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Spring snowmelt poses hiking risks

Spring hiking always carries the danger of once-tranquil streams turning deadly with torrents of snowmelt.

Two hikers died Monday while trying to cross a makeshift log bridge over the runoff-swollen Ipsut Creek in Mount Rainier National Park.

Experts say hiking will remain hazardous through summer, as giant storms and floods that hammered the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges last fall and winter washed out hundreds of trail bridges, felled thousands of trees and washed away huge sections of trails.

"We're urging people to be really flexible with their trip planning," said Barb Maynes, Olympic National Park spokeswoman. "If their favorite trail isn't accessible, we want them to choose somewhere else.

"If they get out there and a bridge is out, they should turn around and go someplace else."

The storms wreaked an estimated $36 million in damage to Mount Rainier National Park roads, campgrounds and trails. Much of the trail damage is still under snow, but officials estimate that many trails, such as the popular Wonderland Trail, lost most of their bridges and even sections of the trail.

The popular road from the Nisqually entrance to Paradise is scheduled to open May 1, said Lee Taylor, Mount Rainier National Park spokeswoman.

Lauren Braden, Washington Trails Association spokeswoman, said because most trails are under snow, it's hard to predict the damage.

"From what we've seen in the lowlands, there's a lot of damage," Braden said. "A lot of hikers will be in new territory when they set out for the first time on many trails."

Hikers should contact rangers before heading to the hills - and be prepared for surprises, Maynes said.

It's important to realize that spring travels up slopes. The snow might be gone at lower elevations, but there can be several feet of it melting higher up.

The popular Paradise area of Mount Rainier National Park doesn't lose its snow until June, so streams in the low country around there can suddenly rise even in late spring.

There still is 10 feet of snowpack in parts of the Olympics, and all that snow is going to melt and fill streams, Maynes said.

"The key thing about stream crossings is hikers should ask themselves this question: 'Can I do this safely?' " Maynes said. "The water is cold, and the air is cold."

Most of Olympic National Park's roads are open, although some are rough gravel until they can be paved this summer.

Mount Rainier National Park will not close the trails near Ipsut Creek, but hikers should be careful all year on all park trails, parks spokeswoman Lee Taylor said.

Most of Mount Rainier National Park remains closed.

Olympic National Park hikers should expect to find rough conditions all summer, Maynes said.

The Washington Trail Association will have volunteer work crews on many trails all summer long, Braden said.

"We're going to be following the line of snowmelt with crews," Braden said. "We're going to have crews in Mount Rainier National Park five days a week from Memorial Day to Labor Day."

Repairing all the trail damage will take years, and hikers should think twice before crossing a creek or plunging onto a section of trail littered with downed trees, Braden said.

"All situations are up for the individuals to make the call," Braden said. "And making that decision is more difficult when the impediment is between you and home."

How to help

The Washington Trails Association is looking for trail repair volunteers. For more information, call 206-625-1367, e-mail alyssa@wta.org or go to www.wta.org.

Hiking safety tips

* Plan ahead. Check with rangers before starting your hike.

* Try to select hikes that have intact bridges or don't have creek crossings.

* A creek that was easy to cross early in the day can rise quickly from snowmelt. Warm or rainy weather can make creeks rise quickly. Don't be afraid to turn back. Creeks are usually at their lowest early mornings.

* When crossing creeks, unbuckle the waist belt of your pack and loosen the shoulder straps. Carry sandals or sneakers to use while crossing creeks instead of using your bare feet. Use a walking stick or lock arms with a buddy for balance. Cross the creek diagonally while yielding to the current.

Trail updates

For up-to-date information on trails in Olympic National Park, call 360-565-3100 or go to www.nps.gov/olym.

Most of Mount Rainier National Park remains closed because of flood damage. For more information on trails, call 360-569-2211 or go to www.nps.gov/mora.

For updates on Olympic National Forest trails, roads and campgrounds, call 360-956-2402 or go to www.fs.fed.us/r6/olympic.

For updates on Gifford Pinchot National Forest, call 360-891-5000 or go to www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/

recreation/current-conditions/trails.shtml

Mount Rainier

Most of Mount Rainier National Park remains closed, but these roads are scheduled to open on these dates:

* The road from the Nisqually entrance to Paradise will open to traffic May 1.

* State Highway 123 to Stevens Canyon Road will open May 18.

* The road to Sunrise will open June 15.

* The Stevens Canyon Road will not reopen until August.

* The Carbon River Road will be closed all summer.

* Highway 123 to Chinook Pass will be closed all summer.

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