A Flip Flopping Festival

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Harpers Ferry, WV, April 26 – 28, 2019 — The fifth annual Flip Flop Festival this weekend was fun and helped send off a new class of hopeful thru hikers on their 2,200 mile odyssey.

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Some hikers jumped on the trail on a drizzly Sunday morning. Others departed earlier, while others chose to wait until Monday for better weather.

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The festival features a kick off party at the Barn in Harpers Ferry Friday evening with educational seminars and vendors punctuating the activities Saturday and Sunday.  That was a bottomless box of nachos on the lower right weighed as much as a black hole and took a lot of digging to empty it out.

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The well-attended seminars included tips for beginners, trail health, hiker hacks, navigation and survival, trail craft, forest bathing and food dehydration.  For one, I would rather hikers actually bathe than rely on the breeze through the trees carry away their scent.  The ridgerunners were on hand to do pack shakedowns with the idea of helping hikers rid themselves of superfluous kit and the unnecessary weight.  Folks this year came well-prepared.

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The Methodist church hosts a pancake breakfast.  By the time this was taken, the vast majority of the hikers had filled their tanks and moved on.

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Posing with James Smyle who is the esteemed organizer of this mighty event.

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Mugging with my friends in 16-year-old mode.

Friends

Friends photos by Laurie Potteiger

Posing again in adult mode.  See you next year.

Sisu

New Ridgerunning Season Coming Soon.

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Kensington, MD, March 12, 2019 — The snow drops are up!  As sure as daylight savings time, snow drops are a natural alarm clock announcing it’s time to get ready for a new season on the Appalachian Trail.

Here’s the starting line up.  Our first Shenandoah National Park Hoodlums trail crew work trip is this weekend.  As reported here, there’s still plenty of storm damage to clear.

No fooling, our first ridgerunner starts in Maryland April first.  The second ridgerunner begins patrolling in Shenandoah on April 8.  The remaining four are scheduled for mid-May.  Project ahead two weeks and we’re there. So, let’s get ready to rock and roll!

We’ve been getting ready for awhile.  The budget was submitted last year.  The application deadline was January 31.  Hiring occurred in February.  The last of the supplies and equipment arrived last week.

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First to arrive was six Bear Vault BV 450 bear canisters.  These are the half-size canisters with a four-day capacity.  They are very difficult for a bear to open or break.  I’m certain Yogi and Boo Boo hate them, but I can all but guarantee that Mr. Ranger loves them.

Why bear canisters?  The number of human-bear encounters is increasing each year.  The 2018 reported incidents are at this link:  ATC 2018 Bear Incident List

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Some of these incidents included stolen food bags and damaged tents.  Fortunately there were no injuries though there have been nasty injuries and even a death in previous years.

Bears become food conditioned because careless backpackers, day hikers and others leave food or food trash at or near shelter areas and campsites.  Ultimately bears learn to identify shelters, tents and backpacks with food.

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Camera studies by the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service show the first place bears go in camp is the fire pit because people toss food trash thinking it will burn.  It does not burn completely so the residue continues to attract bears long after the fire is out.

Once bears associate humans or places where human’s congregate with food, the potential for trouble compounds when bears lose their natural fear of people.

Bear canisters make it difficult for a bear to get a food reward.  Ridgerunners uniformed presence on the trail affords them visibility.  The weight of the example they set by carrying bear canisters complements the educational component of their mission.

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We experimented last season by having some of our ridgerunners carry BV 500 canisters loaned to us by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  They voted unanimously for the smaller version.  Comparison of a BV 450 and the larger BV 500 on the right.  The stickers help tell them apart.  The reflective tape helps find them of an animal decides to bat one around.

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Additional equipment includes 12-inch folding saws, clippers, SAM splints, and work gloves.  The rope and tarps help cover the caretaker area at Annapolis Rock.

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Meanwhile I have recovered from off-season Dupuytren’s release surgery.  I have two more impacted fingers on my other hand and hope they can wait until September.

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Next stop.  Setting up the caretaker area at Annapolis Rock.  Can’t wait.

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

 

 

 

Walking the Line

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Appalachian Trail in Northern Virginia, November 9 -12, 2016 — While it is self evident that the Appalachian Trail itself requires frequent maintenance.  After all, an estimated three million hikers tread on some part of it annually.  That’s a lot of wear and tear.

