Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner Recalled to Service


Shenandoah National Park, August 9 – 18, 2018 — Ridgerunning on the Appalachian Trail can be demanding, and like athletes, Ridgerunners are sometimes injured.  When injury happens who’s in the bullpen?


Mary found a red tail hawk feather.  As a member of the Cherokee Tribe it’s not cultural appropriation.

Like Ghost Busters, who ya gonna call?  Guess what?  My 2015 ridgerunner colleague in Georgia just happened to be the caretaker of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s Blackburn Trail Center.  What?  A trained, experienced and ready ridgerunner already on the payroll?  No paperwork? Can someone say trading places?  Boom!  Jobs switched.

As a means of on the job training (OJT) I try to hike with each of our ridgerunners to help them learn the various rules and protocol of their patrol areas.


PATC Ridgerunners patrol five on and two off.  Mary started on a short week, so after her park orientation and equipment issue, which includes a radio and bear spray, we headed 45 miles southward from Shenandoah’s north boundary to Rock Spring Hut.

The weather was relatively mild early in the week only to turn ugly at the end of the first week and on into the second.


The first night was at the Indian Run Maintenance Hut, home of the Hoodlums trail crew.  There’s plenty of room for tenting.


Indian Run is the one place we build a fire.  It’s not open to the public and there’s plenty of precut and spit firewood under lock and key thanks to the overseers and members of the Hoodlums.  Note the poker.


The synonym for ridgerunner is janitor. Hikers can be ignorant and thoughtless at times.  Other times they are pigs to put it mildly.  The look on Mary’s face says it all.

Ridgerunners are paid seasonal trail ambassadors.  Their duties include Leave No Trace education, assistance to hikers to include first aid and trail information, minor trail maintenance, removal of litter and abandoned property, privy maintenance and quite frankly burying human waste at times.  They are also eyes and ears for land managers, park authorities and for trail maintainers.  For most, it’s a dream job most of the time, except when it isn’t.

The most common question asked by a ridgerunner?  “What were they thinking?  Answer:  “They weren’t.”


Don’t burn anything in the fire pit.  Most things don’t completely burn.  More importantly, camera studies show that the first place bears go when they enter camp is the fire pit looking for incompletely incinerated food.


Potato chip bag behind the shelter. What the … Common man!


Clearing a minor blowdown with a 12-inch folding saw. The damn thing was made of iron. We took turns, wailing away for 20 minutes before we eventually won the contest.


Water sources are checked for obvious contamination.  The flow rate is reportable.  With monsoon rains this summer, flow and dry springs are not a problem.


Painted rocks are a new phenomenon.  Leave No Trace outdoor ethics principles are clear.  Leave nature as you found it.  We remove the rocks.


At the beginning of the second patrol, starting at the southern end of the park working northward, we discovered about two gallons, by volume, of abandoned gear including a large machete.  Much of this stuff was marked with international orange tape seen here on the machete handle.  In all, it reminded us of the type of trash we found ridgerunning in Georgia where hikers dump their usless junk, such as machetes, with reckless abandon.

Continuing the march, we found a similar cache 13 miles northward at the next shelter.  Same orange tape.  Fifteen pounds, four gallons of trash in total.

Flash forward two days to Saturday when I departed to join the Hoodlums for their normal work weekend.  As I pulled out of the Skyland resort after coffee and breakfast, here comes a hiker whose pack is uniquely marked with orange tape.  Connect the dots.

Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to collar the perp.  Meanwhile the Hoodlums work trip was cancelled due to weather.  Since cell service is so poor in the park, I didn’t get the email until later.  When I did, I texted Mary and we headed back to Skyland in hopes we’d rendezvous with our culprit.

Eurika!  She whips hard right.  I go left to cover the loop.  Within five seconds, she spies orange.  Busted!  As I drive up from the back side, she’s shamed the culprit, aptly trail-named “Walmart,” into a pool of quaking Jello.

I unhorse and approach the quivering perp with the swagger and command presence of a backup cop.  Mary intones, “Here’s my boss.”

