The Great Blowdown Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love making sawdust!
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Sisu

Hoodlums Crew Week

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Two rock hammers and a rock bar.  Guess what we did?

Shenandoah National Park, August 1 – 7, 2021 — The park is tinder dry, but the moderate temperatures and low humidity made up for the dust exploding in our faces as our picks loosened the dirt and the rocks we needed to move.

We were there for our annual Hoodlums Crew Week, an opportunity for us to tackle big projects requiring time and muscle.

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This time we continued our restoration of the CCC’s work on the AT on the north side of Compton Peak.  The primary objective was to replace a ragged set of steps with something more elegant and practical.  This staircase had to be torn out and rebuilt.

The crew totaled six permanent members and four more who augmented us on various days depending on their availability.  We had to dig up and move almost everyone of those rocks.  That’s what they call a heavy lift.

We lived at the Pinnacles Research Station, our normal crew week hangout, but occupancy was limited to four inside. We had a bug proof enclosure outside where we could socialize and the deer came to visit.

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On Sunday I came early so Chris Bowley, our ridgerunner, could join me to do so some overdue weeding, after which we joined the others for dinner and beer.

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Monday and Thursday featured an assist from a Virginia Conservation Corps group made up mostly young folks who are between high school and college.  They helped carry logs we planned to use for our project, built a couple of check dams, and also weeded some overgrown AT sections for us.

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They also helped take out of commission an illegal campsite near the Compton Gap parking lot.  It was a combination campsite and outdoor latrine.

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After cleaning up the TP tulips and burying the feces, we moved a ton of logs and sticks to make the area unusable.

Campsites that are noncompliant with backcountry regulations are proliferating at an alarming rate  throughout the park.  The culprit is social media, particularly an app called “Guthook.”  Hikers can leave notes and GPS locations visible to all users.  Once a site is established, with the aid of the app, it attracts evermore users until the vegetation is dead and the dirt is bare.  That’s when the erosion starts.

Previously the rangers would try and camouflage the sites, but now hikers can find them with laser precision and easily remove the camouflage.  The next step is denial with dead timber too large for one person to move alone.

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We also found that a popular boulder was being used as a bathroom where children sometimes explore.

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Not anymore.

Everything starts with the foundation.  Dig ’em in deep and they’ll still be there in 50 years.  Also building with larger rocks, aka BFRs, helps prevent bears from flipping them in search of bugs to eat.

This is a behind the scenes look at the reality of setting a step.  Ultimately the entire staircase has to fit together.

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It’s tiring work and the team has to continuously think and talk it over.  Sometimes it looks like chaos.  Sometimes it is.

Ultimately it’s like a giant puzzle.

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Steps 1.0 begins to form.  This configuration would ultimately be scrapped.  Too many voids, the tread wasn’t wide enough.  Most of all, they were ugly.  If it looks bad, it is bad.

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Final version.  If it looks good, it must be good!  We ultimately removed about a third of the steps making the trail much easier to use.

Meanwhile, further up the trail other work was happening.  This is how old men and women get stuff done!

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At this point, we’re returning the tread to its original location.  The rocks we’re digging up were the original CCC rip rap.  Here the trail had become two lanes with the old rip rap in the middle.  The trail from Panorama to Mary’s Rock has done the same.

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We also cut logs to supplement the rock rip rap.  Rip rap is waste rock and other materials used to help keep the tread from expanding; thus preventing erosion.

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We got a lot done.  In fact, we’re about two-thirds of the way through the project.  With luck, we’ll be finished with this trail by year’s end.

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Sometimes unusual things happen.  A woman leading a horse wondered off a nearby horse trail that briefly coincides with the AT.  We helped her get turned around and heading in the right direction.  The AT is foot traffic only with a very few marked exceptions.

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The last day, we split with one group weeding the Pass Mountain blue blaze trail.  I took on an AT section south of Rattlesnake Point.  This was taken after the head was refilled with string.  Crew week over.

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The weekend wasn’t over yet for me.  Sunday the Bears Den hostel was having a hiker festival.  I grabbed my grandpa’s crosscut and set up a station where people could slice off a chunk of log for themselves.  The results were entertaining.  I would carefully explain how the saw works and how important it is that the sawyers each pull, not push.  Let’s see what happened.

Testosterone is not your friend guys.

We had no idea a wedding had just happened.  The happy couple got a unique souvenir and an unusual photo for their wedding album.  The did a good job too, an omen?

The little guys did ok too.

