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

Spring Training

Left:  National patch.  Right:  Local maintaining club patch.

Scott Farm, PA, May 16 – 23, 2017 — Baseball players go to spring training and so do Appalachian Trail ridgerunners.  It’s a time to refresh and sharpen needed skills for the upcoming season; and to bond and mesh as a team.  It’s also fun.

The eleven ridgerunners hired to patrol the mid-Atlantic region gathered for five days of intensive training at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy training center at Scott Farm just outside Carlisle, PA.  I was there as the ridgerunner coordinator for the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) which employs six of the 11; and to attend the wilderness first aid training to renew my sawyer certification.  Following first aid, I helped teach the Leave No Trace instructor course.

The first day opened with a hearty breakfast followed by administrative announcements and an orientation to the trail from a systems perspective.  The AT is a lot more complicated than the average hiker can appreciate.  The bunkhouse quickly filled up, so the spillover camped on the lawn.

Uniform and equipment issue soon followed.  Ridgerunners carry pruning saws to clear minor blowdowns, clippers, first aid kits and wear distinguishing uniforms.  The patrol their respective sections for five on and two off; always being present on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the days of heaviest use.

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Household chores – cooking, cleaning, dishes, etc. are divided among and rotated between everybody taking part in training.  Readers may remember PJ from the Million Woman March.

Following the administivia, it was time to get down to serious business.  Each ridgerunner is certified in wilderness first aid and as a Leave No Trace outdoor ethics instructor.

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First aid training comes first.  Some seasons the worst thing a ridgerunner sees is a skinned elbow or knee.  But, and it’s a big BUT, they have to be prepared to manage serious emergencies that arise in the backcountry, hours away from first responders and easy evacuation.

The SOLO Wilderness First Aid course is 16 hours long (two days), and focuses on the basic skills of: Response and Assessment, Musculoskeletal Injuries, Environmental Emergencies, Survival Skills, Soft Tissue Injuries, and Medical Emergencies.  The idea is to perform a proper patient assessment, treat common injuries up to and including setting and splinting a compound fracture.

The ridgerunners are trained to determine whether the patient can be safely “walked out” of the back country, or whether an evacuation is necessary.  At that point their training allows them to professionally interact with the medical system for the patient’s benefit.

Needless to say, the training is realistic.

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Lower leg fracture splint using a common sleeping pad as a splint.  Students are taught how to employ commonly available gear.

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Field expedient traction splint to set a fracture of the femur.

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Splinting an open book fracture of the pelvis.  The legs are tied together.  This is NOT something you want to deal with deep in the woods.  These fractures are often accompanied by severe internal bleeding and the need to get the patient to a room with bright lights and stainless steel tables is critical.  Unfortunately, this can take hours in most places and days in others.

Love moulage.

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Putting a dislocated shoulder back in its socket.  If you didn’t treat dislocations and fractures, the pain might send a patient into severe shock long before s/he could reach care.

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Treating hypothermia (on a hot day).  Glad I wasn’t the patient.

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Eurica!  Our friend Denise hiked in right in the middle of training.  She’s on a LASH – long-ass section hike.  What a pleasant suprise.

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With first aid out of the way, we turned to Leave No Trace.  With an estimated 3 million people using the AT each year, minimizing human impact on the environment is of paramount concern.

The ridgerunners primary duty is not to hike.  Rather, it is interacting with the public for the purpose of helping them do as little environmental damage as possible.  Leave No Trace

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Most Leave No Trace training takes place in the woods.  The seven principles Seven Principles

Nobody is going to be perfect, but ignorance is our worst enemy.  If we can show a hiker how to improve, that’s a victory.

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Peeing and pooping in the woods is a subject of endless discussion and immense importance.  Not everybody knows how.  Ask any ridgerunner.  They’ll be glad to teach you.

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We divided the students into three teams and then determined who dug the best cat hole – width, depth, 200 ft. off trail.  Here, Ryan rolled up a Cliff Bar which looks just like shxt.  Then he reached in and pinched off a piece and ate it.  He actually hooked a couple of folks!

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Exercise in choosing durable surfaces.

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Learning about shelters.

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Unfortunately graffiti begets graffiti.

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Most Leave No Trace training takes place on hikes.

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Your 2017 mid-Atlantic ridgerunners.

FIRST PATROL

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Julie is our newest ridgerunner and the only one with whom I have not hiked.  An orientation hike is always beneficial.  So, we started by meeting with the rangers of Michaux State Forest and New Caladonia State Park, PA.  Her patrol section runs the 62 miles south from Pine Grove Furnace State Park, to the Mason Dixon Line at PennMar Park.

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Clipping vegetation encroaching on the trail.