I open sardonically.  “We’ve been finding a lot of orange lately.  Can you imagine where that might be coming from?” At that moment this young man realizes that he is seriously outnumbered.  He caves and earns a 10 for his groveling. Turns out he’s doing a walking self-pack-shakedown thinking other hikers would want the cheap junk he’s dumped.

After some uplifting Leave No Trace education, Walmart tells us he’s planning to hike 40 more miles that day.  We laugh to ourselves and wish him well.  We’d embarrassed him enough.

Meanwhile Walmart has been informed that the ridgerunners for the next two hundred miles will be on the lookout to extend him a warm welcome, or not – depending on his behavior; and we planned to check the park shelters in his path in the event of a relapse.  (No photos for privacy reasons.)


Just in case you think ridgerunning is all work and no joy, think again.  Here we are scouting a “dispersed” campsite for, you guessed it, TP tulips.  What deer?  I didn’t see any deer…


Meals can be a joy.  Mary shared her avocado.  Thank you!  Glad my meal plan wasn’t spaghetti.


Then there’s the breathtaking view from the eponymous Mary’s Rock. The hike to the top isn’t easy, as you can imagine.


Resting Mary’s tennis shoes atop Mt. Marshall.

Scenery everywhere.


Black Rock.  My favorite place in Shenandoah. Believe it or not, it’s an ancient seabed that preexisted the Appalachian basalt. Now it’s a flowing talus slope that will eventually become soil over the millennia.


Not an IV.  Purifying water using a gravity filter two liters at a time.


Sadly, weeds are tick vector and I wish my fellow maintainers were more diligent about weed whacking.


Regardless, every day on the AT in Shenandoah National Park is a good day.


Billy Goat Trail


C&O Canal National Park, Maryland.  July 12, 2018 — When my friend Mary was volunteering as my swamper while I chainsawed blowdowns Monday, she mentioned a hike she and friends were planning for today just 20 minutes from my house.  Did I want to come?  Did I?  Don’t count me late for dinner!!!


We met at the Great Falls Tavern visitor center for a scramble along the craggy Billy Goat Trail.

Billy Goat Sign

Photo by Mary Thurman

There are three Billy Goat Trails – A, B and C.  We hiked A.


These routes lie in the higher part of the Potomac flood plain where they have been scoured from the bedrock by eons of roaring water.


The views and falls are spectacular.


People were out taking advantage of the low humidity including the climbers on the far bank and a kayaker in the river.


Kemosahbe.  Many buffalo pass this way.

The Great Falls and the Billy Goat trails lie in the heart of the Washington, D.C. metro area. Its population of 6.1-million spits out an endless supply of park-loving visitors.


Sadly we’re loving this park to death along with many others.  Think about it.  Many people.  Small Space.  Overcrowding.  Environmental damage.  Lots of rules.


Trash is no stranger.  Too many of the day hikers are bugs, not features.  Their ignorance and lack of concern beget litter.  Why anyone would bag their dog’s poo and then leave it is confounding, but found it here and see it everywhere on hiking trails.  In total we policed up more than a gallon (by volume) of trash during our hike.


Fortunately, the trail tread is water-worn bedrock.  For water, it’s always the long game.  She’s patiently gonna wear you down until you shine like a cheap suit.  She’s going to be here long after we’re extinct.


Humans aren’t the only environmental impact.  This ambitious beaver bit off more than he could chew.


Enough of the bugs.  Now for the features.  On Billy Goat A, the price of admission buys a quality climb up a sharp knife edge.

Billy Goat Knifedge

Photo by Mary Thurman

As we soared upward, I was suffering flashbacks of the Appalachian Trail in “Rocksylvania.”  My shouts of “You got nothing on Pennsylvania!” bounced off the bedrock with absolutely zero effect.


Near the top.


Summit view.


Well-earned salt stains thanks to the low humidity.  Consensus:  We’d do it again in a heart beat.