What few hikers may realize is that the trail itself is one thing.  The land through which it flows is another.  That land can be federal, state, or local.  In some cases it belongs to private conservation groups or other entities.  All of those land parcels have borders, borders that are surveyed and marked.  They must be checked from time to time to ensure the markers are still there and no encroachment or other illegal activity is underway.

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Checking the AT corridor boundary is what I’ve been doing in northern Virginia for the past several days.  I was on a corridor monitoring trip organized by the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA).  Over time 30 some folks dove in, some for the whole time; others for a day or two.  Together we were able to check and remark several miles of boundary.

The boundary has no trail.  Crews edge their way along the border, bushwhacking through thickets and briars.

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Sometimes monitors have to get down into the weeds to find the survey monuments.

Once a monument is found, it is recorded and the brush is lopped away.

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Witness trees get refreshed.

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The boundary is marked in mustard yellow.  The paint, from bottles, is squeezed on brushes toothpaste style.  Bottles are refreshed daily.

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Sometimes monuments can only be found using the surveyor’s measurements.

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Brush trimming is not as fun as it appears to be. 🙂

The threats to trail lands and by extension to hikers are real.  People dump trash, extend their fences, or hunt illegally on these lands.

Who knows what led to this tragic scene.

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One thing for certain.  The former residents were unhappy with the government as other graffiti attested.

Later we decided to bushwhack our way to the AT for an easier hike out.  I found an illegal trail built by a hunter the previous year as noted in this blog post about my hike with ridgerunner Hal Evans. Vegetable Territory  The hunter had put up an illegal deer stand which was supposed to have been removed. Of special interest, it faced the hiking trail which was less than 100 yards away. This was an intolerable situation regardless of other circumstances.

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Note the odd-colored green paint the hunter used to blaze his trail.  The bottom part of the ladder was removed.  Standard procedure.

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Our intrepid crew cut the bicycle lock with bolt cutters and carried out the offending tree stand.  Some disassembly was required before it would fit into the ATC’s van for disposal.  The Appalachian Trail is a national park and a note and business card from the park’s chief ranger was substituted on the tree to account for the missing stand.  In a sign of the times, monitors were concerned that face recognition software might identify them to a revengeful hunter, so faces are not visible.

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The ATC crew has a van donated by Toyota.

 

We stayed at the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s Blackburn Trail Center.  It features three bunk rooms and a large commercial kitchen.  It is rentable for group events and weddings.  Otherwise it is used by trail crews, ridgerunners and others working on the trail.

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Accommodations are rustic.  The plumbing is outside.

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Blackburn features a hiker cabin, tent pads and a covered eating area.

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Unfortunately the solar shower wasn’t working this late into autumn.

Gorgeous stone work at Blackburn.

Sisu

Personal Recognition

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Standing near the old apple orchard. The saw is for cutting logs used to construct waterbars and check dams. The red pants are Kevlar chainsaw chaps.

Recently the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) honored me as the volunteer of the month.  As personally gratifying as that is, it is important to remember that I am but one of thousands of people in the trail community working hard to protect and preserve this national treasure and all the other trails and parks.

Some of these wonderful people are trail angels who help out individual hikers, others perform a limitless range of activities then help keep the trail alive.

Last year alone volunteers contributed more than a quarter million hours of maintenance on the Appalachian Trail.  Even that is not enough.  If you love your parks, please contribute as much time, talent and/or treasure as you can.  Above all, enjoy your hikes.

Jim Fetig – Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Jim Fetig is a man with a mission—to do everything he can to protect and preserve the Appalachian Trail.

Jim began volunteering with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) in 2012, in part to prepare for a thru-hike, which he accomplished in 2014.

Besides overseeing a Trail section in Shenandoah National Park and working with PATC’s Hoodlums trail crew, he coordinates the club’s ridgerunner program, serves as public affairs chair, and helps with fundraising. He also volunteers at the ATC visitor center in Harpers Ferry and does presentations and workshops on various aspects of hiking.