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Documenting a blowdown that will require a sawyer to remove.  It’s waist high.

We stopped to clear a small blowdown and who should show up but my friend Rocky who this year is on his second thru hike.

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Checking the trail register at the official half way point.

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Hung our food and smellables at the Toms Run shelter.

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At the very time Julie and I were at Toms Run, Lauralee Bliss was at the Gravel Spring Hut (shelter) in Shenandoah National Park where a bear destroyed two tents.

The tents have had food in them.  Rule number one in bear country.  Never put food in your tent and properly store your food and anything that smells such as deodorant, toothpaste, soap, etc.!

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Found a hiker just starting his hike from Harpers Ferry.  He plans to flip from Maine back to HF and then hike to Georgia.  Note the bear bell, large knife and stuffed animal.  Bet those are gone soon as he gains confidence.

It was a good week.

Sisu

Searching for the Edge of Spring

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Appalachian Trail, Massachusetts, April 27 – May 6, 2017 — Just outside Great Barrington, Mass., Robin “Miss America” Hobbs gave me a shout.

“How far away are you?”

“An hour,” I guessed.

Actually I wheeled into town less than a half hour later.  I’d been stopped for gas in Connecticut and didn’t realize how close I was.  After minor confusion I found Robin and her new friend Sonia “Soho” Horschitz, a 33-year-old German hiker she serendipitously met a couple of days after I left her back in New York.

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These two were amazing together.  They meshed like Mercedes and Benz and could finish each other’s sentences as they delighted nearly nonstop over the merits of cream cheese and other hiker treats.  Being along for the ride with these two charming people was pure delight.

After lunch in Great Barrington, we dropped my Subaru at the local hostel in Sheffield.  Its owner, Jessica Treat, shuttled us to the trail and we were off.  She would shuttle us back at the end of the hike from as far as we could get toward the Vermont border some 76 miles northward.

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Miss America and Jessica Treat.  Wonderful ladies.  Jessica teaches English at a junior college.

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The first couple of days toasted us like summer.  Here the lunch menu features cream cheese and Triscuits slathered in honey. The delight is obvious.  It took me awhile, but I eventually became a convert.

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The Massachusetts countryside features classic New England scenery.

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Trillium.

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I’d never seen so many Trout Lilies.  This plant ultimately became the bellwether in our quest for the edge of spring.

Just outside Tyringham we found this kiosk.  A young entrepreneur had established a trail magic business.  Cold drinks and snacks at a very fair price!  Smart.  Hope he does well.

However, for us, Tyringham is where our weather luck expired.

After topping off at this much appreciated kiosk, we faced a respectable climb to the cabin at  Upper Goose Pond where Miss America and Soho had planned a rest day (zero) in the field.  Along the way we hoped to dodge the forecasted rain.

No luck.  The rain began to spatter shortly after we started our climb.  Soaked in sweat, we decided to minimize on rain gear, even opening our pit zips to shed the extra heat we expected to be generating while climbing in the warmish rain.

Boom!!! The first lighting strike was “danger close.” Link to DANGER CLOSE artillery And so were dozens more.  With nowhere to safely hide, we pushed on as close to double time as we could safely manage.  The lightning exploded all around as the cold rain drenched us and the ambient air temperature crashed to the low 40s (F).  Not at all what we had anticipated.

We stumbled onto the cabin’s porch frozen and shaking from the icy rain. Camping on the porch is allowed, so we got into warm dry clothing and made camp.  It would rain almost all night and the next day.

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We shared some firewater for medicinal purposes.  Soho shared, but make it plain.  She likes bier besser.

After Upper Goose Pond, the warm weather disappeared, but reducing the mount you sweat is really a benefit when you’re making miles.

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Rock hopping.

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Appreciating a view.

Crossing the Mass Pike.

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We bought hard boiled eggs from the “cookie lady.”  Soho’s philosophy was moderate miles.  Good sleep.  Fresh food.  I learned to like it.

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Camping at the cookie lady’s.  Looks warm, but it was 40F.

On the way to Dalton for a shower and resupply.

After Dalton we faced a pending storm that eventually dumped 1.5 inches of rain on the trail, turning it into an endless series of streams and mud pits.

Knowing what was coming, we pushed past Cheshire, Mass. to the Mark Noepel shelter where we planned to ride out the rain high and dry, less than a full day from the Vermont border.  The hike into Upper Goose Pond had taught us a lesson.

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The Massachusetts shelters are mostly of the same design with a loft.  Up there, we were out of the wind and slightly warmer than if we’d stayed below.  The windows are plexiglass.

