A Flip Flopping Festival

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Harpers Ferry, WV, April 26 – 28, 2019 — The fifth annual Flip Flop Festival this weekend was fun and helped send off a new class of hopeful thru hikers on their 2,200 mile odyssey.

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Some hikers jumped on the trail on a drizzly Sunday morning. Others departed earlier, while others chose to wait until Monday for better weather.

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The festival features a kick off party at the Barn in Harpers Ferry Friday evening with educational seminars and vendors punctuating the activities Saturday and Sunday.  That was a bottomless box of nachos on the lower right weighed as much as a black hole and took a lot of digging to empty it out.

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The well-attended seminars included tips for beginners, trail health, hiker hacks, navigation and survival, trail craft, forest bathing and food dehydration.  For one, I would rather hikers actually bathe than rely on the breeze through the trees carry away their scent.  The ridgerunners were on hand to do pack shakedowns with the idea of helping hikers rid themselves of superfluous kit and the unnecessary weight.  Folks this year came well-prepared.

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The Methodist church hosts a pancake breakfast.  By the time this was taken, the vast majority of the hikers had filled their tanks and moved on.

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Posing with James Smyle who is the esteemed organizer of this mighty event.

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Mugging with my friends in 16-year-old mode.

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Friends photos by Laurie Potteiger

Posing again in adult mode.  See you next year.

Sisu

Busy Days

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Northern Virginia, April 20-23, 2019 — In the space of four days our Hoodlums trail crew work party cut 13 blowdowns in Shenandoah National Park, then I turned out to help move repair materials to the Rod Hollow shelter located further north where the infamous rollercoaster starts.

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Our Shenandoah ridgerunner joined the Hoodlums and helped schlep the chainsaw on a five mile loop we hiked hunting stray blowdowns.

With about three fourths of the day gone, I flooded the chainsaw thereby switching it to the manual mode.  Sharp as it may be, the chain doesn’t cut much without the assistance of the internal combustion engine.  Fortunately we were equipped with pruning saws and another member had a chainsaw handy in his nearby car, so he disposed of the final three blockages.

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Several of us spent the night at Indian Run where one of the supply boxes had accidentally been left open all day.  Fortunately all was in order.

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The following day, Sabine spent the final day of her patrol helping me clear blowdowns from the AT section I maintain.  We also cleaned the waterbars and rebuilt several.  Now it’s good to go for the season.  Turns out she has more than a passing interest in botany.

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With a day’s rest an ad hoc group gathered to bushwhack building materials a mile up hill to Rod Hollow.  Fortunately the weather was cool, but the work was hard.

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The floor joists had rotted out.  Now the shelter has been repaired with new gutters, fascia boards, and floors.  It’s ready for hikers once again.

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Picking up some folks at the airport tonight.  Tomorrow we head for the Flip Flop Festival in Harpers Ferry.  Flip flopers are hikers who start hiking the AT somewhere other than the northern or southern termini.  The idea is to spread out the hikers and expand the trail’s carrying capacity.  The benefit?  Better weather.  No crowds.

Sisu

The 2019 Ridgerunner Season Begins

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Sabine and Mary at Annapolis Rock, Maryland with Greenbriar Lake in background.

Appalachian Trail, Maryland and Shenandoah National Park, April 1 – 14, 2019 — Dawn cracked to reveal a chilly drizzle like the warmth a Sunday school teacher might project showing a little leg through clouds of petticoats.  Right place.  Wrong idea.  Can’t see that much, so up the mountain we marched. 

Mary is a veteran ridgerunner some readers will recall from last year’s blog entries about her service in Shenandoah.  This season her Maryland tour is seven-months long.  She will be reinforced by another ridgerunner from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  She started on the auspicious First of April. No joke.

Sabine will be in Shenandoah National Park through early September.  She arrived a tad early to observe and get to know Mary before launching her own long march toward autumn on her 102 miles of the AT she’ll be patrolling some 55 miles southward.

20190401_1845221Earlier Mary had kicked down winter’s door, Hoovering up the off-season detritus like a caretaker opening a musty summer house long dormant.  That’s bags of trash to the uninitiated. 

On her first morning sweep of the Pine Knob shelter she found two backpacks apparently  abandoned on the floor.  No note.  That’s more common than one may imagine.  People get tired, wet, quit, and abandon their gear all the time.  Regardless, they were available for animals to rummage.  She decided to wait and see. 

