was nearing time to make some hard choices about the fate of the cabin.

Whitechuck River

Scoured swath from floods. River now at its normal flow.

Mother Nature relieved George of that decision; at least that’s George’s story. On the night of October 21, 2003, flood-waters wiped out the cabin, the hot springs, the trail, and the road, and continued down to the water gauge at Rockport where it clocked in at 102,000 cubic feet per second, making October 2003 a record flood.  To that date, 1959 and 1967 were the record-holding  years for the month of October.  The Whitechuck River swept away portions of the mountain above Kennedy Hot Springs, the cabin at Kennedy, the bridges over the Whitechuck River and Kennedy Creek, the entire lower portion of the campground, and much of the Whitechuck Trail – indeed, chunks of the mountainside upon which the trail clung went down along with it, as well as one hiker’s beloved Moonstone Profusion jacket that she had dropped on the trail earlier (OK, I confess: it was mine, and I still miss that jacket).

The flood-waters were busy that night. Along with the destruction caused in the Whitechuck watershed, by the next morning not a single footbridge remained on the Pacific Crest Trail from Red Pass to Miner’s Creek, including the sturdy Skyline Bridge. The large I-beam foot and stock bridge that spanned the Suiattle River at the Milk Creek trail head was torn away from its bedrock anchors, bent and tossed downstream like a toy. The Suiattle River Road was damaged at the Huckleberry Trailhead, and at Downey Creek. The Suiattle trail was severely damaged. Meadow Mountain and Circle Peak trails were inaccessible from both sides, as the Boundary Bridge was wiped out to the north, and the Whitechuck Road to the south. Peek-a-Boo Lake trail, Goat Lake, Old Sauk, the Whitechuck Bench Trail and the North Fork Sauk trails were either severely damaged or inaccessible due to road damage. The Mountain Loop Highway at Barlow Pass was wiped out.

With the exception of the bridge over the Suiattle at Milk Creek, the Whitechuck Bench trail and some backlogged maintenance of trails which trailhead are accessed by the Suiattle Road, the 2003 damage has been repaired. Now, eleven years later, everyone is abuzz with the excitement of the Suiattle River Road grand re-opening celebration this upcoming Saturday.

This evening, it is good to think of good memories of the Whitechuck trail and Kennedy Hot Springs. The damage was so severe to the trail that it is un-hikeable by even the hardiest explorer. The beloved cabin site, hot springs, and campground is buried under several feet of soil, car-sized boulders and logs. The debris at the Kennedy area is so deep that the trail signs that were posted on trees at just above eye level decades ago are now at ankle level.The cabin remains are gone. The door has since been found, and a first aid kit.

In 2006, the bridge over the Sauk to the Whitechuck Boat Launch was repaired in 2008, In 2012, the Whitechuck Road was repaired to just beyond milepost 6, where the road crosses the river. It is decommissioned not far from there, never to re-open. The road merges with FS Road 27, which soars above the valley to Rat Trap Pass and eventually down to the Boundary Bridge and the Suiattle River Road.

White Chuck trailhead register

Whitechuck trailhead register, 2006 “It was Hell”

flow gauge

Photo courtesy (probably, once I ask him) Gary Paull

Today, intrepid explorers can access the Kennedy area  via the rough-and-tumble Lost Creek Ridge trail or the PCT. Rusty colored mineral water is seeping through the debris, but the upper campground, which the flood waters spared, is choked with downed trees.

While the old Whitechuck trail head and the road leading to it is gone, the trail system will likely someday be re-built. Currently, the USFS is working on plans to re-build the Meadow Mountain trail system to once again link it to the Whitechuck watershed and the Pacific Crest Trail. The access will be from Road 27 (Rat Trap Pass). However, this will be years from now. It is something to look forward to.

We wish to make it clear that we do not blame George for any of this. October 20-21 2003 was the work of Mother Nature.

Thanks to Mr. Randy Schroder for keeping track of this wonderful article (below) about the history of Kennedy Hot Springs, written by local historian, Russ Hanbey (whose new book cover depicts Kennedy cabin)

Kennedy-1

Kennedy-2 Kennedy-3 Kennedy-4 Kennedy-5 Kennedy-6

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