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We tucked into our sleeping bags to spend the day thankful we weren’t hiking in the cold and rainy weather.  We could see our breath.  Note the cookie lady’s eggs atop the orange and tan stuff sack.

Shot this while the wind was relatively still.

With three days of rain in the forecast Robin and I decided to exit.  She’s within sight of Vermont.  She only has a few miles in Vermont to finish this fall before she completes the AT.

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We bid Soho farewell on Mt. Graylock, the tallest peak in Massachusetts. This gentle and genial soul hiked on into Vermont. We hiked to the bottom of the mountain because the road to the summit had not yet opened for the season.

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Mt. Graylock. Massachusetts WWI memorial.

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An inch-and-a-half of rain produces boot top mud.

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The Graylock summit was windy, wet and bitter cold. I looked down only to spy trout lilies whose flowers had not yet bloomed.  A day later Soho phoned to say that the thermometer and snow in Vermont were forcing her off the trail.  Without doubt we had found the edge of spring; and on that edge the cold wind sliced through our hearts and blew us in new directions.  Our journey had ended.

Sisu

 

Short Part of a Long Journey

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Appalachian Trail, New York, April 2017 — Last week I was lucky enough to spend a few days hiking with my delightful friend Robin.  She is on a month-long trek to both close an unfinished gap she has between Georgia and Maine; and to get into shape for ridgerunning.

She parked her truck and stashed her extra gear at our house and then together we drove to New York where climbed up to the ridge that hosts the AT at the NJ/NY border on a very warm spring day.

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I met Robin, aka Miss America, when I was ridgerunning in Georgia in 2015.  The daughter of National Park Service rangers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, she’s a willy woodsman and a strong hiker.  She was a ridgerunner in Maryland last year and will serve in Northern Virginia this season.  All told, she’s a perfect hiking partner.

Speaking of what’s hot, I can’t remember the last time I hiked in temperatures under 80 degrees F.  Last September in Vermont, this March in Georgia and last week in New York it was hotter than Hades.  My socks have been so sweat-soaked that they make a squishy sound that squeaks like Crocks on a wet tile floor.  Talk about holding your feet to the fire.  Enough with the hot weather already!

Fortunately the water sources were plentiful and flowing.  In spite of that, I drank four liters of water and still didn’t urinate.  By the end of my journey, my clothes were so salt encrusted that they could stand by themselves unaided – you know, kind of crunchy like saltine crackers.

New York is the state where the AT angles a hard north eastern turn toward Maine.  The trail turns perpendicular to the north-south flowing ridge lines meaning it’s all day up and down for the hikers.  In other words, PUDS – pointless ups and downs.

Here rebar replaces an aluminum extension ladder that was too easy to steal.  Hey, it’s New York!

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The terrain is ugly for the most part.  This is hard work even when heat is turned down.

The gnats had recently hatched.  In NY they’re a feature, not a bug.

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Can you spell rugged?

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How ’bout them bears?  We properly hung our food every night.

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Casualty.

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We navigate using a guidebook that lists terrain features, elevation profile, campsites, springs and also has town maps and phone numbers.

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Miss America photo bomb!

We were out four days before it was my time to head home for chainsaw recertification, a trip to Annapolis Rocks to bring supplies up to Gene Anderson and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Flip Flop Festival this weekend where I’m a featured speaker.

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We tented rather than sleep in shelters.  This is at dawn, packing up before a big rain pending.  At first, Robin was worried about wearing a Red Sox cap in Yankee country, but people treated her as a novelty.  Not sure most of them had never seen a Sox fan before.

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Staying clean in the woods is critical to remaining healthy and avoid gastrointestinal ailments.  We were hiking along one afternoon when I got a message from the ATC asking me if I could take a photo of a hiker using soap and water to clean up in the field practicing leave No Trace principles.  We magically produced the goods.

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Hudson River Valley just south of West Point.

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Yes, the trail goes straight up that rock slab.

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Earning my trail legs.

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Sometimes you get surprised by trail magic.  This was just north of the aptly named “agony ridge.”  The sodas were cold too!  As a practice, leaving unattended food, trash and drink along the trail is not a good idea.  Too many opportunities to unintentionally feed animals and make a mess.  Some call this “trail tragic.”  We did appreciate it though.

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Old sign.  Can’t wait to rejoin Robin next week.  We’ll be hiking north until just before ridgerunner training starts in late May.  Then my spousal unit will come pick us up. There’s no doubt in my mind that Miss America will go far.

Sisu

Spring Cleaning.

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Appalachian Trail Maryland, April 2017 — It’s April on the AT and spring is when it all starts to happen around here.  First up is ridgerunner kick-off. Our long-season ridgerunner/Annapolis Rock caretaker in Maryland starts on April 1.  I often wonder whether or not any of them figure out how auspicious that day is by the October 31 end of their very long term.  I’ve just never seen one sign up for a second long-season tour, so I suspect they pick up on the hidden meaning.