Hiking Maryland Heights with Old Friends


Friends from my days in the White House/National Security Council Press Office.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.  July 7, 2018 — The auspicious press room at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is just off the West Wing, constructed over what was once the inauspicious presidential swimming pool.

As life would have it, my favorite journalists swam in the deep end of that former pool, now known as the press room basement.

You could say this invisible nether region was reserved for the less pyrotechnic news broadcasters such as Bloomberg, the Voice of America, NPR and the like.

I wish I’d taken photos of these down-under denizens who were literally schmooshed into their phone booth-size working spaces.

Believe me, ya hadda be there to appreciate it, especially the irresistible treats they’d bring from home each day.  I was soon food-conditioned and grazed almost daily.  It was an irresistible trap of sorts.  In return for treats, I’d respond to questions.  Hope my answers were as good as the brownies.

After my time at the Executive Mansion expired, keeping in touch was precarious.  This was the mid-1990s when the Yahoo search engine was revolutionary and long before social media.


Two decades passed.  Then our friend Tina thought we should meet-up at a baseball game on July 4.  Catching up, we realized some of us had in common a previously unknown love of nature.

Impulsively I offered to organize a hike and BOOM, there we were, three days later, munching (this time my homemade blueberry muffins) in a Harpers Ferry parking lot preparing to assault the Maryland Heights overlook.  Maryland Heights Trail


The iconic view from Maryland Heights is spectacular.  The Shenandoah River is top left.  The Potomac River is bottom center.

The weather was unheard of for July in the mid-Atlantic region.  Our 7 a.m. departure featured low humidity, a light breeze and a sweat-free temp of 60 F.  Up we chugged, skidding to a stop at the featured overlook in well under an hour.  We toured the 1862 civil war fortifications on the mountain top before finishing the 10 km loop before lunch time.



Along the way we took selfies like giddy teenagers.

Me with thru hike pix

Showing off my thru hike photo from 2014.

With time to spare, we toured the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Visitor Center, then we stopped for burgers and beers in town before moseying down to John Brown’s fort.


Railroad tunnel and bridges over the C&O Canal and the Potomac river.


Ruins of a lock keeper’s house on the C&O Canal.


Jefferson’s Rock.  The props were added in the mid-1800s to preserve the balanced rock formation.


The view from Jefferson’s Rock.

After exploring the lower town and crossing the river over to the C&O Canal, we marched up to Jefferson’s Rock, then through the ancient cemetery and back to our initial rendezvous point where we hugged all around and agreed to hike again soon.

Upon reflection, I’m thinking food history might be repeating itself.  I’ll keep baking blueberry muffins and other treats, as long as they keep coming.

To those from that era who weren’t there: We’ve got plenty of roster slots, lots of fresh hikes, and all the freshly baked muffins you can eat.


PBS Travels with Darley


Shenandoah National Park, Hawksbill Mountain, May 24, 2018 — My friend Karen Lutz is the mid-Atlantic regional director for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  As such, she’s forgotten more about the Appalachian Trail than most people will ever know.  That’s why she was asked to appear on “Travels with Darley,”  a travel program that airs nationally on Public Television.


Karen is a bona fide expert.  Her resume opens with a 1978 thru hike, especially prominent because so few women thru hiked 40 years ago.


Karen’s original hiking boots are enshrined in the Park’s Big Meadow visitor center museum. We paid respects at this shrine to (grave of) Karen’s youth on our way to lunch.


The day’s itinerary was a march to the top of 4,050 foot Hawksbill Mountain, the tallest peak in Shenandoah National Park.  It’s also the last 4,000 footer headed north on the AT until New Hampshire.

The program’s topic was all the wonderful things a tourist can do in and around Culpeper, Virginia.  Hiking on the AT is only one of them, and thus only a part of the subject at hand.


Darley and Karen making tracks.


Television production is tedious work.  Endless b-roll has to be shot to serve as transitions between topics or video wall paper to cover voice-overs. You can never have enough in the editing process.


Karen and Darley did a lot of marching shots that will be used to stitch together parts of the AT segment.


