Harpers Ferry, WV, May 26, 2015 –There I was doing my best Captain Kirk impression as I sat in the command chair behind the counter of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) visitors center when the door opens and I hear a cheery, “Hi Sisu!”  (Sisu is my trail name.)

To my delight, in walks Emily Leonard.  At least that’s who she was when I camped next to her and her husband on Springer Mountain, GA in early March.  Now she is “Black Bear,” an awesome thru hiker who remembered me promising that I would take her ‘half-way photo’ if she reached ATC HQ on a Tuesday, my volunteer day.  Well, she did and there I was wearing a giant smile in salute to her presence and accomplishment.

Emily is a former teacher and soccer coach who lives in Maine.  She sounded and looked strong. After the formalities, I treated her to a healthy, read leafy green-colored, lunch at a quirky local restaurant. Our conversation quickly established that she’s having a wonderful time walking in the woods.  You can follow her blog at:  I really hope that Black Bear goes — ALL THE WAY!

By way of additional insight, I wrote about Emily anonymously in one of my blogs from Georgia.  She was a hiker with the ultra light Cuban fiber tent pitched with so much slack that I worried might blow away in a strong wind.  After staying the first night, her husband returned home to Maine and work while Emily hiked on.  That wasn’t the first time I learned to never judge a pack by its cover.

Of note:  It turns out she ditched that tent for a range of reasons and is using the one her husband had.  So much for hi tech.

IMG_2095Separately, a hiker named “Bonafide” aka “Winter Walker” phoned me from Bears Den hostel last night.  I first met him in Tennessee in December 2013 during my thru hike.  That year his doctor told him to lose some weight, so he walked from his home state of Vermont to Tennessee and back to Harpers Ferry.  This year he decided to thru hike and I met him plowing through the north Georgia snow back in February.

Sisu and Winter Walker in Mount Rogers Outfitters, Damascus, VA in Dec. 2013

Sisu and Winter Walker in Mount Rogers Outfitters, Damascus, VA in Dec. 2013

His call was to check in being that he was nearby. When I mentioned that the movie, “A Walk in the Woods” would be out in September, he unleashed a tirade about hikers who mess up the woods and don’t follow Leave No Trace principles.  It was instructive to say the least.  It seems like time and distance don’t weed out all the bad apples.

The “Walk in the Woods” trigger was this:  The Bill Bryson book features many scenes like the ones I reported from Georgia with people tossing trash and worse all over the trail.

He asked me what I thought the answer might be.  My response was one word:  Babysitters.  That’s what you get when you act like a child.

Here’s the trailer for “A Walk in the Woods:” It promises to be a fun movie.

Crew Week

A large talus field at Black Rock.

A large talus field at Black Rock.

Shenandoah National Park, VA, May 18 – 21, 2015 — There isn’t a boy in this country whose dad, at some point, tells him that if he doesn’t study hard in school he might end up digging ditches or bustin’ rocks on a chain gang. Well, in spite of everything, I ended up doing both. What a way to retire.

Crew week is when trail club volunteers work side-by-side with park rangers, or alone to tackle priority projects generally too time consuming or to costly for the park crews by themselves. These days, the National Park Service is woefully underfunded.  That funding can’t be made up by raising entry fees, so the maintenance backlog builds and sometimes volunteers can step up to help.  That’s us.

The 105-mile-long Shenandoah National Park is divided by thirds into three districts – north, central and south.  We were a north district crew, living in the central district, starting work in the southern district.  Huh?

The Appalachian Trail (AT) at Black Rock is severely eroded.  No mater what kind of treadway is built, it eventually seeps deep in between the talus blocks and disappears forever within the cold dark oblivion.

This summer the Black Rock section of the AT is being rebuilt.  Our mission:  Shatter basketball size rocks into golf ball size shards over which pea gravel will be poured thereby recreating a smooth trail.


Swinging like Big Papi - not!

Swinging like Big Papi – not!

IMG_2598The day started with a 50-mile van ride south to mile marker 84 where we parked.  A short hike to the work site followed.

Another crew had worked at the site earlier, mashing up about 25 yards worth of the approximately one-third of a mile needing work.  That made us wonder how much we – six sixty-something guys – were going to get done.  The thunderstorm in the forecast kept scratching the back of our heads as we contemplated the day ahead.

Let’s work fast, we all agreed and donned our armor (aka PPE or personal protective equipment.)

Ever smacked a rock with an eight pound rock maul?  Let’s just say it’s at the same time both easier and harder than you think.

Hit the rock square and the hammer does most of the work and you look like Thor flashing rock shards like lightning bolts.  Hit it wrong and and the hammer head bounces back and/or the sting reverberates through your hands, to your shoulders and down to your toes.  Ouch!  I’d rather stick a finger in a light socket.

Swinging away!

Swinging away!

Eventually you wilt like a flower.