Last year you may recall Kyle MacKay was our lucky pick to spend seven months in the woods.  I mean, that’s longer than the average 2,200-mile thru hike. Blog post about Kyle’s first day.

This year the duty falls on Gene Anderson.  Gene is a genial former thru hiker from Carolina who spent his career in the insurance adjusting industry.  Now that’s seems like excellent preparation for educating hikers who need to repair their behavior.  Everyone of us has scratches and dents that need attention.

I met Gene early on April 1 at the U.S. 40 AT trail head, just up the hill from Green Briar State Park.  We went to meet the Maryland Park Service rangers he’d be working with and to collect his radio and other equipment.  After that, we moved his gear into the small apartment he’ll share with Kyle who’ll be on the clock for the short season from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

It took two trips to schlep all the gear up to the caretaker’s site.  Since I paid attention to how the tent was pitched last year, the dome was up and secure in short order.

Since the week-long formal ridgerunner training doesn’t start until May, the early bird gets OJT.  This year I spent four days with Gene rather than the two I spent with Kyle last season.  As luck would have it, we saw just about one of everything there is to see minus a major medical event.

I set my tent up behind the caretakers tent in close proximity to very recent bear activity.  Bears shred logs in very specific patterns.

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The claw marks leave no doubt.

I walked Gene around Annapolis Rock checking each campsite.  I showed him how to  “knock down” the privy “cone.” and where to find the wood chips users need to add as bulking material to aid the composting process.

IMG_0208The state felled 80 hazard trees over the winter making the area appear to be a no man’s land.  Two years ago a rotten tree fell and killed a hiker at another shelter in Maryland.  The response was to drop every possible tree than might come down in a high wind or in icy conditions.  The result:  Ugly, but safe.  As the trees decompose, the bears and birds are gonna love it.

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No fires are permitted at Annapolis Rock.  Alcohol isn’t allowed either.  Period.  Signs are everywhere.  Yet … people think the rules are for others.  We destroyed three fire rings like this one that had been created over the winter.  Later, we hit the mother lode when we caught five college students on spring break from Ohio with a fire.  Yes!!!  “Out damn fire!  Out!!!”  We let them keep their beer if they didn’t drink it.  Wink, wink.  Believe it or not, they were up and out by dawn.  My guess was that they would have been in a stupor at that hour.

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Part of the orientation is a tour of the rock.  I showed Gene how to get to the bottom of the cliff and a quick and safe way back up.

The second night, two scout troop leaders stopped by the caretaker tent to ask if their troop could build a fire.  We explained the rules and why they exist.  Fires can be built at Pogo campground, 30 minutes north or at Pine Knob shelter, 30 minutes south, just not at the rock due to environmental sensitivity.  “Well,” they said.  “There’s a roaring fire just off the AT 150 yards north of the AT-Annapolis Rock trail junction.”  Since neither fires nor camping is permitted in Maryland except in designated areas, we decided to check it out.

IMG_0218  I grabbed my headlamp.  It was black dark.  Sure enough we easily found a roaring fire about 25 yards off the trail.  There they were, three 50 somethings from Baltimore standing around an out of control fire in a high wind.  We asked them to put it out and explained where they could go if they wanted a fire.

The surprise was their age.  Usually the perps are between 20 and 40, young and immature men.  These were 50 + immature men….

The next morning we went back to check the area.  We found a set of tent poles and no sign of camping, so it appeared to us that they abandoned the site in the night and hiked to a place to where they could build a fire.  Unfortunately the fire was still hot.  Moreover, it had  been  built on duff (the dead leaf layer) rather than bare ground.  Luckily the area was saturated by recent rain.  Otherwise … how do you spell forest fire?

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We hiked five gallons of water from the Annapolis Rock spring to douse the fire – and put it out, cold.  Then we covered and camouflaged it to help prevent a permanent “stealth” campsite from forming.

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We found a small blowdown which Gene cleared.

Gene also is a ridgerunner who patrols the trail in Maryland in addition to his duties as Annapolis Rock caretaker.  So off we went to inspect other sites.

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I love the stone chairs around one of the fire pits at the Pogo campsite.

At Pine Knob I showed Gene how to inspect the area and where to find the trash.  Women could not walk 50 feet to the privy.  Not sure why this happens, but it happens everywhere.

Enough of the dark side.

One of the best part of being a PATC ridgerunner is leading hikes for the Road Scholar program. Road Scholar We play a role in their hike on the AT in four states offering.

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People do the weird things.

Sisu