Sisu

Clearing the Blowdown Backlog

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Shenandoah National Park, August 5, 2020 — The purpose of this blog is to offer a peek behind the curtain so you can see what it takes to keep the hiking trails open and well-maintained.

There are hundreds of volunteers who do this work.  We are organized by park district, south, central and north.  Swift Run and Thornton Gap mark the boundaries.

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A young friend who volunteered with the Hoodlums for a year before being transferred to California said that she’d been hiking and backpacking all of her life and had no idea how much effort went into maintaining backcountry trails.  She loved volunteering.

And now a word from our sponsor:

PATC always needs volunteers.  No experience or tools necessary.  We maintain nearly 500 miles of trail within the park and another 1,000 outside of it, including 240 miles of the Appalachian Trail, trails within the national battlefield parks, C&O Canal, Prince William Park, and many more. Join us at http://www.patc.net

The pandemic protocols – mask, avoid as many people as possible, groups of  no more than four, sanitize – don’t impose much hardship.  After encountering hoards of people on the weekends, we decided to do group work only during the week. That pretty much limits crew members to retired folks with sore muscles.

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Yesterday we cleared 11 blowdowns on Pass Mountain.  Several hikers reported this one on Facebook.  This is a “leaner” in sawyer speak.  Leaners can be dangerous to clear and we only clear them if it can be done safely and they are blocking the trail.  Otherwise park and PATC policy is to let Mother Nature take care of business.

In this case, the giant tree is not blocking the trail.  Moreover, it’s larger than all but one of our saws.  If it were on the ground, it would be a hellova project. As it is, it’s beyond our capability in a wilderness area where only muscle powered tools can be used.

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Judging from this angle, it’s going to be up there for a long time.  Anna Larsen Porter’s granddaughter may be a maintainer by the time it comes crashing down.

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You could tell it was going to be a special day for August when we spotted a car at the Pass Mountain hwy 211 trailhead.  The sun was gentle with a cool breeze.  A perfect day to be roaming the park.

The plan was to drive up the Pass Mountain fire road and park at the hut/shelter and then work our way downhill to hwy 211.

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First we would use a chainsaw to clear the AT near the hut trail.  That area is not wilderness.  Note that this leaner is much different from the previous one. The bind is on top, so you saw it from the bottom to keep the bar from being pinched.

We then locked the saw in the car so we would not be tempted to use it in the wilderness area we were about to enter.

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This one had also been reported on Facebook.

It was cloaked in grapevines and brush which had to be cleared before we could get after the trunk.

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The trunk required two cuts.

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Sometimes it’s easier on the back just to sit.

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Two down and as far as we knew, one to go.  Instead we found nine more.

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Easy one.  Bottom bind.

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Quick work.

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Hwy 211 parking.  That was a clean mask when we started.  Dave looks like Peter Fonda in “Easy Rider.”

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Decided to make a Subaru commercial on the way down the fire road.

The Pass Mountain trail was very weedy.  Being in a wilderness, it must be weeded with swing blades vs. the string trimmers we can use elsewhere.  We understand an AmeriCorps crew will give that trail a haircut this Friday.

Speaking of haircuts, I could not stand it and gave in.  Pandemic beard and hair excuse expired.

Sisu

 

 

 

Shenandoah. At last!

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Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. May 27, 2020 — The park is open, sort of.  Skyline Drive, the 105-mile-long ribbon of a road that curls along the crest of the Blue Ridge, is open for traffic.

With the exception of a small number of public restrooms, all other facilities are closed including campgrounds.   The trails, except the most popular trails where social distance can’t be maintained, are welcoming footprints.  The huts/shelters remain off limits for use.

This limited opening makes sense.  Reports say the primary means of COVID-19 is respiratory droplets inhaled when people congregate in small spaces.

Imagine up to a dozen people sleeping in an AT shelter with one of them who arrives late in the evening, asymptomatic with corona virus, infecting those sleeping nearby.   The same logic applies to crowded communal picnic tables and for visitor centers.

The good news is this. After nearly three months, volunteers may now return.  For awhile I thought the most useless card in my wallet was my dormant Shenandoah volunteer pass.

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On Saturday the entry stations opened and we were turned on again.  Fearing a Black Friday-like run on the park, most of us opted to pass on the weekend.  I chose Wednesday to return because I was committed Monday and Tuesday, and heavy rains are forecast for Thursday, Friday and early Saturday, a day on which I am unavailable.

