Winter is a Good Time to Prep for a Thru Hike

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This article  was prepared for the Appalachian Trail:  Expert Advice Facebook page to which I am a contributor.

Backpacking experience is a sure bet if you’re attempting a thru hike. Informal surveys suggest that for the vast majority of thru hikers, this 2,200-mile adventure will be their first serious backpacking trip.

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There’s art in the frost.

Especially with hikers starting earlier to avoid crowds, the winter months are an ideal time to develop hiking, camping and cooking skills. The trails and shelters see little traffic. The light angles are brilliant for photography. Best of all, if you make a mistake and have to bail, you’re generally close to home or your car.

If you follow social media, you learn many hikers hibernate during the cold and desolate winter months when they could be out on the trails honing their skills.

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In many places winter isn’t totally glacial. There are warm spells. After all, even black bears don’t truly hibernate. When it warms up a bit, they get out and about. So can you. You can also test nature’s most challenging elements if you want to.

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AT at New Found Gap in Nov.  Temperature 0F.

Winter experience is also valuable knowledge that might save someone’s hike. Nearly all NOBOs and many SOBOs endure harsh winter conditions in the Smokies , the Roan Highlands, and or on the Mt. Rogers massif. On the northern end, the 100-mile Wilderness can become a deepfreeze in late fall.

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Rain-soaked poles were hung on a peg and froze solid overnight on Mt. Rogers.

Here’s why it matters. While ridgerunning in a heavy March snowstorm, I met two couples from Florida on Blood Mountain who said they were overwhelmed by the snow and cold. Three and a half days into their hike, it was over.

These hikers were headed home with smashed dreams, casualties of not knowing how. Since it snowed, sleeted and/or rained on 18 of the first 20 days that March, they were destined to be toast no matter what, but they did not have to be.

Georgia in March.

Ready to try winter backpacking and improve your edge?

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Four layers you can see and two you can’t.  With my friend Denise Benson on a cold weather trip preparing for her thru hike.

The general concepts are simple. Wear loose and layered clothing. Keep your clothing, socks and sleeping bag as dry as possible. Keep your head and hands warm. Learn how to block the wind and manage body heat generated by heavy exercise. Learn how to stay warm at night. Know the techniques needed to avoid misery.

Here are some things to know before you go about clothing, layering, gloves and mittens, staying dry, treating water and keeping your water from freezing, dehydration and hypothermia, frostbite, staying warm at night, camp routine, cooking and electronics, and more. Let’s tackle them one at a time.

Clothing:

In dead winter you’ll need to pack more clothing than normal, at least a complete change or more depending on conditions. The keys are to stay dry and have enough layers to keep warm.

Extra layers may be needed depending on expected temperatures. During my thru hike, I experienced -15 degrees F on Mt. Rogers following a day of hard near-freezing rain. These were ultra high-risk conditions. But, that night and the next day were special in a good way. I was warm and dry. It wasn’t luck. It was know-how.

Everybody says wear layers. Exactly what does that mean?

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Wind layer over base layer.

Layers trap air that acts as insulation. Usually a snug wicking base layer is complimented by a loose, windproof, baggy outer layer. The wicking property keeps your skin dry and warmer. Rain gear, pants and jacket, can serve as a wind-proof outer layer, but so can other forms of technical clothing available from outfitters. In a word, two thin fleeces will be warmer than one heavy one. In camp wearing a rain jacket over a puffy is much warmer than the puffy alone, especially if it is windy.

For example, even at temperatures around -35 F in Alaska, Colorado and northern Minnesota, a tight fitting wicking base layer surrounded by a baggy windproof layer on the bottom has been enough during exertion. On top a base layer and a second loose layer, say a light fleece under the wind layer is usually sufficient while hiking, snow shoeing or skiing in the extreme cold. It doesn’t take that much to stay warm while you are moving.

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Most serious winter backpackers don’t use multipurpose clothing such as fleece-lined outer shells. Their outer layers are separate to ease building the right number of layers. If using a rain jacket, it should be designed like a mountain parka with a high hooded collar, pit zips to reduce heat build up, and an inside pocket to carry water bottles.

The key when moving is just enough clothing to keep warm to reduce sweating. Add or subtract light, lose layers as needed.

In cold weather, everything changes the minute you stop. Your body generates far less heat and the moisture in damp clothing quickens the transfer of heat away from your body. Keep your warm jacket handy so you can put it on right away when you stop.

In camp you can add down pants to help keep your legs warm during chores, and to sleep in as well. Wearing down pants and puffies to bed adds insulation that increases the temperature range on sleeping bags. Down booties keep cold feet warm. High quality down garments offer outstanding warmth at a light weight.

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The down jackets, pants and booties extend the range of the 20-degree bag to 0F.

Bonus. Think about it. If nature calls on a freezing night, popping out of your sleeping bag wearing down pants and a jacket make the experience much more tolerable.

Gloves, Mittens and Socks:

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Mittens are always warmer than gloves. They are handy to have for those prone to colder extremities – older hikers, women, or someone with Renaud’s disease.

Mittens with a waterproof shell helps keep hands dry and block the wind. On my thru, a cold snap (0 degrees F) drove me into Gatlinburg to buy mittens because my gloves were woefully insufficient. The outfitter didn’t carry them, so I waited in town two days for warmer temperatures. That was two town days not in the budget because my winter gear was waiting for me in Hot Springs.

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Gloves, and especially mittens, make performing tasks much more difficult such as manipulating snaps, buckles, zippers and any task requiring fine motor skills. Wearing thin glove liners adds an inner layer and improves motor skills and reduces frostbite risk when gloves or mittens must be removed.

Dry wool socks/warm feet are a necessity, not a luxury. Some carry up to five pair of socks, including their sleeping socks. At night I put my socks between my sleeping bag and air mattress. Usually they dry out.

Water:

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Water sources can freeze solid.

In subfreezing temperatures, having drinkable water is challenging. Water sources can freeze solid requiring hikers to expend precious fuel melting ice or snow. Filters easily freeze. To prevent freezing, they can be packed deep within one’s pack during the day and reside inside your sleeping bag at night. That’s a pain.