Eventually you wilt like a flower.

After about six hours of wailing, sweating and grunting, we got ‘er done!  All of it!!!  The karma was strong.  The first rain drop smacked the windshield just as we turned northward on Skyline Drive.  Nice.

IMG_2619Our daily routine is to make breakfast at the Pinnacles research building where we stay, take our lunch and eat out in the evening. We ususally go to the nearby town of Luray (pronounced Loo-ray).  This bear greeted us just past the Thornton Gap entrance station as we returned from dinner.  Can’t think of a better way to end a day.

An old CCC building.

An old CCC building, called the Pinnacles Research Station, where we stay.

The next couple of days found us working with the rangers to rehab the Overall Run trail.  This trail connects to the Tuscarora trail which eventually rereconnects with the AT in Pennsylvania.

We broke into two groups and attacked.  If it needed repair, replacement or a new erosion control structure was needed, we had the muscle to fix it.

IMG_2620 IMG_2621China must be down there somewhere!

IMG_2626 IMG_2627 IMG_2628A spring had been turning this chunk of trail into a gross mud hole which would eventually drive hikers to expand the trail, leading to erosion.  We decided to dig and line a culvert, add a lateral drain and a divert any serious flow off the trail with a waterbar.  We’d build up the trail in between, thus creating a turnpike.

Photo taken from atop the source of the spring.

Photo taken from atop the source of the spring.

Wearing my Georgia Tech shirt in honor of our engineering feat.

Wearing my Georgia Tech shirt in honor of our engineering feat.

We eventually got rained out on Thursday and called it a week.  It was a good week indeed.

We eventually got rained out on Thursday and called it a week. Mission accomplished.

A Soggy Weekend

  Shenandoah National Park, VA, Saturday and Sunday May 16 – 17, 2015 — The Hoodlums trail work weekend was pro forma until it wasn’t.  I came up Friday to jumpstart the week and work on the section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) for which I am responsible as an overseer. 

Rain was threatening but I still managed to muck out and repair six waterbars. They are structures placed at a 45 degree angle to the trail that direct water off the trail, thus preventing erosion. I’ll write in more detail about infrastructure and how it is built at another time. 

  Friday evening was uneventful as several members of the gang gathered at the Indian Run Hut to camp and save a long early Satursay morning drive. 

With rain in the forecast we were hoping to get our projects done. A ton of chainsaw work was on the list. My team was assigned to rebuild a troublesome chunk of a popular side trail in the park. 

  Luck favored us and everyone got ‘er done and we retired to the Elk Wallow picnic area for our Cajun themed pot luck. 


 Well, we almost finished our dinners before the sunshine changed to its liquid form. We hustled into our rain gear and continued to chow down. There are no covered pavilions under which to shelter so we noshed in a light rain – another delight I remember from my Army career. 

  Just as we were about finished, the sky opened up. It was over.  We broke for our cars, most of us sopped through to the skin. A few of us returned to Indian Run where we have an awning to continue in front of the fire. 

Dry clothes beat a hot shower that night. I was sleeping in my hammock for the first time in the rain too with prayers that I would stay dry.  I did in spite of a heavy barrage of thunder and buckets of rain. Yea!!!

Sunday was penance day. The most onerous task for maintainers is weeding. Since vegetation is the vector for Lyme disease bearing ticks, this task is the most important thing we do for those using our trails.  Sweat stung my eyes for seven hours. Finally exhaustion and the swing blade won. Most of my section got done the rest will have to wait. 

Tomorrow starts crew week. Our first task: breaking big rocks into little ones. There is some doubt about it.  Rain continues in the forecast and you don’t swing slick-handled sharp tools and heavy rock mauls in the rain, that is unless you have a death wish. Time will tell. Stay tuned…

Karma Comes to the Back Country

Gene from Brooklyn gets a "Trail Karma" award for picking up other people's trash.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a “Trail Karma” award for picking up other people’s trash.

Appalachian Trail, Sunday May 10, 2015 — People are loving our national hiking trails to death.  The Appalachian Trail (AT) alone is estimated to see up to three million visitors per year.

Looking at it one way, that’s enough boots on the ground to bruise the rocks rather than the rocks having the opposite effect on the hikers’ feet.  It’s sort of like hammer vs. nail in role reversal isn’t it?

The collective environmental impact generated by all these people is enormous.  They generate human waste, leave trash, trample vegetation, erode trails and mark their passage in many other unwelcome ways.  There are many means to mitigate this impact, but before we talk about that, here’s the back story.

Most people experience our national parks and forests in what is known as front country.  Front country is civilized, distinguished by infrastructure such as roads, picnic tables, flush toilets, trash cans, concessions and parking.

You know about more about front country than you may think.  That’s where Yogi, Boo boo and Mr. Ranger did their Jellystone schtick.  You get the idea.