Saturday the Maryland ridgerunner and I will be pitching the caretaker tent and stringing the rain tarps at Annapolis Rock.  It is always a more sane exercise in better weather.  This annual ritual is two months late, delayed by the pandemic.

Back to the park.

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Ready to crank on a foggy day.  The aggressive weeding of previous years has retarded the growth of jewel weed which is the bane of string trimmers.  The width of the corridor is needed because certain briars can grow a foot per week and the width buys me time to return before the trail is impeded.

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Eight hours later.

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Just around the corner.  When you’re running a string trimmer, your head is usually down.  You’re wearing a helmet with face shield which further impedes vision.  Then you look up.

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Black birch is easily dispatched with a folding saw.

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The aesthetics were amazing.  Wild azalea blooming.  The laurel will start soon.

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The tall grasses grow quickly.  People often ask why we remove the weeds and make such a racket in the process.  The answer is simple, Lyme Disease.

Animals use the hiking trails to get around just like people do.  The mammals such as deer, bear, coyotes, squirrels, and rabbits pick up ticks which drop when engorged.  Their babies instinctively crawl up on the vegetation to seek a host of their own.

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Remove the vector.  Reduce Lyme disease risk.  Mowing tall grass reminded me of harvesting wheat.  Weeding is arguably the least enjoyable, but probably the most important task trail maintainers do.

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Just over the hill from the last photo.

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Trusty Silky Big Boy 2000 saw to the rescue.  I thought about coming back dragging a chainsaw for this one, but for one, it would be a long carry for two minutes work – literally a long climb for a short slide.

Secondly, we’re going to attack a large blowdown at the bottom of Little Devils Stairs Sunday using a crosscut saw that is special because it once belonged to my grandfather.  Not sure there would be enough time or energy left over when we’re done to climb half way up Compton Peak to make, honestly, thirty seconds worth of noise.

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I always check the campsite above the spring on Compton.  It’s now official.  The park trail crews have been defining its perimeter with logs to help contain the site and limit spreading.

People are inherently predictable.  Anyone who has been a ridgerunner can tell you where you’re going to find the TP.

Speaking of ridgerunners, they were defunded in the park this year because thru hiking was discouraged and park gate receipts were dramatically down.  Tuesday and Wednesday a fellow maintainer and I counted 14 thru hikers.  The noobs are making a mess.  Help!

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There’s a reason I always carry potty trowel.  All told I buried two deposits this trip.  As previously reported, there are more noobs in the woods now and it shows.

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Long day.  Sweaty and tired.  The COVID beard is coming along.  String trimmers turn the weeds, which include poison ivy, into pesto.  I’m coated with it.  Time to get a shower.

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Spring in the park is awesome!  Did I say I love this job?

Sisu

 

 

 

Spring cleaning delayed.

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Home, April 14, 2020 — As the debate about when America can go back to work stutters along, I’ve been wondering when trail maintainers can start digging dirt again.  We want to work too. Time’s a wasting.

I am under no illusion that someone is going to flip a magic switch and the world will shift from black and white to living color regardless of the political pyrotechnics.  The virus doesn’t care.

Until there is an effective vaccine, COVID-19 can be a potentially mortal threat to anyone who catches it. Respect alone for this potential will certainly cause some people to avoid crowds and certain public places.

Nevertheless, at some point the parks and trails will reopen to the public. People think they’re far from others when they are in the woods as if civilization can’t follow them there.  It’s an attractive illusion, so they’ll be back.

For one, I’d like to have the trails safe and ready when they come.

Fall

The problem is that the trail you tidy up in the fall …

Spring

… looks very different in the spring.

Between now and when the people come back, nature will be hard at work.  Spring has sprung and the weeds are growing.  It won’t be long before they take over the joint unless they are cut back.

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Why worry about weeds?  They are the way ticks carrying Lyme disease get to hikers.  Lyme disease or COVID-19?  Each is ugly in its own way.

Weeds are only one of the jobs that need to be done in the spring.

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The tread itself needs maintenance.  Water control structures silt up or rot over the winter.  A bear destroyed this one.  This waterbar has to be cleaned and rebuilt.  It’s clear from the detritus that it’s no longer effective.

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Blowdowns also have to be cleared.

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We’ve has several howling windstorms recently which increase the probability of finding blown down branches as well as tree trunks.

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Everyone I know is itching to get a jump on spring maintenance before hikers return.  Trail maintainers like nothing better than packing up for an honest day’s work, although I despise the two-hour drive each way.

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The tool caches are ready.  With the people gone, we could get a lot done when it’s easy to maintain safe social distance.  Maintainers in our area are spread about one to two miles apart.