According to ATC Information Services Manager Laurie Potteiger, Jim is a powerhouse. “Few volunteers are involved with the A.T. from such a variety of perspectives,” she says. “You might find him using a chainsaw to clear blowdowns on his Trail section, swinging a pick on a trail crew, greeting visitors at ATC HQ, supervising ridgerunners anywhere along PATC’s 240 miles of the A.T., or writing blog posts that promote new initiatives that benefit the Trail.”

Last year, Jim helped pioneer the Trail Ambassador program, working as a volunteer ridgerunner with the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club to greet and encourage hikers heading north from Springer Mountain. That section is heavily used, particularly in March and April, not only by prospective A.T. thru-hikers, but by even larger numbers of students on spring breaks and other groups.

As many as 150 of those hikers per day may want to stay at the same overnight site. They are often ill-prepared—many of them on their first backpacking trip. Besides educating hikers on Leave No Trace principles, backcountry sanitation, protecting food from wildlife, and much more, Trail Ambassadors also perform minor trail work and pack out trash. Jim found it very rewarding, particularly motivating hikers and giving them confidence in what they can accomplish. He has received notes from hikers who have completed A.T. thru-hikes thanking him for his encouragement and advice that helped them accomplish their goal.

Jim’s work on the Trail makes him appreciate the complexities of managing it, describing it is a system with many parts that all need to work together. Volunteers are one of those parts, and he says there is a role for everyone. “Whether giving back or paying forward, the volunteer experience is an intrinsic reward in and of itself. Whatever you do, it will be deeply appreciated by everyone concerned including your fellow volunteers.”

Information on contacting Trail maintaining clubs and ATC volunteer opportunities can be found at www.appalachiantrail.org/volunteer.

http://www.appalachiantrail.org/home/volunteer/volunteer-recognition/volunteer-biography-full-page/october-2016—jim-fetig

Victory Lap of Sorts

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100-mile Wilderness, Maine, August 1-10, 2016 — Bottom line:  Eye witness accounts are notoriously unreliable.  I remembered the last 100 miles of my thru hike as a piece of cake.  In my memory, only the second day was challenging.  Oh Grasshopper, you definitely mis-remembered that experience!

Absent the adrenaline of a thru hike, the 100-mile Wilderness was hard work, and was it ever.  Nevertheless, it was a joy to share it with Windy (Pepsi Hiker) Horn and watch her face brighten with excitement as the wonders of this gem of a hike revealed themselves like a sultry fan dancer hungry for tips.  If Katahdin is the cherry on top, the wilderness is definitely the whipped cream and definitely worth the effort.

IMG_2195I met Wendy and her hiking partner Diane near Port Clinton, PA in 2014 on my thru hike.  We hiked together for several days before I eventually outran them and they had to return home to northern Illinois.  We kept in touch.

This summer I shared dinner with Wendy and her friend Rene at the Skyland resort in Shenandoah National Park.  Mostly we talked about hiking.

Turned out that Wendy has section hiked West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.  Nice, but little to write home about.  I suggested she chew off a chunk of excitement for motivation.  That’s how we found ourselves tramping our way through the ultimate 100 miles of Maine.

I drove to Maine to visit an old friend for a couple of days before snagging Wendy at the Manchester, NH airport.  We then motored six-plus hours north to Millinocket and stayed at the AT Lodge before being shuttled to Monson, the gateway to the 100-mile Wilderness.  There we stayed at Shaw’s, now under new and enthusiastic ownership.  The place was packed to overflowing.

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The first stop was the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s new visitor center in Monson.  The number of AT hikers is overwhelming Baxter State Park and Mt. Katahdin.  A new permit system is being tested that will ultimately meter in a finite number of hikers per day and limit the allowable number coming from the AT to 3,000 hikers per annum.

We will save the arguments about the efficacy of this system for another time.

At Shaw’s we arranged a resupply drop which, sadly has upped in price from $25 to $80.  Seems hikers were dumping their garbage in and around the old 5-gallon paint buckets. Worse, some food was being stolen.  Now, resupply is delivered to your hand.  It takes some doing, but it worked okay for us except that it cost an unanticipated $40 each.  At least we could split the $80 cost.

THE DROUGHT

Maine suffered a dry winter.  This weather pattern has continued into summer.  In spite of the drought, the ponds have plenty of water to keep the outlet streams running.  The tertiary streams and many springs are bone dry. Hikers need to plan their water carefully.  The water sources for two Lean-tos were bone dry.