The back country is a very different animal.  In contrast to front country, about the only evidence of civilization are the marked hiking trails.  The AT’s primitive shelters and privies are a notable exception. Otherwise it’s supposed to be a “wilderness” experience.  (Not to be confused with designated wilderness areas.  That’s a separate matter.)

Most people never see the back country and hardly realize it’s even there.  The primary reason may be that a lot of muscle power is usually required to get into the back country.  In other words, you have to sweat.

Been to the mall lately?  Observations suggest that fewer and fewer Americans are up for back country excursions. Supersize soft drinks aside, nevertheless there’s no shortage of back country hikers.

The problem comes when people show up in the back country and don’t know how to limit their impact.  Within my experience, they fall into two primary groups.

One group fancies themselves as romantic throwbacks applying their survival skills and living off the land in ways promoted by Jack London, the Boy Scout Handbooks prior to the 1970s, or the Bear Grylls TV series today.

If everyone behaved this way in the back country, it wouldn’t be long before they’d turn paradise into a denuded moonscape.  When you spy someone with a axe, hatchet, machete or (the very heavy) Bear Grylls brand gear on a national hiking trail, you might be looking at one of these folks.

Machete damage.  Green trees don't burn by the way.

Machete damage. Green wood doesn’t burn by the way.

The other group is simply clueless.  Finding no back country trash cans, they just drop their garbage where they stand because they don’t come prepared to carry it out.  They befoul water sources with human waste.  They trample vegetation.  Overall, their practices put the back country environment at risk.

Ignorant people leave their trash in fire pits.  It doesn't burn completely.

Ignorant people leave their trash in fire pits. It doesn’t burn completely.

Unburnt trash.

Unburnt trash.

 When the backpacking craze developed as boomers came of age in the late 1960s, it threatened to overwhelm the environment.  Minimal impact techniques emerged as ways to mitigate the damage generated by the hiking hoards of that era.***

In time, minimum impact morphed into the Leave No Trace ethic.  Leave No Trace is based on seven principles designed to help not only to minimize human impact, but also to maintain the highest quality wilderness experience possible.

Principles were developed for both the front and back country.  Much more at:  These are the back country principles:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare: Poorly prepared people, when presented with unexpected situations, often resort to high-impact solutions that degrade the outdoors or put themselves at risk. Proper planning leads to less impact.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Damage to land occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond repair. The resulting barren area leads to unusable trails, campsites and soil erosion.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: Though most trash and litter in the backcountry is not significant in terms of the long term ecological health of an area, it does rank high as a problem in the minds of many backcountry visitors. Trash and litter are primarily social impacts which can greatly detract from the naturalness of an area.[5] Further, backcountry users create body waste and waste water which requires proper disposal according to Leave No Trace.
  4. Leave What You Find: Leave No Trace directs people to minimize site alterations, such as digging tent trenches, hammering nails into trees, permanently clearing an area of rocks or twigs, and removing items.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts: Because the naturalness of many areas has been degraded by overuse of fires, Leave No Trace teaches to seek alternatives to fires or use low-impact fires.
  6. Respect Wildlife: Minimizing impact on wildlife and ecosystems.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Following hiking etiquette and maintaining quiet allows visitors to go through the wilderness with minimal impact on other users. (Wikipedia)
Leave No Trace plastic tag at bottom right.

Leave No Trace plastic tag at bottom right. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Fortunately most hikers are aware of Leave No Trace.  It’s promoted everywhere.  Unfortunately these principles are practiced selectively and conveniently.  In other words, hikers reason their one insignificant transgression won’t have any harmful effect.

The reality is the opposite.  The impact of small Leave No Trace lapses grows exponentially when “everybody” does it.

Now back to the reason for this story.

Too many younger hikers were not following Leave No Trace ethics, yet hikers 18-24 make up the majority of AT thru hikers.  More challenging, the traditional messages and delivery means were not working with this group.

Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.

Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.

Enter Trail Karma as a new outreach program:  It is a website targeting younger hikers.  The Trail Karma awards component of this program allows ridgerunners and trail ambassadors to reward good behavior on the trail when it happens in real time.

The Trail Karma Award is a nice AT medallion with a serial number on the back.  Hikers can register the award on the Trail Karma website and even pass it along when another good turn is observed.

The idea is to reinforce the positive.  I thought the two Trail Karma Awards I was able to present during my time in Georgia had a positive impact, both on the hikers who received them and those who observed the presentation.

Yesterday’s mail brought a CARE package of new Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.  I can’t wait to find good behavior to reward.

***The trails weren’t pristine before the boomers showed up.  In the earlier era, hikers and campers built lean-tos, cut pine bows to make beds, chopped tent stakes every night, disposed of food cans willy nilly and practiced a multitude of other sins.  Their smaller numbers helped limit the damage which was was eventually cleared up.