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The placement of three bridge sections, over the Big Sandy Creek drainage, in the rugged San Joaquin River Gorge area, completes a crucial link along the San Joaquin River Trail.

This project was nominated for a Partnership Award as part of the 2008 National Trails Awards, announced at the 19th National Trails Symposium in Little Rock, Arkansas.

 

Big Sandy Bridge Team includes National Guard and volunteers

The final section of a long-awaited recreational trail system near Millerton Lake State Recreation Area was lifted into place Saturday, June 9, 2008 by a California Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopter. In setting three bridge sections into place over the rugged Big Sandy Creek drainage, the helicopter finished an 11-year partnership by dozens of volunteers, government agencies, and a caravan of mules to complete an 18-mile trail system through the Sierra foothills.

photo of bridge construction

California National Guard working with
State Parks staff on bridge placement

History

California State Parks contracted with the California Conservation Corps (CCC) to construct the trail in this area; part of their requirement was to provide a crossing over the Big Sandy Creek drainage. In early 1995 the California Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed a causeway/weir type structure out of stone across the Big Sandy Creek drainage. A number of large stones were drilled and split from the surrounding bedrock and placed in the creek channel.

In March of 1995 the California Conservation Corps was nearing completion of the causeway when a severe storm event hit central California. The runoff from these storms was so great that the watershed area feeding Big Sandy Creek was overwhelmed, sending a surge of water right for the Big Sandy Creek drainage crossing, destroying the crossing which was nearly completed. The recorded runoff was considered to be a 100 year event.

It was decided that a bridge spanning the distance of the drainage was the best solution. In the fall of 1998 California State Parks received funding through FEMA to replace the rock weir which had washed out with a prefabricated bridge. In June of 2000, Topper Industries delivered the bridge segments to the Millerton Lake State Recreation Area. At the time, State Parks was managing this area for the Bureau of Reclamation.

For seven years groups and agencies had pursued a way to place the bridge sections, with the National Guard ultimately coming through on the need for a helicopter capable of lifting and setting the bridge sections.

The Project

This bridge connects portions of the San Joaquin River Trail, providing an uninterrupted trail opportunity of approximately 18 miles between Sky Harbor Road within the Millerton Lake State Recreation Area (MLSRA), United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) and the Bureau of Land Managements (BLM’s) San Joaquin River Gorge Management Area.  Eventually, the San Joaquin River Trail will connect Highway 99 in the Central Valley to the headwaters of the San Joaquin River, near the Devil’s Postpile National Monument, a total distance of approximately 73 miles. 

The placement of 3 bridge sections, over the Big Sandy Creek drainage, in the rugged San Joaquin River Gorge area, is a crucial link along the San Joaquin River Trail. The project links California State Parks and federal recreational areas with an all-year, multi-use trail that allows hikers, equestrians, and mountain bike enthusiasts to enjoy one of the largest recreational resources in the San Joaquin Valley. This trail, when completed, will connect Millerton Lake State Recreation Area with the Pacific Crest Trail in the central Sierra Nevada Mountains. This bridge opened the first 18 miles of the trail to safe public use.

photo of new bridge

Big Sandy Creek bridge in place

After two major storms, 1995 and 1998, washed out the Big Sandy Creek portion of the San Joaquin River Trail, it was unusable for nearly 12 years. California State Parks could not finance a complete restoration. Being in a very rugged portion of the San Joaquin River Gorge, accessibility was only by foot, horse, boat or airlift. Volunteer organizations, principally the San Joaquin River Trail Council, Central California Off-Road Cyclists and the Back Country Horsemen's Association partnered with California State Parks to deliver materials and erect bridge abutments. At one point mule teams were utilized to haul 40,000 lbs of concrete blocks to the project site. Completion of the project required the support of the California Army National Guard Aviation, Blackhawk Helicopter and crew. This was not a normal mission for the seasoned pilots and crew who performed with expertise and enthusiasm. Planning was critical since the "drop zone" was a very narrow and uneven area requiring precision placement and safety for the crew below. The project was carried out without incident.

Restoration of the San Joaquin River Trail at the Big Sandy Creek drainage, in particular installation of 3 bridge spans, became an 11 year effort that brought together 12 volunteer groups, enlisting at minimum 68 volunteers, with the donations of 10 private businesses and thousands of volunteer hours. From Mules to Helicopters, Engineers to Pilots, and Horsemen to Cyclists, everyone not only pitched in but was critical to the overall effort in the construction of this final piece of the lower section of the trail.

Mark Holland, former Vice President and current Trail Construction Coordinator of the Central California Off-Road Cyclists, and the clubs representative to the San Joaquin River Trail Council has been the Big Sandy Bridge Project Manager for the past 11 years. Holland’s coordination of over 4,600 volunteer hours, materials and equipment resulted in the completion of the placement of the 3 bridge spans that now completes a section of the San Joaquin River Trail and provides 18 miles of uninterrupted trail access to hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians. He organized and coordinated the 68 volunteers from 12 volunteer groups and the contributions of 10 private businesses in the construction of the bridge supports.

Photo of horses on the trail

caravan of mules provided by CA Back Country Horsemen's Association

The California Army National Guard's Lt Col Mark Van Dyke and CW4 Kenneth Gatewood were "key" in providing the final touches in the placement of three bridge sections that completed an 11 year effort to span Big Sandy Creek in the San Joaquin River Gorge. Lt Col Van Dyke and CW4 Kenneth Gatewood were the California Army National Guardsmen who provided vital planning information to the Project Coordinator prior to moving the three bridge sections. Their enthusiastic and professional attitude before, during and after the mission was essential in keeping the team focused on safety and accomplishing the mission without any accidents.

Prior to the actual setting of the bridge, Lt. Col. Van Dyke surveyed the job site, met with volunteers and Park Staff and then gained support from his National Guard Chain of Command on the value of the project while ensuring that the project could be accomplished safely. He and CW4 Kenneth Gatewood studied loading calculations for the Blackhawk helicopter and felt secure in their evaluation. They logged 8.0 flight hours for this mission, both days and were aided by 20 key Guardsmen on the ground. Their cost to fly the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter was $2,400 per flight hour. Total contribution in time and fuel was $19,200, giving the Army National Guard a unique training opportunity while contributing to the well being of their community.

Completion of the project required cooperation and coordination with multiple government partners including the California Department of Parks and Recreation (Millerton Lake State Recreation Area), U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and most critically California Army National Guard Aviation. A request to the California Army National Guard Aviation Support was accepted and approved in June of 2007 clearing the way for setting the bridge spans in place and completing the lower section of the San Joaquin River Trail. The relentless dedication to completion of the Big Sandy Creek Bridge project has resulted in the linking of California State Park and federal recreational areas, and has provided an all-year, multi-use trail that allows hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers to enjoy one of the largest recreational resources in the San Joaquin Valley.

A five agency MOU was developed between the California Department of Parks and Recreation, California Army National Guard, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), Bureau of Reclamation, and Bureau of Land Management. This was a key component of the project as all agencies had to agree on liability issues related to airlifting bridge sections and crew safety in the air and on the ground.

For more information, see the Millerton Lake State Recreation Area website at www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=587

 

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