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In freezing weather, chemical purification generally is more convenient, either Aqua Mira or iodine tabs. Fortunately iodine now comes with a neutralizer that removes its peculiar color and unpleasant taste.

Treated water must be kept liquid. During a bitterly cold day, carry water containers in an insulated sleeve and inside your outer layer where body heat helps prevent freezing. Extra water can be insulated inside your pack using extra clothing.

Wide mouth bottles are almost impossible to open if the water at the opening freezes due to the extra friction caused by their large surface area.

Narrow mouth bottles, carried upside down, fare better. The reason for carrying bottles upside down is that no bottle is completely full and the water near the air bubble at the top freezes first.

Know the forecast before relying on a water bladder. Even insulated hoses freeze at relatively high temperatures.

At night water goes inside your sleeping bag if you don’t want a block of ice in the morning that might not thaw out. Put the bottle in a sock or at the end of your bag if you’re worried about it making you cold. Heating the water first acts like a hot water bottle and adds comfort, but it comes with the cost of burning extra fuel.

Above all, make certain the container lid is on tight. Do not use flip lids unless you want to chance flooding your sleeping bag. It happens more than you think.

Dehydration:

Fake fact: When it’s cold outside and you don’t sweat as much, so you don’t need to drink as much.

In winter the colder air is generally dryer, sweat evaporates more efficiently, and you exhale a lot of water vapor. Thirst is not as intense, yet your body eliminates nearly the same amount of water as it does in other seasons.

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Monitor how much you are drinking to ensure you get enough. You should urinate about once every hour or two and the color of your urine should match lemonade. If it looks dark yellow or like weak tea, you’re headed for trouble. If the color darkens to the color of cola, you are at risk.

Hypothermia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypothermia

This condition occurs when your body’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees. That’s only 3.6 degrees below normal. Symptoms include shivering, rapid hear rate, rapid breathing, lose of coordination and confusion. Dehydration can be a factor, as can wet clothing.

Wear clothes made of artificial fiber that retain insulating ability when wet. Cotton loses its insulating properties when wet. Hence the aphorism: Cotton kills.

Staying as dry as possible is the Holy Grail in hypothermia prevention. Moisture reduces the insulating value of your clothes, hats, gloves and socks. You have to get out of damp or wet garments as soon as you get to camp. You might need to change earlier if you get soaked in a cold rain or slip and fall into a creek. Regardless, heat can dissipate rapidly leading to hypothermia or frostbite.

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Tricorner Knob Shelter where a hiker died of hypothermia.

An experienced hiker, who was properly equipped, died at a shelter in the Smokies just a few years ago. He was found dead next to his sleeping bag having been robbed of his judgment by the cold. https://appalachiantrailnoir.wordpress.com/2015/01/04/hiker-succumbs-to-hypothermia-in-the-smokies/

If you start to shiver, it may be time to add layers, especially a windproof outer layer.

Frostbite:

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Frostbite happens when your skin freezes. The vulnerable parts of your body are toes, feet, hands, face and ears. For AT purposes, the likely danger lies mostly in wet feet and hands. Wind chill can endanger noses, cheeks and ears. Properly fitting boots, gaiters, and dry socks are your friends. Also mittens protect the hands much more than gloves. Knit and fleece hats protect ears. In extreme conditions balaclavas cover cheeks and noses.

In Camp:

When you role into camp the sun will probably be dropping like a stone along with the temperature. At a minimum, your back and socks will be damp, requiring a change. You’ll need water and to eat, and a place to sleep. What do you do first?

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Camp routine is personal preference. The key is to be organized and prioritized both in the way your gear is packed (say clothes on top) and the order of your camp chores.

Since I treat my winter water with iodine, which takes 30 minutes to work, that’s the first thing I do. Pitching my tent or preparing my bedroll follows; then changing clothes. When the water is purified, I cook and clean up. Then I dive into bed and listen to pod casts rather than lose more valuable body heat.

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These tents belong to ill-prepared spring break hikers.  I slept in between.  Had one more hiker arrived, the tents would have had to come down.

Sleeping in a tent is warmer than a shelter. It’s bad form to pitch tents in shelters, but hikers do it if they need to keep warm. It becomes a problem if too many hikers show up.

When pitching tents, scrape away the snow from under the area of your tent. During the night body heat melts the snow turning it into ice after you get up. If you don’t act quickly, the ice freezes tents to the ground like super glue. Striking tents immediately after waking helps prevent this. Using a footprint either from the manufacturer or homemade from Tyvek might just save your tent floor.

While sleeping, the majority of heat is lost through the bottom, transferring to the colder ground underneath. Thus, bottom insulation is far more important than on top. If you’re cold and have an extra blanket, put it underneath you, not over you, and you’ll be warmer. My preference is an insulated air mattress over closed cell foam sleeping pads because these air mattresses offer higher insulation values.

As a general rule, plan to sleep in your dry spare set of clothes. Don’t expect your damp sweaty hiking outfit to dry out overnight. You put that back on in the morning and quickly get moving to warm up.

In much colder temperatures, putting on damp clothing in the morning may not be practical or safe, depending. On a good day, I don’t change anything but socks when I get to camp. My back is usually only slightly damp. I add layers and am usually dry before bedtime.

Cooking:

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Cooking in cold weather requires much more fuel.

What’s on the menu is a matter of personal preference. Most people don’t like to eat cold meals in the winter. Preparing a warm meal in winter is a function the laws of physics. Needless to say, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around within the hiking community.

Warm meal(s) and or hot chocolate are comforting to say the least. The choices for creating heat are basically two: fire and stoves. Fire is dirty and difficult for some. Alcohol stoves sometimes don’t generate enough heat to boil water in very cold temperatures. If you use iso butane, you need special winter mix fuel canisters. Pressurized stoves such as the MSR Wisperlite are heavy in comparison to other choices. Experience can help you pick your poison.