Same spot, two years apart.  The soil is thin with only inches of soil having been created since the glaciers retreated.  It doesn’t take much for a rain shower to make mud, or the sun to just as rapidly dry it out for that matter.

Desiccation is everywhere.  Even the blueberries are raisins.  If the berries fail, the bears, deer and other animals which depend on them will suffer.  The harsh reality is that some will starve.

The forest is tinder dry and we learned that fire crews have been propositioning equipment in expectation of forest fires that most certainly will occur.

Here’s a graphic example of the drought’s effects.  Little Wilson Falls, two years apart.

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Crossing Little Wilson Creek, two years apart.  This is not a crossing I ever imagined would be feet dry.

THE TRAIL

The trail begins gently enough with some gentle climbs and slab walks.

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Plenty of roots, considered a trail feature in Maine.

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Got rocks?  We climbed this twice … How?  The trail was rerouted at some point to include this gem.  The old trail wasn’t blocked and we accidentally did a two hour loop.  Ugh!

Not exactly a sprint.

THE JOURNEY

Ya got yer stream crossings and yer views.

We planned for an eight-day transit, allowing for some short and some long days dependent on the terrain.  The weather opened windless, humid and hot.  Temps were in the 80s and 90s which is cooking for Maine.

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Normally, I drink one to two liters per day and another in camp.  The first day I got dehydrated because several water sources were dry.  I filled up my spare three liter bladder (six lbs.) which we shared.  Problem solved.

Two years ago, I didn’t encounter more than a dozen or so hikers.  This year there were dozens upon dozens.  The college students told us that hiking is now a campus fad.  Good to get new blood into the woods, but the trash level was much higher than before.

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Two students from Elon U.  They had a general idea of what to do, but little knowledge of Leave No Trace outdoor ethics and practices or the fact that privies aren’t everywhere you can camp, or how to properly wash dishes in the woods (not in the pond), or the finer techniques of hanging a food bag.   I pulled out my handy Leave No Trace card and led a discussion in the proper practices.

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Only one place to get water from the pond where we camped the first night.  Guess what’s under that artsy reflection of the sky?

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Some Bozo washed his dishes at the only place campers can get water.  Brilliant.  Not!

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A snowshoe hare mowed the shelter lawn.  His hind feet were huge and mostly white.

As it turned out, I overestimated how much mileage we could make.  The terrain was tougher than I remembered and the heat was oppressive.  Each of us was fit enough, but …

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Wendy twisted her knee about 40 percent of the way in and had to be “med-evaced” (shuttled) back to Monson for a recuperation day.  Here she’s arranging transportation.  She brought our resupply when we rendezvoused at Jo-Mary Road – along with a surprise: An icy cold Coke which I appreciated very much!

Nature’s art gallery.

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Laundry.

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Katahdin in the distance.

While Wendy recuperated, I hiked over White Cap Mountain in the cold rain – exactly the same conditions and time of day as two years ago.  It wasn’t a happy flash back.

I pushed on to Cooper Brook Lean-to the next day to swim – almost as good as a shower.  The next morning Wendy rejoined at Jo-Mary Road and we were off.

The AT has its moments.  One that sneaks up on you like a woman in a Philip Marlow novel with that come hither smile then sets you up for a hard fall is the newly reopened White House Landing.  I missed this one last time around.  They pick you up in a boat and stuff your face full of burgers and incredible homemade pizza.  You don’t leave hungry in the morning either!  It helped that the weather broke to cool temps, low humidity and a nice breeze.  So much for wilderness.  Perfect!

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This little guy stood his ground.  No rattles, but with the body type of a pit viper including the narrow neck and triangular head.  Definitely not a hog nose.  Possibly a water snake.  We were near a river.

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The 100-mile wilderness ends at Abol Bridge, just before entering Baxter State Park for the Katahdin climb.  There were about 20 hikers headed for Baxter where there’s only room for 12 long distance hikers.  Everything else is reserved car camping.  We shuttled into Millinocket and drove into Baxter because we didn’t want to occupy space.

Katahdin is awesome!

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Made it!  Second time around is not the same, but it’s still pretty good.

New sign this year.

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Pretty obvious.

More trash than we could carry out.  This is just a sample.

