Nobody knows the Sound To Olympics Trail like Don Willott, and even he was surprised by the root mass of a fallen Douglas fir lying just off the path, one he must have walked past a thousand times.
“I thought there was just some not-very-attractive, root-looking stuff sticking up in the air” through the underbrush, Willott says.
That was until workers hacking vines and briars along the shoulder exposed the tremendous roots, which once supported a giant maybe 80 or 100 years old when it fell.
“When you come and see it,” Willott said, “it’s huge.”
Bainbridge Island’s newest roadside attraction – make that, trail-side attraction – came to light last week during enhancements to the STO greenway. The STO’s first leg, from Winslow Way to High School Road, is enjoying an extensive restoration this summer through the Bainbridge Island Parks Foundation’s Friends of the STO Trail Fund.
Four days a week, island landscaper Bart Berg leads an industrious crew skilled with the weed-whacker, the pruner and when needed, the machete. Bushels of nuisance brush have been grubbed out and hauled away, from common roadside grasses to invasives like poison hemlock, morning glory, Scotch broom and non-native blackberry.
Volunteer poplars have come down and salmonberry beaten back, exposing the salal, mahonia and native roses planted when the trail was built three years ago. Extra effort is being made to protect the asphalt path from encroachment and damage by roots.
“There’s a tremendous amount of volume that needs to come out,” Berg, as the project got underway near the Winslow Way intersection. “We’ve got alders that are already 6, 7, 8 feet high.
“If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s root invasion into asphalt,” added Berg, an avid bicyclist.
Volunteer madronas are being encouraged where they fit the plan. Two grades of mulch are being applied along the trailside, the finest mix in the “presentation area” where travelers join the trail at Winslow Way.
Trail users are noticing the change. “A week ago, this looked like a jungle,” one passerby commented.
The project is overseen by the City of Bainbridge Island’s Department of Public Works, which secured permits and monitors progress with weekly reports from Berg.
“The City is very pleased and grateful to the Parks Foundation and donors that have generously provided the significant landscape improvements along the Sound to Olympics Trail,” said Mark Epstein, engineering project manager for Public Works. “This project demonstrates the extraordinary care our community exhibits to maintain and enhance our recreational and transportation corridors. The improvements along the STO really enrich the connections with nature one experiences along the trail. Go check it out!”
Opened in 2018, the Sound To Olympics Trail offers a variously 10- and 12-foot paved path for multimodal travel – pedestrians, bikes, motorized wheelchairs, maybe Segways if those are still a thing – safely buffered from the highway by vegetation and grade.
The first leg in a regional route envisioned to someday reach the Olympic Peninsula, the 0.9-mile “Winslow Connector” crosses the ravine on a bridge built by developers of the Vineyard Lane condos and terminates, for now, next to McDonalds.
The STO route will cross the highway at High School Road, with the next leg set to run along easements and through the lower bowl of Sakai Park as it makes its way north toward the bridge.
Willott concedes that islanders were shocked when STO construction denuded a hillside near Winslow Way. But he and Berg are more measured, saying the loss amounted to “one really nice cedar” and a bunch of low-value silver poplars, which they describe as “weed trees.”
The STO plan, he said, strives to preserve and improve habitat with native trees, understory, and open natural areas.
A longtime advocate for trails and nonmotorized paths whose other haunts include City Hall, and anywhere else there’s a transportation planning meeting, Willott bristles at the perception that the STO was built for bicyclists coming over from Seattle.
On a recent morning, the trail saw traffic from joggers, couples out for their stroll, dog walkers, clinicians in scrubs, and locals heading south laden with Safeway and ACE Hardware bags. And bicyclists, not all of them kitted out for the Tour de France.
“Now people are using the trail and appreciating it,” Willott said. “Now we can celebrate it and show that we’re taking the next step with a management plan.”
Barb Trafton, Parks Foundation executive director, agreed that the STO work is giving islanders “a new appreciation of the natural features all around us, even within the Winslow core, and how a longer STO will enhance our community and our lives.”
Willott notes that the STO will connect with more local, neighborhood trails along every leg, an arterial of sorts for the larger network.
Near the site of the giant root mass, the Summer Trails Crew is punching through the understory to connect the STO with the John Nelson Trail. The wooded loop off Vineyard Lane runs along the ridge of the deeper-than-you-think ravine, giving access to one of the Winslow area’s most dramatic topographic features.
The Nelson loop isn’t widely known or used – yet – but that should change with access directly from the STO.
“It’s becoming our linear park, where we connect with our neighbors and nature,” he said.