On her evening swing they were still there, so she packed them out tandem style to the Greenbriar State Park visitor center. 

The knuckleheads called the park looking for them late in the evening.  They’d been day hiking from the Pennsylvania border.  Unfortunately the packs weren’t available til morning.  Sorry guys.

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Off we marched to begin patrolling the area between Annapolis Rock and the Pogo campsite.  Trash picking was easy.

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Pogo, where a tree fell atop one of the iconic fire pits.

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Ridgerunning is like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re going to find – tent poles, plastic container and a rubber band slingshot.

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Painted rocks have become a trend in the hiking world.  We found one at Black Rock that seems to advertise a lake front development in Maryland.  There will be follow up with the developer.

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Drying out.  Caretaker tent graciously donated by REI.

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Senseless vandalism.

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Photo:  Mary Thurman.

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Please pad your anchors and save the trees.

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Somebody actually tried a bear hang instead of hooking their food bag on one of the tines.  This method actually makes it much easier for the bear to get the food. 😦

Sabine’s OJT at Annapolis Rock was complete.  On to Shenandoah.

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Shenandoah day one starts in the backcountry office for orientation, paperwork and equipment issue.  Then it’s a hike to check the north boundary kiosk.

We made a side trip to hike the cult-like Piney Memorial Trail and paid our respects to the fallen.  While there, the ridgerunner janitorial instinct kicked in.

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The first overnight is at the luxurious Indian Run Maintenance Hut which is available to the ridgerunners when in the area.

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First showdown with a hanging tangle.  She drew her clippers faster than Gary Cooper in “High Noon” and cut that sucker down.  Note the full trash bag.

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Foundation of what was once intended to be a restroom for a “colored” picnic area that never was built.

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Taking a break on a handy rock.

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Second night at Gravel Spring.  Not sure if the tree is apple, cherry or otherwise.

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Sabine’s trail name is “Foureyes.”  Not what you’d think for a hiker who’s done the Appalachian Trail, the Long Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail while in between earning a PhD in physics.

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Some people come to the trail ignorant, thoughtless and unprepared.  Yes, it’s what it appears to be.  Digging cat holes to bury other people’s feces is one of the more unappealing aspects of the job.  You have to want to protect the trail with all of your heart to do this work.

Third night at Pass Mountain.  The tree blew down on a campsite before the camper was there.  It was a dark and stormy night.  Really!

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Watching the hawks atop Mary’s Rock on a brilliant day.

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Final night.  Rock Spring.

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Final day.  Welcome to Jurassic Park. Come right in.  Ummm, I mean Shenandoah National Park …  May your hike toward autumn be a pleasant one.

Susu

 

Storm Clean Up II

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The Appalachian Trail is in there somewhere.

Shenandoah National Park, South District, March 19, 2019 — If readers recall, last November we tried to clean up massive ice storm damage caused by a storm that hit the park’s south district especially hard.  I wrote about it at this link:  Storm Clean Up I

Over the winter we tried several times to get back in to finish the job.  We were thwarted time and again by more winter storms, that is until now.

Yesterday sawyers and swampers gathered at the Swift Run Gap entrance and the entrance at Rockfish Gap.  We worked from the gaps toward the center.  We had 27 miles to clear.

Meanwhile the park was hit by several more storms.  Eventually the entirety of Skyline Drive, the road through the center of the park, was closed.  Today only the central district is open, though the north district, where the North District Hoodlums trail crew worked Saturday, should be open soon.

Did I mention we encountered a thru hiker who said he was with two others?  Gotta hurry.  Park tourist facilities are scheduled to begin opening March 31 and the thru hiker vanguard is here.

The crew at Swift Run divided the territory into discrete chunks. Each was relatively small not knowing how much damage we might find.  We split into sawyer/swamper teams to have at it.  The damage reports varied from tediously whacking through downed limbs and tree crowns to bucking large 30-inch trunks.  Some work parties were done in four hours, one encountered so much that it was unable to finish all of it’s work.

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A lot of the south district looks like it has been topped by a giant weed whacker.  Here we are looking at Powell Gap.

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Another view at Powell Gap.