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Best sign of the trip.

Sisu.

 

 

Workin’ for the Trail Boss.

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The Hoodlum trail crew gets briefed by the Trailboss, patron of the infamous Roller Coaster. Photo by Mike Gergely

Somewhere on Loudon Heights, WV, July 16, 2016 — There’s a somewhat secret two-year-long project to relocate the Appalachian Trail on Loudon Heights as it descends to Harpers Ferry.  By the end of the year, the job will be done.

The pitch of the existing trail reminds people of a church steeple.  Such a challenging slope does not facilitate erosion control. Worse, it passes through preserved civil war battlefield entrenchments, which as par for the course, unthinking/uncaring hikers damage by removing rocks to make fire rings.  Neither practice, rock displacement nor fires, is appropriate on such hallowed ground.

The AT is constantly being relocated.  Someone once told me that less than 5 percent of the trail is original.  Not sure that’s accurate, but in this case, a “relo” makes common sense.

So, you need hard work done fast, “Who ya gonna call?”  The Hoodlums, of course.  In reality, we were building on the good work of crews that came before us and set the stage for those to follow.  Nevertheless, the Hoodlums were delighted to answer the call and do our small part on a brutally hot and humid summer day.

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The new treadway gently hugs the mountain’s contour lines.  If it had a label, it would scream in bold print, “New gentle lower calorie formulation!”

I overheard someone say that his dad said the same thing mine did, “If you don’t go to college, you’ll end up digging ditches.”  So much for education.  If I was paid for this, I join a union; but as a hobby, it’s fun and the camaraderie is fantastic.

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Trail work is like pulling teeth  Big old rock molars.  Emily knows the physics of leverage.

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Then there’s the detailed work of removing roots and smaller stones.  Later another crew will smooth out and level this rough cut.  Our job this outing was to break ground.

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It takes a village to make a trail.  Our northern Virginia ridgerunner, Sara Leibold,(foreground) joined us for the day.  The trail building added a new dimension to her experience.

Head Hoodlum Janice and Hoodlum Julie got dirty and had fun.

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Some rocks are bigger than others, but eventually they all succumb to brute force and a little bit of know-how.

Like distressed jeans, some new trail comes complete with pre-blowdowns. We just worked around and under them.   Trailboss attacked them with gusto!

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At the end of the day, we retired to Blackburn Trail Center where Mrs. Trailboss, who just happens to be the chair of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy board, rewarded us with a scrumptious dinner!  It doesn’t get better than that.  Sisu  GA/Me ’14

 

 

Flip Flops – the New Hiking Boot?

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Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, April 16 -17, 2016 — Flip flops are not going to be the recommended hiking boot anytime soon.  Certainly they have merit.  After all they’d tread lightly on the environment – with no cleats to rearrange the dirt.  They’re cool and airy which might help limit athletes foot.  Certainly they’d dry quickly.  Alas, they’re just not practical.

Flip flops are a type of Appalachian Trail thru hike.  Rather than hike in a single straight line direction from one terminus to the other, flip floppers are hiker jazz artists, jumping ahead or starting somewhere between the two ends and working outward.  They still hike all 2,200 miles within 12 consecutive months, they just don’t book a linear itinerary.

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The ATC is trying to encourage flip flop hiking in an attempt to alleviate some of the spring season overcrowding on the southern 500 miles of the trail.

Enter the flip flop Festival, an attempt to increase awareness of and participation in nontraditional AT thru hikes.

More than a hundred aspiring thru hikers and hundreds of hikers attended the many seminars on hiking-related subjects including trail etiquette, hygiene, basic hiking, trail issues and long distance backpacking.  I offered the latter.  My slides are here:  Eating the Elephant

The festival featured vendors, displays and even a food truck.  The cannon is located in the exact same spot as one that appears in a civil war era photograph.

Sunday morning we sent those starting their hikes off in style following a tasty pancake breakfast hosted by the Harpers Ferry Odd Fellows Club which was chartered in 1833!  It’s building is graced with (rather poorly) repaired cannonball holes from the civil war.  Talk about history!

Later that afternoon we were hiking up the southern shoulder of South Mountain (Maryland), just outside Harpers Ferry, leading the second of Sunday’s day hikes up to a nice viewpoint overlooking the Potomac River called Weverton Cliff.