Lots of starts and stops on the way up.


The folks involved in the shoot were many including Darley and her three person crew, plus writers from the Richmond, Virginia PBS station and representatives from the Culpeper chamber/tourism organization.


Getting ready for the summit interview.  They hid Karen’s mic in her hat – clever, but a hat is not something Karen normally wears.  She’ll probably hear from her friends.


During the actual interview, the mob hung out at a nearby outcrop where I busted a guy from Maine whose dogs were off leash.  Dogs must be on leash to protect wildlife from harassment, but also to protect the dogs from from the bears, coyotes, raccoons, skunks and snakes who can inflict far worse on the dogs.


Channeling Ansel Adams before heading back to the cars.


It’s a wrap.  Stay tuned for the air date.

In the National Capitol Region, the program airs on Maryland Public Television and Howard University Public Television.



Privy Maintenance


A composting privy on the Appalachian Trail

Shenandoah National Park, Pinefield Privy, May 18, 2018 — People gotta go and privy’s fill up with you-know-what.  They are, in fact, full of shit.  What happens next isn’t exactly discussed in everyday polite company, but we’re going full frontal and will deal with it right here and right now.


This is a composting privy. (Click here for explanation.)  In Shenandoah, they are built over two large bins.  One composts while the other serves on active duty.  After the composted material is emptied, the roles are reversed when building slides over in a dance move worthy of a Broadway production.  The lid on the composting bin is angled so rain runs off.


It was a dark and stormy night followed by a wet and soggy day.  The Crapper Crew – yes it’s a real entity – approached the objective with the aplomb of a couple of teens on a first date.

In the Army we called it shit detail (Click here for Urban Dictionary definition).  That’s when you get assigned to a particularly unpleasant or worthless task like cleaning the mess hall’s grease trap.  In our case, shit detail isn’t particularly apt.  This is important work.


We wrestled off the lid to reveal the stuff generally hidden from public view.


The patter of the gentle rain offered a muffled drum roll, as the composted manure saw daylight for the first time in two years.


The process is pretty simple.  The compost is shoveled into buckets.


Then the bucket loads of clean compost are scattered in the woods.


The problem is that the compost isn’t always clean.  Wipes and feminine products do not compost no matter what the packaging might say.  Your stalwart Crapper Crew volunteers have to fish this stuff out by the fist full.  We filled a 30-gallon trash bag.


In addition to the wipes, why people think it’s okay to drop other trash in the privy is beyond me.


Who drinks beer in a privy?


Empty bin.  The digging bar to the right is used to loosen up the compacted compost at the bottom of the bin.


Now for the good part.  The “out house” structure is detached from the frame in preparation for its “Electric Slide” atop the empty bin.


The ramp also has to be amputated and reattached  in the new position.


Moving the building reveals fresh poop soup.


The so called cone of deposition is leveled


Fresh wood chips cover the pile like cake frosting.  Poopers themselves should cover their business with wood chips after each use. The chips aid the aerobic composting process.


The wood chips are supplied by the volunteer shelter overseer and stored in a locked container nearby.  The overseers and ridgerunners have the box combinations and restock the wood chip buckets found inside the privies and also knock down the cone each time they visit.  The term of art is “knocking the privy.”


The ramp is reattached.  A little leveling was necessary.


Lid replaced.  Job done.

The sixty four thousand dollar question comes last:  Does it smell?

Answer:  The compost does not smell.  The active side has little smell except when poopers don’t add enough wood chips.  That’s especially obnoxious in mid-summer heat and humidity.

Now you know the the full story.  Happy pooping!




Privy humor at the Trapper John Shelter in New Hampshire.

Trail Magic: Leapfrog Cafe


Old Forge Picnic Area, Michaux State Forest, PA, May 2, 2018 — Trail magic in the hiking world is thought of as an unexpected act of kindness, generosity or discovery, or finding exactly what you need most when you least expect it.

Trail magic can make your day or your hike.  It can move you to tears, restore your faith in humanity, or stimulate extreme gratitude; sometimes all three.

