The AT is a place to serve

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The Appalachian Trail, October 27, 2021 — This month’s “AT Journeys” magazine reflects on the AT’s history and features essays on the experience of some of it those highly connected to it.  The essays prompted me to ask myself, “Why?”  This is my answer.

For me the AT is not some romantic ideal.  I don’t go there to find myself or heal from hurt.  Instead, it represents a kindred community and an open-ended opportunity to rake, pound, shovel, and make sawdust.

Selfless service has been the central ethos of my life.  It began as a family value, was reinforced by my military service and yet again at the culmination of my career by the very purpose of the Corporation for National and Community service, the parent of AmeriCorps.

Community service as a post retirement mission was a given.  My lifelong love affair with nature, backpacking and endurance athletics led naturally to the Appalachian Trail which runs less than an hour from my house.

I thought the best way to prepare for my, then pending, 2,200 mile AT thru hike should include involvement in service to the trail, a deposit in the karma account.

Two months after retiring I was cleaning waterbars, clipping vegetation and the other tasks novice maintainers do.  By the end of that summer, building log structures and stonework had been added to my rookie resume.  I was hooked.

Later, that thru hike proved to me the priceless value of those who lend their muscle, money and intellect to preserving and protecting trails.  Mother Nature can easily reclaim her ground if we don’t take care of it.

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Since scaling Katahdin I’ve been privileged to clear blowdowns, empty privy compost bins, be a ridgerunner, and serve in leadership roles.

The selfless example of the countless volunteers with whom I’ve been privileged to work is the beating heart of this experience.  Some have been showing up for decades.  Many drive hours just to get to where they’re volunteering.  These givers stand in sharp contrast to the takers in our society.

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No one volunteers for the pay.  Everyone does it for the camaraderie and satisfaction of knowing their effort matters.  Their example keeps me coming back.

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A successful thru hike and years of hiking with our ridgerunners have allowed me to witness the evolution of trail culture. Change is inevitable, driven by the advent of lighter equipment, new technology, social media, and the march of new generations.  It morphs a little each year, but the underlying spirit of the community remains constant.  All told, the AT offers an amazing place to serve and do.

Sisu

The End is Near

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Shennandoah National Park and Annapolis Rock Maryland, October 22 – 23, 2021 —  It’s that time again. In the park the end of the trail crew season is in sight.  We have one more trip next month.  In Maryland time expires for the last ridgerunner standing.

In the mean time, the AT section on the south side of Compton Peak, for which I have been responsible and now shared by Caroline, needs a lot of work before the ground freezes.  A recent high intensity storm literally wiped out some of the erosion control structures.

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A Virginia Conservation Corps crew rebuilt the upper two thirds, but the lower third, which is sandy like Saudi Arabia, was completely silted up.  If we don’t get it done before the ground freezes, mother nature herself will rebuild it over the winter.  We may not appreciate her work come spring.

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Meanwhile, the Hoodlums divided into two parties.  One was dispatched to Jeremy’s Run, a serpentine blowdown factory featuring a number of wet-feet stream crossings.

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Jeremy’s Run is located in a federally designated wilderness area meaning only traditional tools may be used.  Photo by Ruth Stornetta via Facebook.

The other group continued to work on the rebuild of the AT on the north side of Compton Peak.  I’m told we have surpassed 700 hours of volunteer labor on this project so far this year.  Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll git ‘er finished in November.

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The Hoodlums at Compton split their labor.  One group continued to repair and replace waterbars and check dams at the bottom of the mountain.  This trail is one of the most popular in the park featuring a nice viewpoint and a unique columnar basalt formation at the summit.  It’s also the first time hikers can be on the AT from the north (Front Royal) entry station.

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The work party I joined was assigned to finish the stone staircase near the top of the mountain, so that’s the bulk of the story we’re telling today.

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The first thing you do is find a large rock, one that will stay put and heavy enough to resist bears checking for lunch underneath.

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Step two is to dig a hole to put it in.  We use pick handles to measure the size of both rock and hole.

Then you have to get the rock to where you want it to be.  The rocks are hard to move because they are too big for people to pick them up, the terrain is lumpy with other rocks, and they are awkward.

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Watch the fingers and toes!

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Then you have to set it and test for wobble.  We broke off the piece that stuck out.

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In the interim, the hikers keep coming.  It was a picture perfect day and the park was jammed.

The number of hikers passing through can hinder progress.  We give them priority except when we’re doing something that could be a safety problem for them.

Rinse and repeat to create more steps.

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We finished early enough that Caroline and I could clear three blowdowns on the AT between Compton parking and the north park boundary.   This was the most magnificent of them all.