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But, like they say, the trail will be there when the time comes. True dat.  Meanwhile, I’m on the bench yelling, “Put me in coach!”  Where’s coach?  He’s sheltering at home just like the rest of us.

Sisu

 

Annual Trail Maintainers Workshop

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Some tools of the trade.

Shenandoah National Park, October 18 – 20, 2019 — If you want to learn how to dig holes in the dirt, who ya gonna call?  The Hoodlums, that’s who.

Each September the North District Hoodlums trail crew hosts a workshop for trail maintainers, beginners through experts.  Last weekend we did it again. For me it was number seven.

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The canopy is for the kitchen where Dave Nebut’s brothers prepare our scrumptious meals.

The format is simple.  The content gets adjusted periodically.  It goes like this.  The official start time is 0900 Saturday morning.  The safety talk is followed by work party assignments commensurate with each person’s experience level.

On Saturday we generally work until around four o’clock when we return to clean up.  Dinner is a six followed by a campfire.

Sunday is a repeat with coffee and breakfast at 7 a.m.  We close at noon for lunch and cleanup.

A few of us usually arrive early on Friday to help with set up, gathering of tools, hauling firewood, and the like.  The early birds also get the most level tent sites!

A full campground on a clear Friday night doesn’t always go the way you plan.  Some group partied until 3:30 a.m.  I was shocked the campground host didn’t intervene.  Moreover, the city slicker dogs just had to announce each bear that wondered through in hopes some ignorant knucklehead left out food.  Between bears and loud drunken laughter, nobody got much sleep.

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Saturday dawned like the shiny jewel of a day it was.  The park trail crew arrived to work with the advanced group.

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Phone addicts everywhere.  Mine gets NO Service in this spot, a blessing.

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Dave and I led some fine folks on an encore trip near the junction of the Thompson Hollow and Tuscarora Trails to finish the work we abandoned last month when one of our work party members suffered from heat exhaustion.  The day was warm, but not that warm.  It’s officially designated wilderness, so traditional tools only may be used.

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In total we removed seven blowdowns.

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Some of the blowdowns were high while others were low.

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Using a hatchet to chop away the rot.  On a log spanning a gap, gravity draws the wood downward causing compression (bind) at the top.  Once the cut gets deep enough, the resulting bind will slowly make it harder to saw.

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We use wedges to hold open the “kerf” so the sawing can continue.

We also built some drainage dips where waterbars were needed to prevent erosion.

The dirt was proof of a hard day’s work, so let’s get the party started.

Good news.  Just as darkness blanketed the park, our odds changed.  We learned that 30 percent chance of rain sometimes means you get wet.  Why good news?  The rain doused the campfires and the partying.  Silence reigned even as dark rain poured from the inky sky.  Everyone got a good night’s sleep.  Amen!

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Sunday was another beauty contest winner made extra special by the hot coffee.

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We split into three groups.  Rebecca Unruh, backcountry ranger and dear friend of the Hoodlums, gave a talk on environmental hazards from poison ivy to heat stroke.

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We also offered sessions on string trimmer use and maintenance, and on grade dip construction.

We called it at noon for a delicious lunch.

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A sign of happiness.

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Boots usually last 500 miles or about a year for me.  These are two-year-old miracle boots.  The rain last year was easy on the soles.  The rocks finally got the uppers.

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Straining for a selfie.

Until next year.

Sisu

 

 

No rest for the wicked

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Everywhere, May 2019 —  No time for a deep breath.  May is just like that.  The list is long.

In all, I flew to my brother’s in Loveland, CO and belatedly celebrated a milestone birthday (50 + shipping and handling), led a Road Scholar hike, attended ridgerunner training, and worked with the Hoodlums trail crew in Shenandoah National Park.

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Walking around the lake at my brother Jack’s.  Rocky Mountain National Park (Long’s Peak) is on the horizon.

Next comes two orientation hikes (OJT), our neighborhood homeowners’ association meeting (with several contentious issues), an appointment with the Social Security Administration (it’s that time: 50 + shipping and handling), and a pre-op physical because I’m having two more Dupeytren’s fingers surgically straightened on the last day of the month.

Oh, my friend Karma, who hiked he AT in 2013 and the Pacific Crest Trail last year, is hiking the AT again.  I’m hoping to meet her on the trail in Shenandoah when I weedwhack my trail just before surgery, but for sure we’re having lunch in Harpers Ferry just like we did in 2013.