As you can imagine, hikers love trail magic, but not all of it is welcome. Unattended trail magic can food condition animals and litter the forest with heaps of trash.

trail magic

This trail magic in Maine attempted to get it right but failed because it was unattended.  Animals could easily open these containers or a careless hiker could fail to close them.  Moreover, it’s personal property left on public lands and helps create expectations of free food for hikers.


Those who bestow trail magic are known as trail angels.  Tim Davis is one. That’s about an eight-pound omelet he’s making for me in that frying pan.

Following a thru hike attempt where his ill-tempered knees failed to cooperate, the generous-hearted electrician wanted to stay involved and turned to cooking which is his second love after hiking.  Tim’s trail name is Fresh Ground for the beans he ground up and the fresh coffee he brewed with them each morning of his hike.

He invented the Leapfrog Cafe as the means to deliver his love to hikers. He sets up the Leapfrog Cafe for a few days, then moves up the trail to find new hikers.


The Fresh Ground Leapfrog Cafe was a welcome discovery in 2015 when, as a ridgerunner, I splashed out of an icy rain into Gooch Gap, GA.  The freshly grilled banana pancakes and steaming coffee were simply divine and exactly what I needed. If I was crying out of thanks, no one could tell if it was rain or tears running down my freezing red cheeks.

Later, I enticed several hikers, who had been dodging the rain for several days at the Gooch Mountain Shelter, to move on with the promise of fresh pancakes and hot coffee at the bottom of the soppy mountain.

Then, it was my duty to discuss Leave No Trace principles with Fresh Ground.  For one, he didn’t lock up his trash at night in bear country.  Since, he’s refined his methodology to be truly compliant.

This trip, since the Cafe was only slightly more than an hour away from home, I spent most of the day hanging out at the Cafe.  I brought cases of Coke, grape and root beer sodas plus a cash donation as a small payback for the priceless kindness I received not that long ago.


Hand washing station for filthy-handed hikers.  The water has bleach in it.  He properly disposes of his gray water afterward.


A clean towel covers the picnic table in the food prep area. Sanitation is paramount.

Hiker feeds like this are not allowed to charge money or accept donations.  Fresh Ground has a Facebook page and Go Fund Me page for that. Initially he saved and used his own money.  Now he does that, but accepts donations, 100 percent of which go towards feeding the hikers.


Stopping at the Leapfrog Cafe can be like a fine dining experience with the owner doing double duty as the server.  Pancakes, omelets, hot dogs, taco bowls, fresh fruit, cookies and lemonade are on the menu.  He now packs up every night and operates out of picnic and off trail areas.


Even the hikers need photographic souvenirs.

The Fresh Ground Leapfrog Cafe, featuring live entertainment by “Strummy String.”  He says his instrument is a reformulated mountain dulcimer.


Trail magic is criticized for causing hikers to congregate.  But, whenever hikers stop for a bit, there’s always an opportunity to talk and sometimes make a difference.


While talking to “Research” who is a psych professor on sabbatical from a college in Macon, GA, I learned she had hiked within a shout of the half-way point and didn’t know how to hang her food bag. She thought she couldn’t throw the line high enough.  “Never fear!” I offered.  “There’s a way even you can throw like Tom Brady.”


After loading a sock with a rock and knotting it to her bear line, Research learned to fling the sock over a tall branch by swinging it underhand.

The next step in the PCT hang is threading the rope through a carabiner, then hoisting the food bag up to the branch level.  Here she’s tying a clove hitch on a stick that will prevent the bag from sliding back into bear reach.  Reverse process to retrieve the food.


Success!!!  I love it when someone is excited about learning something new.


Fresh Ground planning his next move while Research destroys a taco bowl.

At dusk, the Leapfrog Cafe disappeared into the sunset headed for its next surprise location.  With luck, that will be near you.



