Clearing of snow and avalanche debris from the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20) is set to start Monday, March 25.
Washington State Department of Transportation maintenance personnel in the Methow and Skagit valleys will start at closure gates near Early Winters Visitor Center (milepost 178 eastside) and Happy Flats (milepost 134 westside) above Ross Dam.
Among motorists including many would-be Okanogan trout fishers, this annual rite of spring is eagerly awaited event, providing up Fourth Cornerites a more direct route to the dry side's wide open spaces and its myriad fishing and other outdoors pursuits.
With the Saturday, April 27, statewide opening of trout lakes on the horizon, this year a hint of optimism is in the air.
Based on what they saw March 5 in their pre-project reconnaissance, WSDOT avalanche and maintenance specialists out of Stevens Pass and Twisp say the 44-mile stretch of this national scenic byway could be opened before May 1.
WSDOT avalanche control chief Mike Sanford reported they found regular snowpack and avalanche debris depths along the right of way's east slope uniformly shallower than those measured in recent past years.
Snowpack depth ranged from 3 feet along the way to 51/2 feet at Rainy Pass (west) and 5 feet at Washington Pass (east). The accumulated snow at both summits was about 21/2 feet less than depths found on the 2011 and 2012 recons.
In the avalanche-dominated Early Winters Creek Valley section of the highway, Liberty Bell Mountain's northeast side snow slides were found to have from 25 to nearly 40 feet of accumulated snow on the roadbed, compared to 2012's debris depths of 35 to 60 feet, Sanford said.
Another indication that this clearing season could be easier than usual is that in the two dozen-plus avalanche chutes on the east approach observers saw less rock and tree debris mixed in the avalanche piles. Hidden hard objects in the snow make for more stops to replace shear pins in the rotary snowblowers.
Spring snowstorms in the North Cascades play a two-fold role in the SR 20 reopening effort.
When the eastside crew reaches the first of the Cutthroat Ridge slide chutes, avalanche potential in each zone must be assessed on a daily - occasionally, hourly - basis, and if the hazard warrants snow removal personnel and machinery can be withdrawn.
Second, as long as avalanche monitoring and control are required at Stevens Pass (U.S. Highway 2), avalanche specialists and specialized snow removal machinery are kept there. It's only after the seasonal risks have passed there that this equipment is dispatched to the North Cascades and other highway clearing efforts.
WSDOT crews use several purpose-built Kodiak snowblowers and front end loaders to pitch snow and other debris off the road as well as a Piston-Bully Sno-cat and a D-8 bulldozer to knock avalanche piles down to manageable depths. Swathes are first cleared by the blowers on the driven portion of the roadway, then successive passes are made to expose shoulders to the guard rails, ditchlines and turnouts. On the west side some drainage repair is always needed.
In 2011 because of avalanche hazards, the SR 20 clearing work couldn't start until April 11 and the highway wasn't reopened until May 25. A 46-day snow removal effort last year began March 26, with the first traffic flowing May 10.
As mentioned, WSDOT specialists say this year's early March conditions were a positive indication, but they say snowstorms and avalanches are still possible over the next 30 or so days.
If further snowfall is minimal and machinery malfunctions are few, first-day eastbound motorists could be munching cinnamon rolls from Clark's Restaurant at Marblemount at the Happy Flats gate before May 1.
The WSDOT public information office says nothing is guaranteed for the Saturday, April 27, opening day of 2013 fishing season, so please don't ask.
SPRING RAZOR DIGS POSTED
With marine toxin tests showing the clams currently are safe to eat, state health department and shellfish managers have approved next week's razor clam dig on several Pacific Coast beaches.
The four-day series of morning openings (midnight to noon) are as follows:
Thursday, March 28, minus 0.3-foot low tide is at 7:57 a.m., Twin Harbors only.
Friday, March 29, minus 0.6-foot low tide is at 8:40 a.m., Twin Harbors, Long Beach, Copalis, Mocrocks.
Saturday, March 30, minus 0.7-foot low tide is at 9:26 a.m., Twin Harbors, Long Beach, Copalis, Mocrocks.
Sunday, March 31, minus 0.6-foot low tide us at 10:16 a.m., Twin Harbors only.
If you are 15 years of age or older, your 2012-13 licenses are good for this dig, but on April 1 you must have a new 2013-14 fishing and hunting license to dig. License purchasing options are available at https://fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov.
Two more tentative dig sequences have been posted for April. The dates and beaches involved:
- Tuesday, April 9, Twin Harbors only.
- Wednesday, April 10, Twin Harbors only.
- Thursday, April 11, Twin Harbors only.
- Friday, April 12, Twin Harbors, Long Beach, Copalis and Mocrocks.
- Saturday, April 13, Twin Harbors, Long Beach, Copalis and Mocrocks.
- Sunday, April 14, Twin Harbors, Long Beach, Copalis and Mocrocks
- Wednesday, April 24, Twin Harbors only.
- Thursday, April 25, Twin Harbors only.
- Friday, April 26, Twin Harbors, Long Beach, Copalis and Mocrocks.
- Saturday, April 27, Twin Harbors, Long Beach, Copalis and Mocrocks.
- Sunday, April 28, Twin Harbors, Long Beach, Copalis and Mocrocks.
- Monday, April 29, Twin Harbors, Long Beach and Mocrocks.
- Tuesday, April 30, Twin Harbors only.
The daily limit is the first 15 razor clams that you take into your hand regardless of size or condition.
STURGEON LIMITS FALL
On April 1 the annual statewide white sturgeon retention limit in Washington will drop from five to two a year, matching the new retention cap that Oregon recently adopted.
Originally this change was to have taken effect May 1, but since it is an annualized limit, state fisheries managers have synchronized it with the fishing license year, April 1 to March 31.
Anglers who obtained Washington catch record cards for the coming year before the new rule was enacted should ignore the three extra "kept" sturgeon boxes printed on those cards. In a week or two, the department will begin issuing revised 2013-14 CRCs with just two sturgeon spaces.
It also appears that retention of sturgeon has been or will be eliminated in many fishing venues including Puget Sound, its tributaries in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Washington coast and the lower Columbia River. Catch and release may continue, though under previous restrictions.
All these changes are the result of concern over the continued decline in lower Columbia River whites.
The rules are being applied statewide because the biological consensus (from tag recovery data) is that there are three main Pacific Coast populations, centering on the Sacramento, Columbia and Fraser rivers. Sturgeon caught anywhere along the coast and in other freshwater tributaries, including Port Susan and the lower Stillaguamish River, are likely to be wanderers from these three breeding centers.
The Washington sportfishing regulations cycle comes full circle at the end of April, when a new 2013-14 FishWashington rules pamphlet will be released. Until then, except for emergency orders, the 2012-13 edition remains in effect and is available from any fishing and hunting license dealer or online at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/regulations.
Doug Huddle, the Bellingham Herald's outdoors correspondent, since 1983 has written a weekly fishing and hunting column that now appears Sundays. Read his blog and contact him at http://pblogs.bellinghamherald.com/outdoors.