Electronics:

Cold is the enemy of all batteries, especially the lithium-ion batteries used in phones and iPods. Whip out your phone in winter to take a photo and it may die before you can even turn the camera on. If a lithium-ion battery freezes, nano wires inside may break, severely degrading its life and capacity.

Keeping your phone in your pocket helps keep the battery warm. Electronics including storage batteries also follow your water bottle into your sleeping bag at night. Electronics including your headlamp, unneeded during the day, can be packed inside sleeping bags to insulate them from the severe cold.

One more thing:

snow goggles

Snow blindness is rare at the lower altitude in the lower 48, but it’s a risk nevertheless. Sun reflecting off white snow plays hell with your eyesight. The Eskimos invented slitted eye covers to protect them from the glare. Always bring sunglasses or wear polychromatic lenses in prescription glasses.

 

Of note:

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My shoulder-season pack, set up for five days, weighs about 32 lbs., all included. That’s a tent, 20-degree sleeping bag, a down puffy, down pants and booties, a complete change of clothing, rain gear, wind jacket, two hats, and gloves plus stove, food and water.

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My thru hike pack at the Harpers Ferry Visitor Center.  The month is March.

In contrast, my summer pack weighs around 18 lbs. – far fewer clothes, lighter sleeping bag, and modified rain gear if it’s there at all.

My full on winter pack weighs around 40 lbs. with all the basics plus gaiters, extra hats, mittens, zero-degree sleeping bag, and extra clothing. My boots change from high-top trail runners to an insulated and waterproof boot. Sometimes I bring micro spikes and/or show shoes.

Summary:

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The hiker is from Vermont and knew how to take good care of his dog in harsh conditions.  Many hikers do not and their dogs suffer.

Winter is time you can use to your advantage. Mostly it’s an enchanting environment where the animal tracks tell remarkable stories and nature’s awesome beauty is visible in a way few seldom see. Occasionally it’s an adventure. Check it out!

Two excellent sources:

MOUNTAINEERING, The Freedom of the Hills. Edited by Ronald C. Eng. Part 1, Outdoor Fundamentals, eighth edition, 2015. The Mountaineers Books.

98.6 Degrees, The art of keeping YOUR ASS ALIVE, Cody Lundin. 2003. Gibbs Smith Publisher.

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Gaiters help keep feet dry.

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Pearisburg, VA is where the AT’s altitude drops below 5,000 ft. and it’s normally safe to send winter gear home.

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Central Virginia in March.

 

A Remarkable Blowdown

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Shenandoah National Park, October 20 – 21, 2017 — Imagine finding a 50-year-old locust tree prostrate on your favorite picnic table like a drunk passed out in a dark alley.  Most of us didn’t know this stately friend had a problem.  Regardless, there it was.

The Hoodlum’s crew weekend was off to an exciting start.

We suspect the last gasp of one of the recent hurricanes was responsible for doing a number on this poor tree that used to live at the Hoodlums trail crew hangout at Indian Run.  The tree’s lush leaves fooled us.  Termites had found its heart.  It was weakened and didn’t need much to do it in.

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The dead picnic table wasn’t the locust’s only victim.  Our recently repaired reflector fire took a glancing blow significant enough to pop a few rocks loose.

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On its way down or on a bounce, the dearly departed tree crunched our backup picnic table too. To add to the misfortune, we replaced the wood in each of the picnic tables only a year ago.  Damn!

The good news is that the Indian Run maintenance hut suffered no damage. Amen!

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Hasty clean up cleared usable space.

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The fire was built on schedule.

The Hoodlums worked Saturday as scheduled on various trail repair projects with a small work party assigned to clean up this tree.  Bottom line:  We’ll have enough firewood for a next year.

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I was in the park earlier on Friday to work on the AT section I maintain and to get ready for a large work party assigned to help me finish rehabbing its erosion control structures and remove two blowdowns.  After all of the leaves are down, I’ll make a trip to rake them out of the waterbar drains and put this puppy to bed for the winter.

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A dirt waterbar called a grade dip.  We’re getting away from using logs and stone whenever possible.

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A downed apple tree in an old orchard through which the AT passes.

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My guess is that a bear was climbing the tree an broke off a large limb.

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There were dozens of apples on the ground.  This is unusual because the bears and deer love them and normally by this time, they are no longer on the market.  The mast (food) has been excellent this year.  The immediate area is full of oak and hickory trees and the nuts, apples and berries have been overstocked in contrast to two years ago when there was virtually nothing because of drought.

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The potluck theme was Oktober Fest.  IMG_1726

The kraut and brats were yummy.

 

 

Road Scholars

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Appalachian Trail, The Roller Coaster, Northern Virginia, September 27, 2017 — The nonprofit Road Scholar program seeks to provide unique learning experiences for adult life-long learners.  You can learn more at this link:  Road Scholar Program

One of the many experiences they offer several times a year is hiking on the AT in four states – Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.  The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club supports these hikes with expert hike leaders be they ridgerunners in season or trail patrol members at other times.

These day hikes are moderate in relative terms both in terrain and distance.  To some, especially hikers who aren’t in the best physical shape, they can be quite challenging.  Fortunately for them, the sag wagon meets the group whenever possible.

With only one ridgerunner remaining in Maryland for this season, I led the roller coaster section last Wednesday.  The hike is short, about six miles, but the terrain is fairly rocky featuring a backbone of several nasty little hills after which the roller coaster is named.

This particular group was lively and amicable.  Some were faster than others, but we kept them together with frequent rest stops and a lunch break at the Sam Moore shelter.

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We stopped to wait at every stream crossing.  That’s where the propensity to slip and fall is the greatest.  Should we ever suffer a casualty, we would need everyone’s support to manage an emergency.

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Boomers are no different than Millennials and Gen Xers.  Heads in phones at every stop.  They had a 16 passenger van with a trailer for their gear.

Sisu

Rigging Workshop

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PATC Rigging Workshop, Sharpsburg, MD, September 24, 2017 — When you have to drag  big rocks or logs, or bridge a creek, how ya gonna git ‘er done? That’s what we learned this weekend at the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club rigging workshop for trail maintainers.