Road Scholars 2018 Edition


First Road Scholars of 2018 on the Appalachian Trail at Bears Den Rocks, Virginia

Middle Maryland and the Rollercoaster, Virginia, April 17 – 18, 2018 — If ridgerunners are the first sign of spring, then the start of Road Scholar hikes is the confirmation.  This week we hosted our first group of Scholars on their ‘Hike the AT in Four States’ offering.

Link to program web page:  Road Scholar Description

This was a fun group.  Several claimed they wanted t shirts to display things like:  “I got detention at Road Scholars” or “I flunked out of Road Scholars.”  In a couple of cases, I actually believe such shirts might be prophetic.

These folks, being the confirmation of spring, could have fooled all of us. They were miscast. Their first hike in Pennsylvania featured trails turned to torrents six inches deep.  Maryland featured spitting snow and ouchy wind chills.  Virginia opened cold (note the title photo) but ended as a bright sunny spring day.  West Virginia today featured winds gusting to 40 mph.

Somebody ought to tell the prop department to knock it off.  Winter’s over, dammit!


A stop at Dahlgren Chapel, Maryland. Link to Dahlgren Info


Reading the historical markers at Fox Gap where a civil war battle occurred.


Recently defaced Confederate marker.  This is part of a national trend.  Unfortunately, this marker is part of a battlefield, not a city park.


Lunch at Rocky Run Shelter


The trail is rocky and rough.  This hiker fell and we put a chemical ice pack on her injury.  We later learned that she had two hairline fractures of her wrist.


Beginning of the AT hike in Virginia


Approaching the first river crossing.


One of five stream crossings in Virginia.  We feared high water but got lucky.  Notice the difference in clothing compared to the previous day.

Lunch at Sam Moore Shelter


Best part of the trip.  Joined by Mary Thurman who was my 2015 ridgerunner colleague in Georgia.  This year she’s the caretaker at the Blackburn Trail Center.  The sign damage was caused by a bear marking its territory.

The intrepid Road Scholar hikers handled the five challenging rollercoaster mountains like pros.  Mary Thurman contributed photos to this blog.





Ridgerunners – The First Sign of Spring


Annapolis Rock, Maryland and Shenandoah National Park, April 3 – 9, 2018 — All the leaves may be brown, but ridgerunners on the Appalachian Trail signal the first sign of spring in the mid-Atlantic region.

This week has been busy helping each of these ridgerunners get up and running.


First up is the Annapolis Rock caretaker site.  The weather was atrocious.  Wind gusts to 30 mph ripped the corners out of the tarp.  We ultimately gave up to try another day.


The ridgerunner chose to temporarily pitch his own, lower profile, more wind-resistant tent.  We’ll pitch the larger tent later.


We went for a training hike.  Fires are illegal in Maryland except in designated fire rings.

Illegal fire rings are broken up by scattering the rocks in multiple directions as far away as possible in hopes of making it more difficult to reassemble them.  Unfortunately, rocks to manufacture new ones are not in short supply. 😦


Shenandoah was a lot more interesting.  First of all, it is federal with all expected complications, rules and paperwork to sign.

We met a ranger at the back country office for orientation and equipment and key issue.  Then we moved gear into a cabin where trail crews sometimes stay.  It’s a “rustic” abode deep in the back country, powered by a propane generator with a nice kitchen and shower.

What’s better than that? Certainly not the snowstorm happening outside.

I’d share photos but it’s not on the maps, so we’ll keep its location and identity “secret.”

Following processing and a quick trip to town for a “last supper,” we hiked into the Indian Run maintenance hut for an overnight stay.  It’s near the AT’s north boundary where we were headed the next morning.  It was also a comfortable respite from the snow.


Dawn broke to hot coffee in the Jet Boil and a warm sunny day.  The snow magically vanished!


This is what we expect bear damage to look like.  Not this.

Bear damage to the privy.  This is a second visit.  No idea what this bear wants.  This is a locked privy and the people with access are well aware and disciplined enough not to dump food into the pit.  Note evidence of previous repairs.


We basked in pleasant sunshine during the 12-mile hike to Gravel Spring hut.