The conga line of hikers winding up the switchbacks reminded me of a big city rush hour traffic jam. People were stepping all over each other.

Why would anyone do this, I thought.  I like to share scenery and the outdoor experience with a few friends or people that I like in small doses.  That’s when I realized that above all, one word describes why I like to be on the trail where ever that trail may be.  Solitude… and that’s no flip flop on my part.

To bear or not to bear a Bear Canister

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The Appalachian Trail in Georgia, March 2016 –The bear canister debate can get intense.  A lot of people like to troll this subject. My intent is not to rip the scab off that wound or relitigate the question here.  I’m only reporting observations I made last month as the hiking season started in Georgia.

The fact is, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), U.S. Forest Service and other agencies, that human interaction with bears is increasing on the southern 500 miles of the AT and the ATC is recommending that hikers use bear canisters from Springer Mountain to Damascus, VA.

Last year I had the occasion to be a ridgerunner in Georgia during late February and March. This year fortune granted me the opportunity to hike the state again with a friend as she launched her thru hike. Comparing bear canister use between these two years is interesting.

The conversation on the trail about protecting food from bears also changed some over the course of the past year.  This is what I heard and observed.

As a ridgerunner I was issued a Bear Vault BV 500 (there are other brands) because my duties required camping within the bear canister-required zone in the Blood Mountain area.

I hate to say it but most hikers who showed up at Woods Hole shelter were ignoring this U.S. Forest Service requirement. They were unaware that the local bears had learned to shake food bags off the cable there.

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In total, during my time in Georgia last year, I saw a very small number of bear canisters over the five week period I was on the trail.  This one was at the shelter on Springer Mountain.

After conversations with hundreds of hikers over the past couple of years, my guess is the majority of thru hikers don’t take bears all that seriously thinking that what ever happens, it won’t happen to them.  Moreover, most hikers don’t understand bear behavior well enough to recognize the many different ways bears might be attracted and habituated to human food.

With the number of hikers rapidly increasing, especially the large numbers starting in the south, this is unhelpful – mostly to the bears.

So, last year the ATC initiated a Leave No Trace-inspired effort to promote the use of bear canisters.  Remember what the rangers say:  A fed bear becomes a dead bear.  Progress?

I arrived on Springer March 8 and spent the night talking to hikers and waiting for my friend to toe the starting line the next day.  The first thing I noticed was three bear canisters.  As we hiked north, I noted about a dozen or more or so.  These were carried by older hikers – certainly they were over 30.  They’d heard about and taken the ATC’s advice seriously.

Bears are always a topic at the beginning of a thru hike.  For most, the question more about whether bears are a legitimate threat to them, not whether their habits can be a threat to bears.

A lot of hikers said they had considered food protection but had decided that the canisters were too heavy (mine weighs 2 lbs. 9 oz.), or that they would occupy too much space in their packs to make hauling one worthwhile. At around $80 retail, they are expensive too.  Several implied they would rent them if that were an option.

Beyond canisters, people were debating whether or not the Ursack – made out of Kevlar, the material that bulletproofs bulletproof vests – was a better bet.

Ursacks are lined with a thick plastic bag that functions much like a Zip Lock.  This helps protect the contents from moisture and reduces the aroma signature.  Depending on size, their costs range from $55 – $90, so they’re not cheap either.

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The white bag is an Ursack.  It must be tied to a tree to be effective.  My Bear Vault is in the far background.

Ursack’s are approved in certain areas but not in others, including the AT.  It seems that even though bears can’t chew through them, they can still crunch up the contents and get a small taste – and that does not solve the problem.  There’s some argument about how varmint proof they are, though their website says tests show they stand up.  No doubt supporters would offer supportive arguments.

The attraction of Ursacks lies both in reduced weight and the amount of space they take up inside a pack.  Being pliable, unless you’re using their aluminum shield, they are much easier to pack around.  In other words, you can jam more stuff in your pack.

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Bear canisters are designed to be left on the ground, yet some people still use the bear cables, poles or boxes when they are available.

The Bear Vaults have grooves in the sides designed to aid strapping to the outside of a pack.  This doesn’t work so well with most internal frame packs. They easily strap on top of some Granite Gear packs.  I saw one in Georgia and liked it.  Unfortunately I was too dim witted to get a photo.

