Washington's Ferry County Rail Trail
Trail of the Month: October 2016
“It's rugged territory, and the rail-trail offers a beautiful wilderness experience.”
It sounds too good to be true. Northeast Washington’s Ferry County Rail Trail winds through a forested valley carved by the pristine Kettle River, passes through an otherworldly rock tunnel and crosses a 770-foot trestle that skims over a vast lake. Framed by mountains, the 25-mile trail is especially breathtaking this time of year, brightened with the golden hues of aspen, western larch and cottonwood. Every few miles, a quaint town welcomes visitors in a place so remote there’s not even a single stoplight in the whole county.
“Ferry County is Washington’s best kept secret,” says Bobby Whittaker, a Seattle native who had settled in the county just before the trail project got off the ground. “It’s rugged territory, and the rail-trail offers a beautiful wilderness experience.”
The trail begins both physically and historically in Republic, a small community established during the Gold Rush that still retains its Old West charm. It was here in an early 20th-century fire hall that Whittaker gathered a few friends and like-minded citizens to talk about the former rail corridor in their midst and its potential transformation into a trail. The building was just a shell back then—not the lively brewpub it is today—and the group pondered the corridor’s fate while sitting on 5-gallon buckets.
“I thought, if we’re going to do this, we better get organized,” says Whittaker, who founded a nonprofit called the Ferry County Rail Trail Partners (FCRTP) in 2008. As the county has no parks department, the all-volunteer group manages all of the trail's upkeep—everything from trash removal to the re-decking of its two bridges. Whittaker also tapped rail-trail legal expert Charles Montagne for pro bono assistance with the preservation of the corridor through railbanking.
There was an early dust-up between the trail advocates who wanted to keep the corridor non-motorized and those who wanted to open it up for ATV use. A 2009 vote on the general-election ballot settled the matter, with 60 percent in favor of keeping the corridor non-motorized. Today, the entire length of the trail is open for walking, biking and horseback riding. Trailside fishing and camping are popular pastimes, too, and in the winter, the trail is groomed for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. (Those who want to ride ATVs can pick up the Golden Tiger Pathway at the southern end of the trail.)
Drumming Up Funding
A Rail Corridor Committee was appointed by the county to help spearhead the development of the trail. As the project got underway, one of the largest challenges was money. How does a rural community without big-city dollars pay for such a massive undertaking?
“It’s a struggle every year to balance the budget, so having county funds to develop the trail just wasn’t in the cards,” says Ferry County Commissioner Brad Miller. “There are only 7,700 people in the entire county; we just don’t have the tax base.”
The answer came in part from the unlikely pairing of a rock band tour manager and an exploratory geologist. Whittaker, who had been in the music industry for more than 25 years, including working as R.E.M.’s tour manager, had connections with musicians who were willing to donate instruments, skateboards and other memorabilia to be auctioned off in support of the rail-trail. An autographed ukulele from Eddie Vedder fetched the largest amount to date: $17,000.
Keith Bell, who came to the area as a geologist and is now the vice president of FCRTP, had connections with a mining company, Kinross Gold Corporation, which donated equipment for the project. Other civic-minded companies such as trucking company ACI Northwest Inc. and Stott’s Construction have also helped out. Bell believes these cost efficiencies and the strong showing of community support through volunteer work have played a role in the organization’s successful grant applications, which have brought in critical federal and state funding for the trail.
“Our cost per mile is crazy low because of all this donated effort,” says Bell. “Normally, it would cost four to five times as much, so it’s a big bang for the taxpayer buck.”
Although some sections of the route still retain the ballast from its long-gone days as a Great Northern Railroad line, much of it has now been improved, and the rail-trail is well on its way to becoming a national treasure. Two of its most popular spots—a 5.5-mile section along Curlew Lake and a 3.1-mile riverside section through the town of Curlew—were recently topped with a finely crushed stone surface that, while not pavement, is so smooth and hard packed that Tiffany’s Resort, which rents bikes, offers beach cruisers.
“We’re trying to connect the dots as soon as possible,” says Whittaker, who notes that a future phase will address the 10 miles of rough trail between the lake and Curlew.
Turning Over a New (Maple) Leaf
The trail’s changes are being received positively in the community. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony this past August to celebrate the opening of the Curlew Lake section, more than 100 people came from as far as Spokane (about 130 miles to the south) and Canada (the county’s neighbor to the north).
“We had 100 hamburgers and they were all gone,” chuckles Whittaker at the memory of the event. “There were so many people there. In a small community like this, you think you know everyone, but people were coming out of the woodwork. It was heartwarming.”
Each of the improved sections is capped with one of the trail’s most signature features. The section along the lake ends with a jaw-dropping trestle, while farther north, the Curlew section ends at a short but beautiful tunnel right alongside the river. (Although temporarily closed for a risk-assessment survey, the tunnel is anticipated to reopen in a few months.)
Up next is the improvement of the northern tail of the trail, which ends in Danville at Canada’s doorstep. Just over the border is the larger community of Grand Forks, which also has a growing trail system. In fact, Canada’s—and the world’s—largest multi-use trail passes right through the city. The Great Trail (formerly the Trans Canada Trail) will span some 15,000 miles across the country when it’s completed next year in time for Canada’s 150th anniversary, making the Ferry County Rail Trail an enticing gateway to the massive and monumental pathway.
"Now everyone really gets it,” says Whittaker. “The trail’s got momentum now. Everyone’s buying bicycles.”