This large ash likely fell during a wind storm Thursday before last.  There are many reasons you don’t want to near one of these trees when they come down.  This is not the first time a branch has been driven so deeply into the trail tread that we couldn’t get it out.  Had to cut it off.

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Done.

A day earlier I helped the ridgerunner decommission the Annapolis Rock caretaker site for the winter. Thanks to REI for donating the tent.

When leaves begin to fall so does the caretaker tent at Annapolis Rock. The autumn continues, but the ridgerunner season ends. It’s the saddest day of the year for me. 

To date we’ve had more than 30 ridgerunners since I became responsible for the program.  They are special people who join a long line of others who have selflessly helped protect and preserve the AT which, in and of itself, is a national treasure. But there’s a lot more.  In our area alone, it runs through three national parks, one state forest, five state parks and a couple of wildlife conservation areas.

Sisu

The Great Blowdown Hunt

The Appalachian Trail in Virginia, September 25 – October 7, 2021 — What was intended to be a simple hike to help deflate the COVID spare tire around my waist became something different and an obsessive blowdown quest after a windstorm littered the trail with downed trees.

Our last blog mentioned that I dropped my young friend Chrissy off at a trailhead in Central Virginia.  The plan was to join her at the southern boundary of Shenandoah National Park and hike to Harpers Ferry.  There we’d decide whether to hike on into Pennsylvania.

Few plans survive contact with reality.  Chrissy was half way through the park before I could catch up.  That left 102 miles to Harpers Ferry, decent but far short of the 160 – 240 for which I’d hoped.

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My wife dropped me off at the Big Meadow wayside (restaurant) around noon.  We grabbed lunch and hoofed it north to the Rock Spring shelter for the night.  At some point a passing weather front generated a pretty good blow.  Our tents popped in the wind and it was noticeably cooler in the morning.  We didn’t think much of it.

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Not long after pushing off for our second day, we started finding trees down across the trail. The count reached more than 60 before we reached Harpers Ferry.  In my experience, that’s a significant number for that kind of (relatively mild) windstorm.

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Like a rumpled old throw rug, the AT is infamous for its rocky tread.  A few blowdowns here and there only add a few wrinkles for the most part.  By the time we were done, the blowdowns had become an obsession a trail maintainer could not resist.

Meanwhile, the blow continued during day two as we hiked on to Pass Mountain.  There we encountered an insufferable chaos of southbound thru hikers who were loud and obnoxious.

We retired to the tenting area and ate a quiet dinner sitting on logs near our tents.  Ironically, we were alone the next night at Gravel Spring.  The silence was lovely.

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Breakfast at Indian Run hut.  At some point I learned Crissy’s 38th birthday was up-coming.  My present was two fold.  One was a stay at Indian Run where the public is not allowed, Hoodlums keep a supply of split firewood and we could have a nice fire with chairs upon which to set.

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The other was arrange the timing so her birthday was spent at Mountain Home B&B owned by my friends Scott and Lisa.  The main building is a fully restored anti-bellum mansion.

In the restoration process, Scott and Lisa learned that the “cabbin” used as a hiker hostel was formerly quarters for enslaved people and that one of the surviving original locks displays an African motif, evidence that it was most likely wrought be an enslaved person.

The next stop was the Bears Den Hostel.  By this point, backpacking had become Glampacking.  I dubbed Crissy the “Millennial Magellan.”  We spent the last night at David Lesser shelter before my spouse shuttled us home from Harper’s Ferry.

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Along the way we passed the 1,000 mile sign.  At this point, northbounders have traveled 1,000 miles and southbounders hit triple digit mileage with under 1,000 miles to go.  For them, it’s a big deal.

Chrissy HF  Chrissy points out the length of her journey on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s relief map of the entire AT.

Phase one was over.  Chrissy left for family activities in her native Western Pennsylvania.  But what about the blowdowns?

Here’s a sample.  I toted up the numbers for each AT district and forwarded the menu to each district manager whose job it is to keep the trail properly maintained.  They will take care of their respective areas.

Me?  I started obsessing about Shenandoah’s north district where I do the bulk of my volunteering.

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As luck would have it, my friend of 25 years, Tina aka “Bulldog,” and fellow Gang of Four member reached out.  The weather is improving and it’s time to crank up our monthly hikes.

She posted on Facebook, “We haven’t hung out for awhile, I said. Let’s go to lunch, I said. His retort, let’s go clear blowdowns on the AT. Sure, I said.” 

You never miss an opportunity to recruit a swamper, especially one named Bulldog.  Never!

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I consulted with my district manager.  What could we do in a day?  Could we tackle a couple of lingering oldies in the process?  Boom.  We had a plan.

We got about half of the north district blowdowns.  We’ll get the rest on the Hoodlum’s work trip next Saturday.

I love making sawdust!
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Sisu