Although we’re not going to see the masses rush to embrace bear canisters or Ursacks in the near future, it appears the conversation about not habituating bears to human food is growing and more positive. That direction, in my view, ultimately helps serve the coexistence of both magnificent bears and intrepid people. I’m cautiously optimistic over time.

Full disclosure.  I bought a Bear Vault BV 500 this year and hiked with it in Georgia.  I also have a sow with cubs resident and often seen on the AT section I maintain in Shenandoah National Park.  I frequently hang my hammock and camp over night on my section when there’s a lot of work to be done. In that context alone, using a bear canister makes sense for me and my momma bear.  Sisu

Busy Week

ameShenandoah National Park and Antietam National Battlefield, first week of April, 2016 — It’s about time I complained about the weather.  It’s been totally schizoid for the past several days – hot then cold with a dash of sun, rain and wind, frosted on occasion with powdered snow.   There’s snow dusting in this weekend’s forecast.

Why weather?  Last Saturday Shenandoah was ripped by strong winds.  A sleeping hiker was pinned under a tree that blew over about two days hike south of the park at a place called Spy Rock.  Trees and branches were down everywhere in our region.

I was supposed to spend Sat. night at Indian Run with a friend I was going to help Sunday clear blown down trees on one of Shenandoah’s 400 miles of side trail called Jeremy’s Run.

After spending a cold night at Annapolis Rock, I chickened out.  The wind and cold were distinctly unwelcoming.  Instead I showed up bright and early Sunday morning to a greeting by an icy windchill with teeth and a dusting of snow still on the ground.

Jeremy’s Run is located in a designated wilderness area.  That means all work must be done with hand tools.  No motors allowed.

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So off we marched with a junior sized version of the famous crosscut saw you see in antique logging photos.  It sports a traditional carpenter saw handle on one end and a moveable vertical handle on the other.  If the vertical handle is on the far end, it’s a two person saw.  If it’s just forward of the fixed handle, it’s a one person saw.  Very versatile.

Blowdowns are a pain in the butt for hikers.  Step-overs like this one are not so bad.

It’s the chest high or ones with a ton of protruding branches that are a real pain.  You can’t go up or down.

We whacked six and 1/4 blowdowns.  One quarter?

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This big fella came at the end of the day.  It requires two cuts to get it on the ground and two more to cut out the section obstructing the trail.  Its height and the adjacent slope make cutting out the center section too difficult and dangerous.  Better to lay it down.

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Lots of work here, especially coming as it did at the end of the day.  At least we were out of the wind.   The wedges keep the cut open as the tree’s weight and gravity wants to close the top of the cut and bind the saw.

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This guy was too large for our little saw to be fully efficient. It took 45 minutes for two tired sawyers to make this slice.  Hence one quarter. A crew with a longer crosscut will finish the job next weekend during the Hoodlums regularly scheduled monthly work trip.  At least hikers have a relatively passable step over until then.

Wednesday I joined a group of nine PATC members at the Antietam National Battlefield to disassemble a section of worm row fencing. We got ‘er done in three hours!  In the process we dubbed ourselves the Hole-in-the-Ground crew because of the dozens of ground hog dens we occasionally stepped in.

We celebrated a local ice cream parlor in Sharpsburg – no work without play is our motto.

The National Park Service is working on a multi-year project to restore civil war battlefields to the sight lines and condition they were in when the battles actually happened.  This fence was not present on Sept. 17, 1862 when 23,000 soldiers became casualties on this ground.  It was and remains the bloodiest day in U.S. military history.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antietam_National_Battlefield

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The week ended with a short trip to Shenandoah so our ridgerunners could meet with the back country office before Lauralee’s first patrol starting today.  Both Lauralee and Hal are returning from last year and need no introduction.  Chris Zigler is the new back country manager and we wanted to make sure we were all on the same page.

Of note, the park’s trail crews will be beefed up.  Better yet, up to six back country rangers will be on the trail and at the huts this year – helping people do the right thing and coaching Leave No Trace outdoor ethics.

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On the way home this little guy on my AT section got chopped up with a pruning saw. Did I ever mention that I love retirement.  The work is not work.  It’s fun!