Rigging is mature technology.  It’s used every day in construction and factory settings. Sailors know it well.  The same principles that lift tons of concrete 25 stories in building construction or off-load container ships are the same ones trail maintainers depend upon to safely move 1,000 lb. rocks and ginormous logs, rootballs and bridge stringers.

That bridge across the creek?  Guess what?  Riggers used high school physics to calculate the “working load limits,” “sling tension,” “share of load,” “choke angles,” and many more factors required to safely drag, lift and place large objects in the right position deep in the back country where lumber sexual street cranes fear to tread.

The first four hours were spent in the dreaded classroom drinking from a fire hose pumping out basic concepts, safety rules, vocabulary, equipment familiarization, calculations, and expectations for the weekend.

Flashback to Vietnam era military training, “If you don’t learn this, you will die in Vietnam,” the sergeants would extol with the subtlety of jackhammers.

Well students listen up, a snapped steel cable or rope pretty much functions like a weed wacker except with enough power in the right circumstances to maim,  decapitate or de-limb your ignorant butt.  The consequences for carelessness or ignorance range from disability up to and including death!

After fully appreciating the weed wacker metaphor, I thought,  “Why do I want to learn this stuff?”

“So you stay in one piece,” my guardian angel’s voice intoned.

“Oh!” I replied.

I noodled for second.  My guardian angel takes responsibility almost nothing so I knew with the motivation of a lonely guy at closing time that I was on my own.

With that ugly metaphor in mind, my eyes and ears locked in on doom prevention for the remainder of the weekend.

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Another take-away from the workshop.  The price of my toys continues to escalate.  This little sucker is a grip hoi$t.  This model can move a ton although there are larger and heavier models that can handle much more.  Want to win a tug of war?  Get one of these babies!

Properly attached to the anchor and ready to go.

But there’s more to it than a grip hoist.  Ya got your pulleys, shackles, chains, ropes and the know-how to properly hook them up. Time for a second mortgage if you want to buy the toys.  Otherwise you use PATC equipment.

First practical exercise, rigging and dragging a BFR weighing an estimated 750 – 800 lbs.

Checking everything twice.

Have rock.  Will travel.

Added a pulley to change direction with the speed of molasses.  Slow and steady is good in this business.  The rock bars help keep the front end from becoming a dozer.

View from the grip hoist operator

Slow lane.

Summary day one:

A lot to learn. Most of the info delivered by fire hose spilled on the classroom floor.  I am going to practice this skill in small bites and learn to get the math benchmarked and develop valid rules of thumb.  You can lighten the load you have to carry into the backcountry if you closely calculate.  Me?  Until I learn a lot more, I’m going to over engineer everything and eat the weight.

Day two.  Highlining.

In the density of the predawn darkness I’m awakened to the purr of a golf cart somewhere between the door of our 10-bunk cabin and the awesome laminated-beam pavilion across the gravel. Our kindly hosts at the Shepherd’s Spring (Church of the Brethren) outdoor retreat center were delivering hot coffee for the second morning in a row.  You rock ladies!

I’m cocooned in an Army poncho liner (quilt) with ear phones jammed into my ears, half listening to old time radio’s “Boston Blackie” and dreaming of special times and places.

The wake up cue nudged me from dreams to reality.  You see, I normally respond to the gentle rhythms of dawn and dusk.  I wanted to stay but … the crunch of the coffee wagon on the gravel was overwhelming as a bone is to a dog.

“Add coffee, instant human.”  The pending chemical assist was an awesome incentive to get the jump on the day ahead.  My feet hit the floor in a dead sprint for the Thermos. I was not alone.  A nutritious breakfast in the dining room followed.

The words ‘high line’ connote a cable strung high in the air with a suspended load dangling below.  Fake news!  Not true.  Do that and you might die in the woods grasshopper.

Instead, a high line suspends the load no higher above the ground than necessary.  (Physics nerds and engineers know this.)  A taunt line under high tension decreases your working load limit, and that dear friends confers zero advantage.  The more U-shapped the parabola, the better.

Rigging the high line.  High means way up in a live, solid tree with a choke configuration and a pulley.  That’s the spar.  It’s anchored to another tree directly to the rear.  Hiking in the ladder has to be a joy.

Rigging a chain basket to carry the BFR.  This one’s about 500 lbs.  Like Santa, checking it twice.

Setting the grip hoist at a 90 degree angle with enough distance to pull the amount of cable necessary.

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 Inserting a dynamometer allowed us to see the actual forces at work.

Click for more on dynamometers

Ready to rock and roll.

Ready.  Steady.  Go.

BFR on the move.

Exercise over.

Please do not try this at home.  This blog is not a ‘how to’ for anything.  It is a story about our rigging workshop this weekend.  We hope it helps you understand more about what it takes to keep hiking trails in good working order and how dedicated volunteers give of their time to advance their skills.

Of note.  Many women have taken this workshop and are actively involved in PATC rigging projects.  Ladies you are welcome.  Please come.

Sisu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Broken Pick

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Why we can’t have nice toys.  Jim breaks them all.  Truth is that if you pound on rocks long enough, something like this is bound to happen.  It’s not my superhuman strength though. These pick-mattocks are cast, not forged, and we found crystalline metal at the joint where the tool broke. Manufacturer’s defect.

Trail Maintenance Workshop, Shenandoah National Park, September 15 – 17, 2017 — Each September the North District Hoodlums trail crew sponsors a maintenance workshop where up to 30 enthusiasts can come to work with the National Park Service to learn or improve their trail maintenance skills.  This was the 30th anniversary of this popular event.

The group divides into work parties – those new to trail work and those more advanced.  The projects tackled are agreed upon between the park service and relevant Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) district managers.

An early arrival on Friday made time for me to inspect the section of the AT which I maintain as the overseer.  I met a backcountry ranger on patrol at the trailhead so we hiked up Compton Peak together.  My pruning saw easily dispatched some tree branches we found blocking the trail.  There were no additional anomalies other than the spring is nearly dry.

