Road Scholars


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.


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.


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.


Rigging Workshop


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.


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.


 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.












Broken Pick


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.)


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.


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.



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.


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.




Nearly done.


Finished product.

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


Turning in tools at the maintenance yard near Piney River.


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.


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.



AT Expert Advice.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Being in good physical condition helps on rugged terrain.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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…


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


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.


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.


Packing up.  The mornings were cool and pleasant.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!