Karma was was not only an inspiration for my hike the following year, but in practical terms, she was the person whose wisdom and practicality was worth its weight in gold when I was preparing for my AT thru hike.  Her blog for that hike is the the best AT blog ever, IMHO.  Click here: Karma’s 2013 AT blog

May has been and is going to be a blur.

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Robert, the 2018 northern Virginia ridgerunner, briefs Witt, the incoming.  Witt is a tripple crowner having hiked the At, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.  He also holds the FKT (Fastest Known Time) for the Arizona Trail.  That’s a bunch of hiking.

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Joanne, will be patrolling in Shenandoah again this year for 30 days beginning June 15.

Wilderness First Aid – It also was my year to re-certify.  It’s an excellent course.  Sixteen hours drinking from a fire hose and splinting the hell out of them and so much more.  If you’re ever injured on a trail, you want a WFA to find you.  Click here:  Wilderness Medicine

Caffeine addict alert.

Hoodlums work trip.

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Does it get better than this?  I don’t think so!

Sisu

Storm Clean up

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South District, Shenandoah National Park, Appalachian Trail, November 30, 2018 — The east coast got smacked with an early season snow storm a little more than a week ago.  The Washington area escaped major impact, but it hammered the south district of Shenandoah between Stanardsville and Waynesboro, VA. and cities to our north.

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Photo courtesy Shenandoah National Park

Heavy snow and high winds crushed the softer trees leaving hundreds of them blocking  Skyline Dr., the road that runs 105 miles from one end of the park to the other.  The park trail crews report that the downed trees resembled a military abitis that runs for miles along the road.  Abitis definition at this link.

Leave it to the park crews to painstakingly clear the road quarter mile at a time.  Each tree must be bucked and chipped.  That’s a slow process.

Meanwhile, enough of Skyline, from Swift Run Gap south, had been cleared to permit the PATC to begin clearing the AT.  The supervisor of trails in coordination with the south district manager called for sawyers and swampers.

Sawyers are club members certified by the National Park Service to safely operate a chainsaw.  Swampers help the sawyers by removing slash and trunk rounds from the trail.  The plan was to attack the afflicted area from both ends.

As the supervisor of trails reported yesterday:  “We met at Swift Run Gap at 8:30am today and had 22 PATC members ready to work. Ten were certified chain saw operators including six District Managers.

We were limited as to parking shuttle cars because of the clearing of Skyline Drive and this constrained the amount of trail we could cover. The AT is clear from Swift Run Gap to Simmons Gap a distance of nine miles.

There is another group working from Rockfish Gap north and I don’t have any information on their progress right now. The main problem appears to be further south toward Rockfish Gap where the blow downs are quite severe.

Skyline Drive is not open for other than emergency travel and the clearing is very slow. The park maintenance crews and back country trail staff are responsible for that clearing. We will schedule another work trip later this week.”

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Sawyers are distinguished by their red Kevlar chaps.

We divided into crews.  My crew consisted of three sawyers and three swampers.  We worked northward from Powell Gap to Smith-Roach Gap – about a mile and one-third. Other crews worked elsewhere.

The swampers were all experienced trail overseers and knew how to get after the work at hand.  They brought their pruning saws, loppers and other trail tools which allowed them cleared several blowdowns by themselves.

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With one exception, our blowdowns were smaller trees snapped or bent over across the trail.  These are tedious to clear, our three two-person sawyer/swamper teams worked quickly and efficiently.

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This is one blowdown we tackled with two sawyers, one on each side.  Hidden within these tangles are branches loaded with weight called spring poles.  They can whip around hard enough to cause serious injury when their energy is released.  Sawyers are trained to find them, but they are hard to read in tangles like this.  Each sawyer reported being surprised by more than one, including me.

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All told, our crew removed 27 blowdowns in just over one mile.

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Sawyer PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) consists of leather boots, Kevlar chaps, leather gloves, helmet, face shield, and ear muffs.

Stay tuned for follow on trips.  We’ll be at this for awhile.

Sisu

 

Black Friday = Green Friday

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Shenandoah National Park, Black Friday, November 23, 2018 — Everybody needs a ginormous boob tube to watch foooball and swill cheap beer, right?  When’s the best time to score one?  Black Friday, of course.

Everybody who needs more stuff, raise your hand. Mall warriors betting they won’t lose yardage tackling a foreign-made discount TV at the local running of the fools, please do the same.

Guess what?  There are alternatives.  Turn off your phone.  Go outside.  Volunteer.  Make a change. Be productive.  That’s what two of my friends and I did and what a day we had.