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My partner Jane and I got after it.  We were responsible for 3.1 miles from the Doyle’s River overlook to Dundo campground and picnic area.

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It took two hours to cover the first half mile.  Dozens of tangles blocked the trail.  They are a pain to clear with much of the work best done with a pruning saw.

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Before.

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After.

The first mile was the most difficult and featured about 80 percent of the work.  After Brown Gap (middle) we found little to do.  It was literally a walk in the park albeit sharing a hunk of dead-weight metal we traded as we schlepped along.

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Just before we turned up the trail that connects the AT to Dundo, we found this poor fallen white blaze*.  It stood its ground and fought the good fight, but in the end our brave trail marker just couldn’t overcome the odds. The storm had taken its final casualty.  RIP.

*As with all artifacts found in the park, we left this one where we found it.

Sisu

 

New Ridgerunning Season Coming Soon.

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Kensington, MD, March 12, 2019 — The snow drops are up!  As sure as daylight savings time, snow drops are a natural alarm clock announcing it’s time to get ready for a new season on the Appalachian Trail.

Here’s the starting line up.  Our first Shenandoah National Park Hoodlums trail crew work trip is this weekend.  As reported here, there’s still plenty of storm damage to clear.

No fooling, our first ridgerunner starts in Maryland April first.  The second ridgerunner begins patrolling in Shenandoah on April 8.  The remaining four are scheduled for mid-May.  Project ahead two weeks and we’re there. So, let’s get ready to rock and roll!

We’ve been getting ready for awhile.  The budget was submitted last year.  The application deadline was January 31.  Hiring occurred in February.  The last of the supplies and equipment arrived last week.

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First to arrive was six Bear Vault BV 450 bear canisters.  These are the half-size canisters with a four-day capacity.  They are very difficult for a bear to open or break.  I’m certain Yogi and Boo Boo hate them, but I can all but guarantee that Mr. Ranger loves them.

Why bear canisters?  The number of human-bear encounters is increasing each year.  The 2018 reported incidents are at this link:  ATC 2018 Bear Incident List

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Some of these incidents included stolen food bags and damaged tents.  Fortunately there were no injuries though there have been nasty injuries and even a death in previous years.

Bears become food conditioned because careless backpackers, day hikers and others leave food or food trash at or near shelter areas and campsites.  Ultimately bears learn to identify shelters, tents and backpacks with food.

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Camera studies by the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service show the first place bears go in camp is the fire pit because people toss food trash thinking it will burn.  It does not burn completely so the residue continues to attract bears long after the fire is out.

Once bears associate humans or places where human’s congregate with food, the potential for trouble compounds when bears lose their natural fear of people.

Bear canisters make it difficult for a bear to get a food reward.  Ridgerunners uniformed presence on the trail affords them visibility.  The weight of the example they set by carrying bear canisters complements the educational component of their mission.

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We experimented last season by having some of our ridgerunners carry BV 500 canisters loaned to us by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  They voted unanimously for the smaller version.  Comparison of a BV 450 and the larger BV 500 on the right.  The stickers help tell them apart.  The reflective tape helps find them of an animal decides to bat one around.

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Additional equipment includes 12-inch folding saws, clippers, SAM splints, and work gloves.  The rope and tarps help cover the caretaker area at Annapolis Rock.

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Meanwhile I have recovered from off-season Dupuytren’s release surgery.  I have two more impacted fingers on my other hand and hope they can wait until September.

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Next stop.  Setting up the caretaker area at Annapolis Rock.  Can’t wait.

Sisu

 

 

 

 

 

Govmint is shutdown. Now what?

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My chainsaw weighs 11 lbs. including the hard plastic sheath on the bar.  If you carry one far enough on your shoulder, it can rub you raw.

Home, January 8, 2019 — Part of the federal government is shutdown over a political dispute.  I have strong views, but won’t share them here.  This blog is about protecting and preserving hiking trails and related matters.

The 31 maintaining clubs that perform trail maintenance on the Appalachian Trail (AT) operate under agreement with the National Park Service (NPS) and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), the nonprofit tasked by the NPS to manage the trail.

My club, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), is responsible for maintaining most of the hiking trails in the Washington, D.C. region including 240 miles of the AT, 102 of which are in Shenandoah National Park.

