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Summer highway closure surprises everyone

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State maintenance crews work to reopen Highway 20 on Aug. 11 between the winter closure gate and the Chelan County line after a series of mudslides covered parts of the highway.

WINTHROP — Winthrop is well used to the snowstorms, avalanches, and even late fall rains that regularly close the North Cascades Highway and end the steady flow of traffic through their small tourist-dependent town.

But not in mid-summer. At least, not for eight days at the height of the season. Businesses and travelers were more than ready when it reopened at 10 a.m. Monday.

Built in 1972, the scenic highway from Mazama to Newhalem closes every winter due to avalanche danger.

But last week’s rainstorm that closed the highway for more than a week took everyone by surprise.

Initially, two mudslides were reported by travelers on Aug. 10 at about 9:30 p.m. A couple vehicles were trapped in between, but were soon rescued.

By the next morning, crews discovered eight slides in a six-mile stretch of the highway, some as deep as 25 feet, and spilling along the pavement for a quarter-mile.

They were left with the monumental task of cleaning up some 3,000 dump-truck loads of mud, rocks and logs. More rain left the mud even more difficult to move. Before the highway could reopen, workers repaired guardrails and drainages, and fixed damaged pavement.

For the next several weeks, travelers can expect short delays as crews continue to work on the drainage and slopes.

Jeff Adamson, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said he doesn’t think the highway has ever closed in the middle of summer for more than a week.

He recalled one year when a tanker spilled fuel and contaminated dirt had to be hauled away before reopening.

But that was in October.

A 2-inch rainfall also spurred a mudslide in July 2009. But that was for one day.

As far as summer closures, lengthwise this would probably have been the longest,” Adamson said.

A half hour after the highway reopened on Monday morning, Winthrop Mayor Dave Acheson said he could already see significantly more traffic going both ways past Winthrop’s welcome sign, leaving him wondering if maybe the highway’s gates opened earlier than the announced time.

There’s no question there were fewer people in Winthrop last weekend, he said.

It was definitely noticeable. But as far as the experience for people who were here, it may have been, ironically, better,” Acheson said.

That’s because town wasn’t quite as crazy as it usually is in the middle of summer.

When it’s open, the North Cascades Highway has an average daily traffic count of 700 cars, Adamson said.

But that’s misleading, since traffic more than doubles once the summer season really begins. “Almost all of the traffic is between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when the average goes up to between 1,500 and 2,500” vehicles a day, he said.

By Monday, Adamson said it felt like he had heard from a good share of those would-be travelers — from those with huge motorcycle group trips, or bicycle trips, to parents planning to meet their son on the Pacific Crest Trail to restock his food.

I have to say, between voice and email, it’s been nonstop since last Saturday night,” he said.

Reach K.C. Mehaffey at 509-997-2512 or . Read her blog An Apple a Day or follow her on Twitter at @KCMehaffeyWW.