Officials ‘optimistic' about 2022 Clackamas River recreation season, major questions loom

·4 min read
Images from Highway 224 southeast of Estacada along the Clackamas River corridor from January as crews work to try and reopen the popular recreation area.
Images from Highway 224 southeast of Estacada along the Clackamas River corridor from January as crews work to try and reopen the popular recreation area.

The last major highway still closed by the 2020 Labor Day Fires is expected to reopen this year, but whether it comes in time for summer recreation season on the popular and economically important Clackamas River corridor remains to be seen.

Don Hamilton, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said he was “optimistic that there will be a recreation season in 2022” for Highway 224 and the upper Clackamas southeast of Estacada but declined to say if that meant spring, summer or even fall.

“We’re making progress but we can’t put a date on it yet because there remains a lot of work to be done,” he said. “We’re going to get it open as soon as we can and that’s the best we can say.

"That answer is frustrating, vague and difficult — and we understand that — but we’re not going to open it until it’s safe.”

Highway 224 past North Fork Reservoir has been closed since the Riverside Fire burned 138,054 acres during the September 2020 Labor Day Fires. It's the last major roadway still shuttered by wildfires that burned over 1 million acres statewide.

The Clackamas River corridor is a critical economic driver for recreation and tourism in the Estacada area, and the lack of a stable timeline has been deeply frustrating, said Pete Giordano, owner of Blue Sky Rafting.

“I’m not sure if ODOT understands what the recreation season is,” Giordano said. “I'm getting calls now for trips in March and May and have no idea whether I can book them or not. Also, I've had three different conflicting estimates from three different ODOT people so I have no idea who to trust.

“There is a strong push from recreation users right now to get a meeting with the forest service and ODOT to address these issues. Our focus has been on consistent clear detailed timelines rather than random estimates from a variety of people.”

Images from Highway 224 southeast of Estacada along the Clackamas River corridor from January as crews work to try and reopen the popular recreation area.
Images from Highway 224 southeast of Estacada along the Clackamas River corridor from January as crews work to try and reopen the popular recreation area.

Hamilton said the amount of work left to be done is considerable, including putting up 42,000 feet of guardrail while drilling mesh nets onto roadside cliffs to stop rockfall.

“There’s also a lot of ditch cleaning, removing trees and 11 sites that need new guardrails,” Hamilton said. Given the amount of work — and that much of it is being done by independent contractors — makes establishing a firm timeline difficult, he added.

Even once the highway reopened, the amount of recreation will be limited, said Heather Ibsen with Mount Hood National Forest. All campgrounds in the burn zone and trails will likely be closed. Just two or three recreation sites are likely to be open, she said, and those are likely to be river access points including Moore Creek and Hole in the Wall sites.

“Most trailheads and campgrounds along that corridor were hit really hard during the Riverside Fire,” Ibsen said. “Thankfully, a couple of the boating day use sites were only lightly damaged and should be cleared and open before the highway opens.

“Many of the campgrounds along Highway 224 lost toilets, water systems and most of their trees,” she said. “The trails within the fire area have downed trees and limbs, slides and eroded slopes, and some burned trail bridges. We are hoping to have funding to start the process of repairing our recreation sites later this year, but it will likely take several years for everything to be replaced and restored. So, while folks will be able to drive up the highway, recreation opportunities won’t be the same for a while.”

That said, a reopened Highway 224 may provide some access to unburned recreation sites near places such as the Collawash River area during 2022, Ibsen said.

Images from Highway 224 southeast of Estacada along the Clackamas River corridor from January as crews work to try and reopen the popular recreation area.
Images from Highway 224 southeast of Estacada along the Clackamas River corridor from January as crews work to try and reopen the popular recreation area.

For Giordano, the lack of clarity makes it difficult to run a business.

“Without any clarity on a timeline I have no idea how to work on hiring which is already a challenge,” he said. “If the upper Clackamas does not have a July and August season I am considering shutting down for that part of the summer and only doing spring trips.

“The last two years have been a struggle of not making any money and I don't think I can do that for a third year.”

Hamilton said he understood the frustration.

"It's an awful situation for businesses around Estacada, there's no doubt. But the consequences of opening the highway too soon could be people losing their lives. We're doing the best we can and are asking people to be patient a little bit longer," he said.

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Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter in Oregon for 15 years and is host of the Explore Oregon Podcast. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal.

Urness is the author of “Best Hikes with Kids: Oregon” and “Hiking Southern Oregon.” He can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.

This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Officials 'optimistic' about reopening Clackamas River recreation in 2022

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