The club’s activities in Shenandoah are sanctioned under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for maintenance activities and for managing rental cabins.  We have a separate Cooperative Agreement to manage the ridgerunner program.  These are legal documents that spell out the rules of the road for us and for the park.

One benefit of volunteering in the park is that we are covered under the Volunteers in Parks (VIP) program.  There is a similar VIF program for national forests.  Essentially we have workman’s comp coverage when engaged in officially sanctioned activities.

With the government shutdown, our VIP coverage is suspended.  Accordingly, we aren’t allowed to volunteer.  The last thing I would want is to get kicked out of the park and probably out of the club for doing something I’ve been officially asked not to do.

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Hiking with my Kevlar safety chaps on backward.

Back to humping chainsaws.  When you have to hike in a long way, some of us stuff our saws in old frame packs for easier carrying.  The also make it easier to carry the safety gear, first aid kit, lunch, plus extra fuel and bar oil.

But, there are times when throwing the saw on your shoulder happens.

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With little to do today, I decided to make a chainsaw pad out of leftover carpet pad from the recently installed carpet in the basement.

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First I cut a hunk of spare pad to size.

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Checking the fit.

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Preparing to tape it together.  The plastic vapor barrier side goes on the inside.

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So far, so good.

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After taping the seam, duct tape makes the outer layer.

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Done.

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It fits.

 

Storm Clean up

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South District, Shenandoah National Park, Appalachian Trail, November 30, 2018 — The east coast got smacked with an early season snow storm a little more than a week ago.  The Washington area escaped major impact, but it hammered the south district of Shenandoah between Stanardsville and Waynesboro, VA. and cities to our north.

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Photo courtesy Shenandoah National Park

Heavy snow and high winds crushed the softer trees leaving hundreds of them blocking  Skyline Dr., the road that runs 105 miles from one end of the park to the other.  The park trail crews report that the downed trees resembled a military abitis that runs for miles along the road.  Abitis definition at this link.

Leave it to the park crews to painstakingly clear the road quarter mile at a time.  Each tree must be bucked and chipped.  That’s a slow process.

Meanwhile, enough of Skyline, from Swift Run Gap south, had been cleared to permit the PATC to begin clearing the AT.  The supervisor of trails in coordination with the south district manager called for sawyers and swampers.

Sawyers are club members certified by the National Park Service to safely operate a chainsaw.  Swampers help the sawyers by removing slash and trunk rounds from the trail.  The plan was to attack the afflicted area from both ends.

As the supervisor of trails reported yesterday:  “We met at Swift Run Gap at 8:30am today and had 22 PATC members ready to work. Ten were certified chain saw operators including six District Managers.

We were limited as to parking shuttle cars because of the clearing of Skyline Drive and this constrained the amount of trail we could cover. The AT is clear from Swift Run Gap to Simmons Gap a distance of nine miles.

There is another group working from Rockfish Gap north and I don’t have any information on their progress right now. The main problem appears to be further south toward Rockfish Gap where the blow downs are quite severe.

Skyline Drive is not open for other than emergency travel and the clearing is very slow. The park maintenance crews and back country trail staff are responsible for that clearing. We will schedule another work trip later this week.”

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Sawyers are distinguished by their red Kevlar chaps.

We divided into crews.  My crew consisted of three sawyers and three swampers.  We worked northward from Powell Gap to Smith-Roach Gap – about a mile and one-third. Other crews worked elsewhere.

The swampers were all experienced trail overseers and knew how to get after the work at hand.  They brought their pruning saws, loppers and other trail tools which allowed them cleared several blowdowns by themselves.

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With one exception, our blowdowns were smaller trees snapped or bent over across the trail.  These are tedious to clear, our three two-person sawyer/swamper teams worked quickly and efficiently.

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This is one blowdown we tackled with two sawyers, one on each side.  Hidden within these tangles are branches loaded with weight called spring poles.  They can whip around hard enough to cause serious injury when their energy is released.  Sawyers are trained to find them, but they are hard to read in tangles like this.  Each sawyer reported being surprised by more than one, including me.

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All told, our crew removed 27 blowdowns in just over one mile.

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Sawyer PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) consists of leather boots, Kevlar chaps, leather gloves, helmet, face shield, and ear muffs.

Stay tuned for follow on trips.  We’ll be at this for awhile.