Unfortunately Gravel Spring is too close to the highway.  Park visitors picnic there and sometimes leave trash.  The hut is in back country which, by definition, has no trash cans.  If you pack it in, you pack it out.

Some bears have become food-conditioned, meaning they’ve learned to find and like human food.


This tent was destroyed by a bear at Gravel Spring last May.  No food was inside, but no doubt the bear had leaned to associate tents with food.  To these bears, every tent is a taco.


Ridgerunners are many things – ambassadors to the trail users, back country rangers, Leave No Trace educators, and yes, janitors. Inspecting the privy supply box.


Ridgerunners clean each privy every time they visit.


The page turned the next morning.  I got up to visit the privy at five a.m. Even in the predawn glow I could tell the sky was leaden.  By seven a.m. it was snowing.  Not. Even. In. The. Forecast!

Shall we say it snowed?  The wind had a rip to it.  Most of the day was spent in a fleece hat with hood up.

We pushed through the day stopping at the Elk Wallow wayside for a hamburger and closed the day at the Pass Mountain hut.

Since the zipper on my Sierra Designs sleeping bag failed, now for the second time, rather than be miserable on what promised to be a cold night, we decamped for the vehicle we previously cached at the Panorama comfort stop and ended the patrol in return for a warm shower.






Windstorm Cleanup


Shenandoah National Park, Sunday March 11, 2018 — About ten days ago a nor’easter ripped through the mid-Atlantic on its way to hammer New England.  Large trees were snapped and uprooted like toothpicks, dragging down power lines as they crashed to earth.  Widespread power outrages bloomed in the winter storm’s aftermath.


Our own electricity in the big city burbs was out for four days thanks to a big old tree that landed in the wrong place.

Soon word spread of massive blowdowns all along the Appalachian Trail, especially in Shenandoah National Park.  What’s a dedicated trail maintainer gonna do except saddle up and ride toward the sound of cracking tree trunks?


This tree snapped near its base, and in the process, blocked a four-way trail junction.  Bucking this 20-inch tree was an interesting puzzle requiring careful attention to safety and a step-by-step approach.

fullsizeoutput_154bStep one was trimming away the smaller branches and reducing the blowdown to its bare structure.


Step two is getting the main trunk on the ground where it’s safer to chop it up.


Step three is reduce the main trunk.  Here, with a top bind, after an initial cut about eight inches deep, wedges are driven to keep the cerf from closing and trapping the saw in the cut.


Wedges in, the job can be finished.


Step four is get the slash off the trail and out of the way.  Best of all, we converted a lot of chainsaw gas into sawdust.

Job. Done.

All told, we cut six blowdowns on the section I maintain.  The subject tree was on the southern end.

After that, we moved to the Indian Run fire road which is the access to the Hoodlum’s maintenance hut.

We quickly picked off three minor blockages on the fire road.


Of course there’s always “that one.”  This 12-incher was draped in vines and it was hollow making it a bit more sketchy to cut.


The approach was to trim away the vines and branches before dicing up the trunk from the top down.


Like dicing vegetables for roasting.


Sliced into small enough chunks to drag off the trail.


Ten obstructive trees were gone.  Then we found this.  This tree is a good 20 inches alone.  It has a twin right behind it. That’s a twofer.  It’s also a “leaner.”  The angle isn’t bad, but this multi-ton tree’s top is hung up requiring care to safely bring it to justice.

The day was getting late.  Fatigue proved the better part of valor and a safety rule red light, so we left the remaining trees for the Hoodlums to tackle on Saturday.



Backyard Squirrel Wars!


One of two feeding stations in the back yard.

Kensington, Maryland.  January 30, 2018 — It seems like our backyard is a battlefield and we didn’t even know it.  Our bird feeders are key terrain and ground zero where the action begins.

The feeders form a miniature ecosystem of their own. In addition to bird feeding, the tube feeders allow squirrels to regularly clean up the banquet our feathered friends spill as they withdraw seeds like cash from an ATM.