Checking for bears is my favorite part of fall.  This time of year bears have entered hyperphasia, a metabolic condition that drives them to pack on the extra pounds they need to survive winter.  These obsessive eating machines can devour 20,000 calories per day.

Black bears are omnivores.  The mast (bear food) consists mostly of nuts – acorns, hickory and walnuts in the park, plus insects they find in rotting wood, berries, cherries and apples that come from residual orchards originally planted by those who farmed the land before it became a park.  If they find a animal carcass, they’ll scarf up that too. We spotted five bears while working Sunday morning.

Here a bear brought some apples from the nearby orchard and dropped them next to some rotting logs that offered more calories in the form of grubs and other insects.  Note one apple is half eaten.  The scat pile is perhaps the largest I’ve seen in the area – about three times the volume of a large dog.  Note the absence of seeds in the scat which is unusual. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

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When the inspection was finished, I headed for Mathew’s Arm campground where the workshop encamped.  Folks had begun to gather and it didn’t take long for beer and a fire to improve the ambiance.

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On Friday through Saturday lunch we are responsible for our own meals.  This is steak a la foil, with potatoes, carrots, garlic and red onions, slowly baked in the coals.  The scrumptious Saturday dinner, Sunday breakfast and lunch are catered (prepared on site) by two brothers whose other brother is a Hoodlum.  This was their 13th year as I recall.

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The first order of business Saturday morning is the safety briefing followed by work party assignments and discussion.  Those new to trail work begin with an introduction to the tools maintainers use and the purpose of each followed by a day-and-a-half’s worth of hands-on application.  They clip, prune and weed vegetation, clean and repair erosion control structures, and even build a few.  The work parties headed out to north Marshall, Little Hogback, Dickey Ridge and Overall Run.

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We worked with a couple of NPS crew members to remove and replace some rusted culverts on the lower Dickey Ridge trail near the park entrance station.  We also cleaned and rehabbed some waterbars in the area.

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Lunch.

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Nearly done.

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Finished product.

On Sunday our work party cleaned and rebuilt waterbars and check dams on the Overall Run/Tuscarora trail.

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Turning in tools at the maintenance yard near Piney River.

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Corn snake on the hunt for bats that live in the rafters. Who said snakes stay on the ground?  They can climb trees and stone walls, not to mention chimney up this space.

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fullsizeoutput_10f4Socializing after dinner Saturday.

The 30th year for an event like this is auspicious.  The experience and the companionship were delightful.  Most importantly, much needed work got done.

If you are so inclined next year, watch for the announcement in the PATC newsletter.  Be early, the roster is limited to 30 and fills up fast.

Sisu

 

AT Expert Advice.

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The 80-mile mark is not the optimal time to be studying this subject.

Kensington, Maryland, September 11, 2017 — Within the culture of the Appalachian Trail there are various camps with strong views on how the trail should be hiked.  In some cases one way is as good as another.  But advice from the ignorant and uninformed can be detrimental to both hikers and the trail itself.

Given the plethora of good and bad advice along with rumors and the need to get factual information to hikers quickly, a group of experts associated with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy created a Facebook page that would provide unbiased, rock-solid, informed advice, and accurate information to the AT community.

Appalachian Trail Expert Advice Facebook Page

This is my latest addition, written in hopes of helping aspiring hikers improve their odds of successfully thru hiking a trail where between three of four or four of five thru hiking attempts fail in any given year.

IT’S SHAKEDOWN SEASON

In the beginning there is Georgia for NOBOs. Unfortunately, the relatively easy hills of Georgia are also the ending for far too many aspiring thru hikers. A few thoughts follow on what you could be doing now to improve your odds of success next season no matter how you’re planning to hike the AT.

If you’re planning to thru hike next season, the year prior can be an anxious and exciting time. You read the blogs and memoirs. You vicariously hitch rides with the class ahead of you by following hikers to see what you can learn from their experience. You obsess over gear. Above all, you plan, plan, plan.

The trail register is in the metal box on the side of the southern terminus monument.

Now that NOBO season is winding down, what’s left to do until it’s your turn to toe the starting line? You could obsess all the more, or you could get out in the woods and test your gear, work on organizing your pack, and learn if your boots cause blisters.

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This guy is the definition of poorly prepared.

Experience suggests this is a good idea. Ridgerunners report poorly prepared hikers year after year. Many have never used their equipment in the field. A few show up with a pack full of gear still in it’s original packaging (yes they do). Nearly nine out of 10 report that they are on their first backcountry experience. Remember the joke, How to get to Carnegie Hall/Katahdin? “Practice, practice, practice.” Small wonder the drop out rate is so high.

Why let Springer be your first time in the primitive backcountry? Why let Georgia kick your butt?  Fall is an ideal time for a few shakedown hikes. The weather is generally good. The humidity low. Fewer people are on the trails and the leaves are turning.

Most importantly you don’t have to hike on the AT. Any trail near where you live will do. In fact the idea for this blog was born while hiking the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail in western Pennsylvania. There are great trails just about everywhere.

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Resupplying at the Ingles supermarket in Hiawassee, GA.

The amount of free time you have doesn’t matter either. Since most thru hikers resupply every five days on average, practicing five-day hikes would seem to be ideal. But, if you are busy working hard to save up for your adventure and don’t have five days, even a few overnight trips can improve your skills and your odds.

Shakedown hikes allow you to experiment, answer questions, challenge your fears, and test the keys to your success. You also can challenge yourself in different scenarios including rain, cold, snow, strenuous terrain or any thing else you’re worried about. Most importantly, you have time to make corrections before it gets real down south where adjustments can be expensive.

Think about it. An overnighter in rainy weather is where you learn your rain gear doesn’t work right or your pack isn’t water tight or whether your footwear is going to generate blisters. It is far better making that discovery now rather than half way through Georgia at a time when the wrong mistake could send you home with smashed dreams.

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Georgia mid-March 2015.