Sisu

 

Black Friday = Green Friday

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Shenandoah National Park, Black Friday, November 23, 2018 — Everybody needs a ginormous boob tube to watch foooball and swill cheap beer, right?  When’s the best time to score one?  Black Friday, of course.

Everybody who needs more stuff, raise your hand. Mall warriors betting they won’t lose yardage tackling a foreign-made discount TV at the local running of the fools, please do the same.

Guess what?  There are alternatives.  Turn off your phone.  Go outside.  Volunteer.  Make a change. Be productive.  That’s what two of my friends and I did and what a day we had.

The curtain rose on a leaden sky, accompanied by a biting wind.  We linked up at the Jenkins Gap trailhead parking at a leisurely 9:30 to avoid suffering Washington’s mad dog, crack-of-dawn, Black Friday shopping traffic.

Bright sunbeams were piercing the cloud deck like metaphorical knitting needles as we pulled our gear out of our SUVs. The day ended in warming sunshine.

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There were three of us.  Kelly, me and her husband Phil.  We were armed with a shovel, a McLoed fire hoe, and a pick-mattox respectively.

The plan, march 2.3 miles to the top of Compton Peak and work our way back to the cars.  In between we’d clear waterbars (drains) of debris, improve those needing work, replace at least one, and clear blown-down trees and branches blocking the trail.

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The first order of business was to test the frozen ground to see if we could actually dig.  If we not, plan B was to take a long hike.

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Ice formed a crust about an inch thick.  It was easily cracked by our tools.

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Some waterbars needed only to have the leaves raked out.  Others, like this one, had silted up and needed extensive rebuilding.

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My resident bear sow ripped this waterbar apart discarding the rotting log off to the right.  The park’s policy is be more environmentally gentle and avoid, where possible, using wood and rock in building trail structures.  This swale, sometimes called a “grade dip” replaced the log.  Grade dips actually require less long-term maintenance, so what’s not to like?

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Keeping track.

We also cleared the path of several large branches knocked down by a recent storm.  After three hours, we were done, with enough time remaining to take a little stroll.

We drove one car south to the Hogback overlook trailhead, leaving one at Jenkins to which we could return.

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What we’d hoped would be a pleasant walk turned into another three-hour maintenance trip.  In all, we found 10 trees blocking the trail.  We removed three with the small folding saw we had, trimmed a couple like this one making it easier for hikers to pass.  The rest we reported.

We finished up having turned Black Friday into a green one; also knowing the overseer for this section would soon be in need of elbow grease aplenty.

Happy Green Friday!

Sisu

C&O Canal Walkabout

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C&O Canal National Historic Park, Maryland, November 16, 2018 — Sometimes these days it’s hard to find peace and quiet, free from Washington’s noise. That was our quest when we planned a Friday morning hike in this particular park.  Good choice.  We were rewarded with fabulous weather, nature’s serenity and the warmth of good friendship.

Unfortunately high water closed the trail we’d planned to hike.

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The water level in July.  Note the rocks above the sign.

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The water level has risen because the Potomac River watershed precipitation levels are far above normal.

The part of the C&O Canal park located in urban Washington has three hiking trails.  The Billy Goat A trail was flooded and closed for safety reasons.  Link to blog about Billy Goat A  The adjacent Billy Goat B has been closed for maintenance and redesign for awhile, and only the more distant Billy Goat C was open.

Rather than drive to Billy Goat C, we decided to wander the canal towpath out and back for a few miles.  That proved to be serendipitous.

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Earlier in the week, the weather report predicted snow.  With steely resolve we vowed to persevere regardless.  Knowing how inaccurate longer term weather reports are, we rightly kept our fingers crossed.

Over time the report shifted to rain, then finally to a reasonably warm 30 to 40-something morning dusted with sparkling sunbeams and kissed by a light breeze. It was perfect for dancing down the pathway.

In all it was a day any little kid would love.  Besides, who are we at heart but big little kids who are allowed adult beverages.

Along the way, we told stories, laughed, snapped a ton of photos, and complained about politically induced headaches.

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In total, we discovered three blue herons patiently earning their living trolling the abundant canal waters.  This is one.

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Another heron working the far bank.  These birds are quite large, about three times the body size of the mallard ducks which also were in the area.