Our yard is excellent bird habitat by design.  The space is surrounded by evergreen holly trees and hedges.  The yard also features a large patch of perennial flowers which were planted to attract the succulent insects found on a bird’s aspirational five-star menu.

The holly provides year-round cover from predators.  The leaves and branches protect our customers while they flight-plan their next feeder run.

The flyers perch under cover, then zoom down to the feeder, grab a sunflower seed in a quick go-around, and return to their perches to nosh away.


On short final.

Nature, being what it is, birds occasionally die and crash at the foot of the feeders only to be policed up by the feral cats, raccoons, gray foxes or coyotes that patrol the neighborhood in search of easy pickings.

These efficient scavengers take care of business under the cover of darkness. Seldom do we find the fallen the morning after.  Instead, the go Missing in Action (MIA).

In all, 32 bird species have flown in to sample our feeder fare over time.  Some, like the great blue heron, have been seen only once.  Since it didn’t refuel, maybe it was a simple flight layover.

Other species, including colonies of house finches and three kinds of sparrows, live rent-free, year around in the 11 hollow gourdes that serve as bird houses.  They are scattered around the front and back yards.  This subsidized room and board arrangement suits them fine.

In addition to the bird herds, as many as 10 cardinals at a time, along with flocks of dark-eyed junkos and mourning doves, titmice, chickadees, nuthatches, wrens, Jays, and four kinds of woodpeckers have been tallied making a living off this space.


Red-bellied woodpecker


Male house finch and a male downy woodpecker 

I’m not surprised that you don’t see nearly as many squirrels in the back country in comparison to urban environments.

In the wild, there are just too many predators including squadrons of hawks and owls, reinforced by armies of ground-dwelling coyotes, raccoons, foxes, snakes, weasels and wild cats.  It seems squirrels are a universal delicacy.


One day a cooper’s hawk didn’t make any pretense.

The same dynamic applies to rabbits.  One year we had dozens in the neighborhood.  Each day they happily munched away on our expensive flowers.  Then, a nesting pair of red tail hawks moved in and nearly wiped them out in a single summer.

In spite of living in an ecosystem where they are low down the food chain, squirrels have a hierarchy of their own.  See: Why squirrels chase each other

We have two kinds of squirrels in the neighborhood, the common gray squirrel and a black variation.  They don’t like each other very much as witnessed by their constant skirmishing while foraging under the feeders.

“The black squirrel and the gray squirrel are the same species of squirrel: Sciurus carolinensis, a.k.a. the Eastern gray squirrel, the only difference being a color variation. The black squirrels evince a “melanistic color phase,” the recessive gene for black coloration coming to the fore,” according to the Washington Post.  The Washington Post story.

Birds are messy eaters and drop a lot of seed.  Encouraging the squirrels and ground-feeding birds to clean up under the feeders helps keeps unwanted plants from sprouting.  This is not a DMZ, but the place where battles for dominance and territory begin.


The two tribes.


The first victim we noticed.

One day a black squirrel appeared with a nasty raw wound on its side.  No doubt he’d tangled with something, but we had no idea what.


Old one ear.

A couple of days later we noticed a gray squirrel missing his ear and a chunk of his face.  The wound was healing, but still very raw and painful in appearance.  It was about the same age as the injury to the black squirrel and we wondered, but still no definitive evidence to go on.


Purple Heart number three.

Today a second previously injured gray squirrel showed up with a bite-size divot.   It was followed in short time by a fourth wounded squirrel.


This wound is in the center of the back, not the side as with the other black squirrel.

There are four wounded squirrels that appear to have been injured at about the same time.  At first, we imagined the first two may have encountered a predator.  Now it appears that all four squirrels were hurt at approximately the same time.

The bite-size evidence suggests that the wounds may have been been suffered in an all-squirrel battle over territory, or for dominance.  What ever it was, nobody was intimidated.  All four battle-scarred, and several others were digging in proximity for seeds today.

Who knew that these seemingly happy little tree rats would do as much damage to each other as they can do to human property.


Maybe Moose and Squirrel were tougher than we thought.