The weather record in Georgia is instructive. Three years ago, it snowed, rained and/or sleeted 18 of the first 20 days in March. The next year March was mild and sunny, but the weather in the Smokies was atrocious. Last year split the difference.

Staying organized help keep your gear from becoming mixed up with others or losing it along the trail.

Here are a few things practice hikes could tell you:

  1. Does your gear fit properly and work the way you want it to work?
  2. Are you in adequate physical condition?
  3. Do your boots/trail runners fit and grip the right way?
  4. Got the right socks?
  5. What clothing combos work best?
  6. Is your sleep system adequate and comfortable?
  7. How much food do you need to carry?
  8. What do you like to eat – and not like?
  9. What’s the ideal weight of your pack?
  10. How to organize your pack so that your gear fits; and you can find what you need when you need it. Hint: When you need rain gear, you’ll need it pronto.
  11. Develop a routine in camp that works for you. What do you habitually do first, second and third both in the evening and morning?
  12. Can you deal with bad weather? Plan to practice hike when it’s unpleasant – cold, rain and snow.
  13. Does your water treatment method work for you?
  14. Practice your Leave No Trace principles. Pooping properly is paramount. So is protecting your food from bears, raccoons, mice and other critters.
  15. Maybe more importantly, what didn’t you think of?

The choices are endless – old or hot meals, types of stoves, pots, hanging food or using a bar canister.  Canisters are recommended for the southern half of the trail.

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Bear damage in Shenandoah National Park 2017.  The hiker did nothing wrong.  Someone who came before him taught the bear a bad habit.

Knowing to use a plastic bag to get water from a nearly dry spring can be a life saver.

Hygiene – cleanliness, pooping properly and keeping wounds clean prevents disease.

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Being in good physical condition helps on rugged terrain.

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Wearing gaiters in the mud and rain helps keep footware and socks dry – preventing blisters.

For example, on this author’s shakedown, 160 miles over 13 days on the AT, I learned my boots were wrong, I like an air mattress more than a foam pad, my pack didn’t fit right, I wasn’t going to cook or for that matter even eat three full meals a day, and was packing a bunch of stuff I did not need. I also learned that I was in better shape than I thought, and my pack was properly and functionally organized. Good to know. Changes made.

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Please follow Leave No Trace outdoor ethics and leave the trail pristine for those yet to come.

A successful thru hike requires a combination of will, mental and physical toughness, trail knowledge, gear, and luck. Some hikers prefer the school of hard knocks. On the other hand, why leave anything to chance if you don’t have to?

Good luck and good hiking. Sisu

 

 

 

Yellow Blazing.

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Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, Pennsylvania, August 27 – 31, 2017 — Finally, after almost a year, a hike on a trail that’s not the AT.  In fact, it’s not even close by.

Like a lot of things these days, this trip started on social media.

Chrissy Funk, a woman I met at the Appalachian Trail Flip Flop Festival this past April was looking for people to hike with her on the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Trail.  She recently completed a LASH (Long-Assed Section Hike) of several hundred miles on the AT and needed to keep moving while waiting for some personal business to resolve itself.  Having barely run or hiked this summer, I needed the exercise.  There you have it.  Instant common cause.

Before we make assumptions, let’s review the lesson I learned last year hiking the infamous Roller Coaster section of the AT with my fellow Hoodlums trail crew member Denise Benson.

As you may recall, I joined Denise 1,000 miles into her thru hike.  She actually moved so fast that eating her dust  was an impossibility –  and I was in decent shape then, especially compared to my current physical state.

Now, with Denise’s ghost hanging in my memory, here comes Chrissy.  Let’s downplay her steely trail legs, her strength and conditioning as a body builder, and our 35-year age differential.

Remember that lesson?  Maybe I should have bargained for a handicap or at least a speed limit.  Actually it worked out better than I hoped.  We were compatible partners, our pacing wasn’t that far off, and we had a lot of fun.

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Let’s cut to the chase.  This trail is a gem, a pure delight.  If you’re looking for a relaxing or a rejuvenating five-day hike, this is it.  Maybe the timing was lucky, school had started for the locals, but we had the trail to ourselves.

The trail is marked with yellow blazes.  On the AT yellow blazing has a negative connotation, describing unethical hikers who hitch hike to skip large sections of the trail to avoid hiking them. On the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail yellow blazing is legit and it’s well marked.

Our plan was to northbound (NOBO) starting at the tiny resort town of Ohiopyle.  For more, click here.  The name refers to the native American word for the local waterfall meaning ‘it turns very white.’

The area features Fort Necessity, a fortification commanded by George Washington where the French and Indian War started For more, click here.; and Fallingwater, the famous Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. For more, click here.

The finish was 70 miles ahead near Johnstown.

Sunday was start day.  For logistical reasons I arrived on Saturday so we could recon, get maps and place a vehicle at the end of the trail.  Chrissy’s grandmother was my lovely host. Sunday morning we drove to the southern trail head itching to go.

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We paid and registered for safe parking at Ohiopyle.  Of course nothing was clearly marked, so we initially took the wrong trail.  The good news is that we got a great view of some happy rafters from a bridge hung high above the Youghiogheny River. We had doubts that we were on the correct trail.  On that bridge a kindly ranger turned us around after Chrissy smelled a rat and asked for directions. (I am aware of the stereotype about gender and directions.  It’s accurate in my case.)

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View of the Allegheny Passage at an overlook within range of day hikers.

The hike opens with an eight-mile climb.  It’s not particularly challenging compared to the grades found on most of the AT.  The last mile or so is the most difficult with a gain of about 1,200 ft./mile.  The good news is that the first shelter area comes at mile six so you get a break.

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Each mile is marked with a concrete marker, meaning that averaging two miles per hour, one of these puppies slides by every half hour both marking progress and allowing hikers to calculate their speed. It’s the sense of progress helps this hike literally fly.  We were a bit faster.

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The blue blaze trails to the camping areas are marked well enough that even a zoned-out hiker won’t miss one.

