While working on his second masterpiece for the Cape Horn Trail, Michael Byrne hiked a half-mile back to show his granddaughter the waterfall overlook he completed a year ago.
“She was leaning over the side and her feet were off the ground,” said the stone mason from Parkdale, Oregon. “Twenty years from now, my granddaughter will be 28. She can come back here and say, ‘my grandpa made this.’ My name doesn’t even go on the wall, but my granddaughter will know.”
Byrne is just a few stones away from finishing the Oak View Overlook. The 9- by 8-foot platform is surrounded on all three sides by a 42-foot basalt wall. People will be able to see Beacon Rock off in the distance to the east, as well as Sand Island and the Vista House to the southwest. The overlook is scheduled to be complete by the time the 7.7-mile loop around Cape Horn opens to hikers July 16.
“The popularity of the trail has increased enormously in the last few years,” said Barb Seaman, a board member with the Cape Horn Conservancy. “The best views in this area are quite close to the edge of the basalt rock formations that make the gorge so beautiful and unique. The goal of this project is to provide access to our incredible scenery while keeping hikers safe.”
Byrne spends hours chipping, shaping and curving each rock to his liking using a chisel and a hammer. Keith Brown, a board member with Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said it’s like watching a performing artist.
“What people see is the finished product. But putting everything together, piece by piece, that is the art,” Brown said. “Very few people would be willing to take the time and effort of splitting the rock, then the chipping and shaping, picking the rock up and putting it back down time and time again. It dances the way he wants it to.”
The work on this project has been a collaborative effort. Cape Horn Conservancy President Teresa Robbins said about 30 volunteers spent a couple months digging the foundation of the overlook, hauling 4,480 pounds of mortar and more than 10,000 pounds of basalt to the site. Both the Washington Trails Association and the Chinook Trails Association offered labor and use of their equipment.
“People are stunned to hear about volunteers dedicating this much effort to gift the community and hikers at large with something that’s everlasting,” Robbins said. “We have people coming from Portland, Vancouver, Camas, Washougal and Stevenson to work on this trail. It’s a unified effort of volunteers coming together who love the gorge.”
The U.S. Forest Service provided guidance and resources throughout the planning and preparation stages. New trails supervisor Dawn Stender spent one of her first days on the job carrying rock down the embankment.
“It was a great introduction for her and her crew to the national scenic area,” Brown said. “It was also a great showing of what this forestry service can provide, which makes all of this possible.”
Seaman said the WTA used a “toter” to carry the 640-pound cornerstone most of the way. They relied on a series of cables, winches and “elbow grease” to guide it into place.
“It’s taken a lot of planning, coordinating and plain hard labor,” Seaman said. “But it will allow so many people the opportunity to linger in one of Skamania County’s most beautiful spots — perhaps to take a lunch break during a hike, watch a river barge roll by just beneath them, or maybe enjoy the changing light on the hills across the river as the clouds move up and down the gorge. It’s going to be a wonderful addition to the trail.”