The Kootenai River churned and roiled Thursday beneath the feet of anyone striding across the swinging bridge spanning the river’s aquamarine waters.
Swinging bridges sway, yaw and undulate. Given these realities, venturing across one of these suspension footbridges can stir apprehension.
For some, the same is true for the Kootenai River swinging bridge, reached by a trail off U.S. 2 between Libby and Troy.
One website includes the Kootenai span on a list of “15 terrifying swinging bridges around the U.S. [that] will make your stomach drop.”
And it seems that this stomach drop, combined with the beauty of the Kootenai River gorge, plays a role in the swinging footbridge’s appeal.
Myranda Cravens, general manager of the Libby Chamber of Commerce, said some locals worried that the design of a new bridge for the site could steal a measure of the span’s excitement.
Cravens acknowledged there is a “fear factor” in crossing the bridge. She said it took her three tries to make it across.
On April 1, contractors working for the U.S. Forest Service and Kootenai National Forest began constructing a new swinging bridge that will be about 15 feet upstream of the existing span, which will be removed once construction is complete.
On Thursday, workers for Budinger & Associates of Spokane drilled holes into rock for anchors for a steel tower that will be part of the new swinging bridge’s structure.
Rob Malyevac, an engineer for the Forest Service who is overseeing the $500,000 project, said the target date for completing the new bridge is June 30.
The new suspension span, like its predecessor, will stretch about 220 feet across the river.
Malyevac said an assessment of the current bridge led the Forest Service to conclude replacement made more sense than another upgrade for the existing span and the steel cables that have suspended it.
“Based on the age of the structure and some of the wear we were seeing on the cable, we just decided it was more practical and more economical to start from scratch,” he said.
Concerns about the old bridge’s weight-bearing capacity led the Forest Service to limit the number of people who could be on the bridge at one time to five.
The Forest Service has described the existing bridge as a popular attraction and has reported that usage has increased substantially over the years, peaking at more than 600 people per day who use the site during summer months.
Tourism has become increasingly important to the economies of Libby and Troy as resource extraction industries have waxed and waned.
Cravens said the swinging bridge, which is featured prominently on the websites for both the Libby Chamber of Commerce and the Troy Chamber of Commerce, “is one of our major attractions.”
According to the Forest Service, the Civilian Conservation Corps, a work-relief program that provided employment for young men during the Great Depression, constructed the first swinging bridge at the river location during the 1930s, primarily to provide access across the river for forest fire suppression.
A flood in 1948 caused this bridge to fail and a new span was built in 1951. Rehabilitation projects were completed in 1968, 1993 and 2016, the Forest Service said.
A trail of about 1 mile leads to the bridge from a site off U.S. 2 that also offers trail access to Kootenai Falls.
Kirsten Kaiser is district ranger for the Kootenai National Forest’s Three Rivers Ranger District in Troy. She said the new bridge offers a host of benefits.
“This new structure will provide the public a bridge that responds to the increased use, current safety considerations, reduction in short-term and long-term maintenance, and will maintain the character of the area for visitors,” Kaiser said in a news release.
She added, “It is expected to provide the public with a quality outdoor recreation experience for the foreseeable future.”
The project’s lead contractor is Wesslen Construction of Spokane. The company has experience building suspension bridges and working in remote locations, according to its website.
Helicopters have been used to place equipment during the early phases of construction.
The Forest Service said the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes were consulted during project development because of the area’s cultural significance to the tribes.
Malyevac said the target completion date should precede the summer peak of tourists passing through.
“We’re hoping to beat the rush of people,” he said.
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4407.