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Stay tuned for even more good news.  The shelter/camping areas are front country!  Each features a well (non-potable), vault toilets and bear-proof trash. It was great not having to pack out a ton of trash.

A couple of the wells had too much iron in the water, but the Sawyer filter easily removes the metallic taste.

The rugged doors on the privies are allegedly bear proof.  Although unlocked, they open outward which is supposed to foil a curious bear.  I still think a smart bear could figure out how to open them.

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We saw plenty of bear sign in and around the camping areas.  In spite of the bear presence, there was no provision for the safe storage of food and smellables like toothpaste and brushes.

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The shelters are Adirondack style featuring a fireplace and prestacked wood.  Hikers must have a reservation and pay $15 for a shelter and $10 for a tent pad. When you reserve a shelter, it’s yours alone.

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Although the shelters are advertised to sleep five, four would be a more practical number.  They are well-maintained and clean.  In fact, we saw no trash in camp or on the trail and a tiny bit of graffiti in only one place. I wonder if there is a lesson for the AT in this somewhere…

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The trail crosses several highways and forest roads.  This well-branded bridge spans I-70.

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This hike is easily done in five days.  However for those hiking from shelter to shelter (six to eight miles/day) and might need to resupply, there is a market just past the Seven Springs ski area, one tenth off the trail, featuring groceries and good eats.  You also can buy a snowboard next door if desired.

So there we were, off to a late morning start with about seven miles to march from the parking lot to the first camp.  We rolled into camp late in the afternoon and took our time.  The weather was mild and humid the first day with the humidity reducing until the final day.  In other words, perfect hiking weather.

In spite of her love for hot coffee in the morning, Chrissy didn’t carry a stove. So I gifted her a cup of hot water each morning.  That’s what a good partner is supposed to do, right?

She cooked “cold” as we say on the trail.  Here she’s chunking summer sausage into her instant potatoes.

I fell in love with cream cheese and Triscuits in Massachusetts this spring. Great appetizer.  I also made ramen al fredo with the leftovers the next night.  A block of sharp cheddar and a summer sausage were lurking in my food bag waiting to be eaten a couple of days later with the remaining Triscuits.

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No sleepyhead in this picture.  I just woke up extra early.

The second night.  Zero-dark-thirty.  Chrissy:  “Jim!  Do coyotes come in shelters?”  Me:  “Did you see one?”  Chrissy:  “Yes.  Don’t they come in packs.”  Me:  It’ll go away.

Next night.  About the same time.  Chrissy:  “Hey!  I think I heard a bear.”  Me:  “Then let’s go chase it away.  There’s no reason to wait until it comes in the shelter.  Remember, bears eyes reflect red; cub eyes reflect blue.”  We get up and shine our headlamps around.  Nada.  Me: “Let’s go back to sleep.”

Chrissy’s new trail name:  Scare Bear.

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Packing up.  The mornings were cool and pleasant.

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Rain threatened a couple of times, but we dodged the bullets.  However, we did get wet about an hour before we finished on the last day.  Fortunately there was a dry car awaiting in the parking lot.

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A Millennial and her phone.  She used old peanut butter jars marked by the cup for food prep. Her family has a long history with the Pennsylvania state forest service, they passed along the expertise, so she is not only a hiking machine, she’s a backcountry expert too.

Fungi were everywhere, especially chicken of the woods.  Never saw so much of it in such excellent condition.  We did not take and eat any of it.

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Signing a trail register.  We only found two of them.  Each was along the trail toward the north end. None was in the camping areas.

The trail has interesting rock mazes, not gratuitous additions like most of them on the AT.  Fall is quickly approaching.  The Black Gum trees are turning.  Even the lichen are blooming.

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Speaking of rock mazes…

Note the stumbling block in the beginning.

Some whimsical sawyer carved a tic tack toe table and chairs so we stopped to play a game.

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A fair number of power and pipe lines cross this trail as they do on the AT.  The fracking boom has led to 17 new gas pipelines being planned for the AT.  Realistically, they can’t all be stopped or rerouted though they’ll all be opposed.

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Happy ending.  Seventy miles in four-and-a-half days.  Longest day was 19.8 miles.  We skipped every other shelter averaging 15.5 per day.  Great hike.  Wonderful company.  Let’s do it again!

Sisu

 

 

What matters.

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Shenandoah National Park, August 18-19, 2018 — It’s the third weekend of the month.  Must be time for the Hoodlums trail crew monthly work trip.  That’s not news.  But the ability to step off the grid and grab some peace and quiet is.  No phone.  No Facebook.  No media!  It doesn’t get much better than that.

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Loaded the SUV Thursday afternoon with the regular tools of the trade so I could get an early jump on traffic.  This summer I’ve only have had sufficient time to keep the weeds cut back.  Everything else has gone to seed so to speak.  The waterbars (drains) were last cleaned in April.  Since they’ve filled with sand and debris washed down hill be this summer’s almost daily thunder storms.

Friday I managed to dig out 40 waterbars leaving six that require complete rebuilding. That’ll be a project on the crew list for September.  The heat and humidity were oppressive Friday.  There was more salt in my eyes than you might find in a bag of potato chips.

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Stopped for lunch at the bench we created two weeks ago.  Very comfy and relaxing compared to sitting butt down in the dirt.  The spring 10 feet in front of this location is flowing slowly, especially considering we’ve enjoyed more rain than normal.

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Retreated to the Indian Run maintenance hut to get my tent up before the afternoon rain.  Succeeded!  Sat out the rain sipping a beer in the hut and conjuring up daydreams in the fire.

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Indian Run is not well known and unauthorized camping is not allowed, but occasionally hikers meander down the fire road and find the fire pit.  Lacking wood, last week someone tried to burn the supports we use to level one of our picnic tables.  This one could be returned to service.  Send in the clowns, right?

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First thing Saturday morning Hoodlums safety briefing.  We had around 15, which is an excellent number for the vacation month of August.  As usual, we divided into work parties.  My job was cutting logs to rebuild waterbars and check dams on Mt. Marshall.