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A busy flock of mallards.  We saw dozens of these paddlers throughout the day.

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The crunching gravel sounds like music.

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In places the canal is wide and deep blue.  In others it’s shallow, snagged with tangled trees, dabbed with floating green algae.

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The designer of Central Park in NYC and Piedmont Park in Atlanta has a monument.

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Who are we?  Friends who worked at the White House more than 20 years ago.

After our hike, we adjourned to a nice Tex-Mex place where, over a tasty lunch and margaritas,  the conviviality continued.  We’d earned it.

The next sunny day adventure:  Annapolis Rock.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Sisu

 

 

 

Widowmakers

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Would you camp under this tree?

The Appalachian Trail, November 9, 2018 — It’s been a hellova year.  Shenandoah National Park normally receives 55 inches of annual rainfall.  To date the park has measured 85 inches with seven weeks remaining in the year.  That’s 30 inches above normal so far.

That’s not the only weather pattern that’s off.  We usually enjoy magnificent indian summers here in the mid-Atlantic region.  This year it stayed hot and muggy right up to the bitter end.  In less than a week, the temperatures turned raw with cold winds and a freeze warning in the immediate forecast. Oh, not to mention that it’s still raining.

If traffic on Facebook is any judge, the AT thru-hiker class of 2019 is hard at work getting ready to go. These intrepid hikers are buying gear, planning hard, and doing as many training hikes as possible.

For those who will be planning trips from now until their start day, there are a lot of things to think about. Here’s one more.

Campsite selection is pretty much straight forward. The first thing to know is the rules of the jurisdiction you’re in. You should know that some places have strict rules on camping while others do not.

I manage the ridgerunner program for 240 miles of the AT in the mid-Atlantic region. That’s four states and five different sets of rules for camping.

For example, Shenandoah National Park allows dispersed camping with a few reasonable limitations. In contrast Maryland requires everyone to camp at official campsites with no dispersed camping allowed whatsoever. Maryland rules do not allow fires except in designated fire pits. The rules for the area you’re in will usually be posted on the trailhead kiosks or your guidebook, map or app; if in doubt check the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s web site at http://www.appalachiantrail.org/camping.

Using already existing campsites helps reduce environmental impact. Look for tent sites with good drainage and that are sheltered from wind and heavy weather if that applies.

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Standing dead trees.

Here’s the ‘one more thing.’ Check overhead for widowmakers. They are sometimes called fool killers and are anything that has the potential to injure or kill someone below. In a more specific sense, they are dead or weakened branches caught precariously high in trees, ready to fall on unsuspecting individuals underneath.

These hazards are not trivial.

In August 2018 a hiker was hit by a falling branch while hiking on the AT just north of US route 50. A 15 – 18 inch waterlogged tree limb snapped and fell to the ground without warning. It struck and killed the hiker instantly.

Not that far away, a tree near Maryland’s Ed Garvey Shelter fell, fatally striking a hiker as he was heading for the Trail one fateful morning in March 2015.

It’s not always easy to spot hazard branches, but it’s always worth the look. Most importantly, it’s not worth the risk camping or hanging out under or too close to such a risk.

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The brown substances at the base of the black opening is rotted tree material.

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Healthy-looking crown of the same tree.  This is a tree of concern.

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Stump of a rotting tree preemptively felled at the Annapolis Rock caretaker site.

Trees that might fall are another potential risk. They may be dead or diseased. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. If the ground is highly saturated; high winds can push trees over because the roots can’t hold in waterlogged soils. This year’s heavy rains saturated soil and fallen trees increased the number of down trees maintainers had to remove from the trail.  After a March storm, 700 blowdowns were removed from the 102 miles of AT in Shenandoah National Park alone.

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Healthy trees rooted in rain-saturated soil, blown down by light winds.

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Removing a hazard tree near Bears Den hostel.

Tree bent by ice storm

Storm damage.

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Storm damage.

Don’t assume that, because you’re in a preexisting campsite or in the area of a shelter, there is no danger. Maintainers, rangers and forest biologists watch for trees of concern, but they can’t find them all.

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Nuff said.

Trees of concern aren’t a huge risk, but it always pays to be prudent and add them to your checklist when you’re in the backcountry.

A version of this blog was originally published by the author on the Appalachian Trail Expert Advice Facebook page.

Sisu