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Tamping a newly rebuilt waterbar with a Rogue hoe.

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Lots of business gets done at the post work pot luck.  Saturday’s theme was “No cooking.”

I’m definitely not above a little food porn.  There were lost of tasty and healthy salads and some rich brownies for desert.

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End of the day at Indian Run were the Head Hoodlum was showing off her wood splinting skills.  Baseball fans, note the arm extension. That’s a serious swing!

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Love the wildlife in the park.  We saw multiple deer and six bears this weekend.

Now back to civilization.  Next month cannot come fast enough.

Sisu

 

 

 

A Fake News Antidote

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Kensington, Maryland, August 10, 2017 — Everything on the internet is accurate, right? Heard of fake news?  Surprise, surprise, there’s fake news in the hiking world too.

More kindly, everyone has an opinion even if it’s outdated or inconsistent with policies and practices needed to preserve and maintain our nation’s national tail system.  Unfortunately, the outdated, the uninformed and those who don’t believe in rules love to troll.  What’s a person to do who’s looking for sound advice and best practices?

This is a serious problem for the AT in particular.  It’s the nation’s busiest hiking trail with an estimated 3 million annual visits.  Long distance hiking numbers are compounding at a rate slightly higher than 10 percent per year.  The more people who get it right equals less trash, damage, erosion, and a more courteous and contented community overall.

A while back a few of us associated with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy decided to empanel a group of experts who could offer evenhanded and nonbiased advice on Facebook where we created the A.T. Expert Advice page.

What follows is the last Expert Advice post authored by yours truly.  It expands a lot on the trail maintenance education we’ve offered there and a bit on what’s been written here.

We’ve written a lot in this space about trail maintenance – how to volunteer to maintain the trail; and even a short piece on a light weight maintenance kit. But we’ve never said anything about the specialized tools, the vocabulary, and the names and purpose of the structures the maintainers create to preserve and protect the trail, and to help improve your hiking experience. So here’s a sneak peak.

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A ridgerunner documents a blowdown for inclusion in her weekly report.

The purpose of most trail work is to control erosion and to keep the pathway open. Water must be slowed and eventually drained from the treadway. Blowndown trees must be cut, and the weeds and branches trimmed and pruned.

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Loppers, clippers, string trimmers and swing blades keep the weeds down and the branches cut back.

Blowdowns are pretty obvious. In wilderness areas where motors are forbidden, crosscut saws/axes and muscle power git ‘er done. The wedges keep the kerf from closing and binding the saw in place. Elsewhere chainsaws make the bucking go a lot faster.

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Sawyers are specially certified and the ATC issues them special PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) including helmets, hearing protection, face screens and goggles in addition to Kevlar chaps to protect their lower extremities from kickback. For safety reasons, sawyers must have a swamper (helper) with them when using their chainsaw. Crosscut sawyers appreciate swampers spare muscles.

Most of the tools used for trail work have special names, usually that of their inventor. Many were originally designed to help fight forest fires.

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The McLoed is a combination large hoe and rake. It is known as the Swiss Army Knife of trail tools for its universal utility. It digs, rakes, tamps and smooths.

The Pulaski is a combination axe and adz used for chopping roots and blowdowns, and for digging.

The Rogue Hoe is a heavy and very sharp smaller hoe, sometimes with a combination rake, used for side-hilling – a technique where the maintainder digs into the up-hill bank to bring down dirt to level and or widen the treadway.

The pick-mattox is a cobination pick and adz most commonly employed to dig and help lever rocks.

Other frequently used tools include garden variety shovels and spades; the rock bar used to pry out large stones, canvas straps used to drag large boulders and grip hoists for mechanical advantage. Five gallon plastic buckets move loose dirt and small stones.

The two most common structures on the trail are check dams and waterbars. Check dams are rocks or logs placed perpendicular to the trail. Their job is to slow the water down, especially where the terrain does not permit the water to be drained.

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Check dam.

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The waterbar, rock or log, is dug in at a 45 degree angle to the trail and designed to drain water off the treadway and into the woods.

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Occasionally hikers encounter raised trailbeds called turnpikes. These sometimes have lateral drains (ditches) on one side or the other. These tend to be constructed where springs turn the treadway into mud soup.

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Everybody has climbed stone or log steps. These are built on slopes for hiker safety and to prevent severe erosion. They’re usually made with the materials at hand – from about as far away as the maintainers can carry the rocks. When necessary, rock drills, wedges and feathers split rock where needed. The best example of this work is on the AT at Bear Mountain, NY.

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In most places, volunteer overseers individually maintain discrete sections of the trail, usually a mile or so but sometimes much more. When overseers encounter something they can’t handle, they request support from a local trail crew that may have more experience, muscle and tools. Alternatively, some of the smaller clubs maintain on a crew basis only.

So, that’s a tiny look behind the curtain.

 

Sisu

Quick Trip

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Shenandoah National Park, July 27, 2017 — It’s been a routine summer.  Personal business has kept me off the trails for the most part.  Everything else has gone as planned.

My section of the Appalachian Trail has had its hair cut twice. That’s six to seven hours running a string trimmer 1.3 miles up Compton Peak and 1.3 miles back.  The back ache, the sweat and the heat have been chronicled in this space before.

 

There’s a spring on this section about two-thirds of the way to the top of Compton Peak.  It’s a favorite place for hikers to stop and eat lunch seated in the dirt.

A storm dropped a tree near the spring about six weeks ago. It was on the ground, and an easy step-over, so not an immediate priority.  Park rules to not permit sawyers to chainsaw alone.  So, Thursday I arranged for an off duty ridgrunner to swamp for me.

We sawed the log into an appropriate length, wedged it between some trees, and made this bench on which hikers can sit while eating lunch.  We tried it out and it worked perfectly.

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The wildlife is abundant.  The soft mast, mast being what you call bear food, is going to be plentiful this year.  The blackberries, wine berries and apple crop are prolific.

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Best of all, found a source for Long Trail Ale near my house!!!!

Sisu