The curtain rose on a leaden sky, accompanied by a biting wind.  We linked up at the Jenkins Gap trailhead parking at a leisurely 9:30 to avoid suffering Washington’s mad dog, crack-of-dawn, Black Friday shopping traffic.

Bright sunbeams were piercing the cloud deck like metaphorical knitting needles as we pulled our gear out of our SUVs. The day ended in warming sunshine.

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There were three of us.  Kelly, me and her husband Phil.  We were armed with a shovel, a McLoed fire hoe, and a pick-mattox respectively.

The plan, march 2.3 miles to the top of Compton Peak and work our way back to the cars.  In between we’d clear waterbars (drains) of debris, improve those needing work, replace at least one, and clear blown-down trees and branches blocking the trail.

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The first order of business was to test the frozen ground to see if we could actually dig.  If we not, plan B was to take a long hike.

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Ice formed a crust about an inch thick.  It was easily cracked by our tools.

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Some waterbars needed only to have the leaves raked out.  Others, like this one, had silted up and needed extensive rebuilding.

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My resident bear sow ripped this waterbar apart discarding the rotting log off to the right.  The park’s policy is be more environmentally gentle and avoid, where possible, using wood and rock in building trail structures.  This swale, sometimes called a “grade dip” replaced the log.  Grade dips actually require less long-term maintenance, so what’s not to like?

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Keeping track.

We also cleared the path of several large branches knocked down by a recent storm.  After three hours, we were done, with enough time remaining to take a little stroll.

We drove one car south to the Hogback overlook trailhead, leaving one at Jenkins to which we could return.

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What we’d hoped would be a pleasant walk turned into another three-hour maintenance trip.  In all, we found 10 trees blocking the trail.  We removed three with the small folding saw we had, trimmed a couple like this one making it easier for hikers to pass.  The rest we reported.

We finished up having turned Black Friday into a green one; also knowing the overseer for this section would soon be in need of elbow grease aplenty.

Happy Green Friday!

Sisu

Widowmakers

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Would you camp under this tree?

The Appalachian Trail, November 9, 2018 — It’s been a hellova year.  Shenandoah National Park normally receives 55 inches of annual rainfall.  To date the park has measured 85 inches with seven weeks remaining in the year.  That’s 30 inches above normal so far.

That’s not the only weather pattern that’s off.  We usually enjoy magnificent indian summers here in the mid-Atlantic region.  This year it stayed hot and muggy right up to the bitter end.  In less than a week, the temperatures turned raw with cold winds and a freeze warning in the immediate forecast. Oh, not to mention that it’s still raining.

If traffic on Facebook is any judge, the AT thru-hiker class of 2019 is hard at work getting ready to go. These intrepid hikers are buying gear, planning hard, and doing as many training hikes as possible.

For those who will be planning trips from now until their start day, there are a lot of things to think about. Here’s one more.

Campsite selection is pretty much straight forward. The first thing to know is the rules of the jurisdiction you’re in. You should know that some places have strict rules on camping while others do not.

I manage the ridgerunner program for 240 miles of the AT in the mid-Atlantic region. That’s four states and five different sets of rules for camping.

For example, Shenandoah National Park allows dispersed camping with a few reasonable limitations. In contrast Maryland requires everyone to camp at official campsites with no dispersed camping allowed whatsoever. Maryland rules do not allow fires except in designated fire pits. The rules for the area you’re in will usually be posted on the trailhead kiosks or your guidebook, map or app; if in doubt check the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s web site at http://www.appalachiantrail.org/camping.

Using already existing campsites helps reduce environmental impact. Look for tent sites with good drainage and that are sheltered from wind and heavy weather if that applies.

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Standing dead trees.

Here’s the ‘one more thing.’ Check overhead for widowmakers. They are sometimes called fool killers and are anything that has the potential to injure or kill someone below. In a more specific sense, they are dead or weakened branches caught precariously high in trees, ready to fall on unsuspecting individuals underneath.

These hazards are not trivial.

In August 2018 a hiker was hit by a falling branch while hiking on the AT just north of US route 50. A 15 – 18 inch waterlogged tree limb snapped and fell to the ground without warning. It struck and killed the hiker instantly.

Not that far away, a tree near Maryland’s Ed Garvey Shelter fell, fatally striking a hiker as he was heading for the Trail one fateful morning in March 2015.

It’s not always easy to spot hazard branches, but it’s always worth the look. Most importantly, it’s not worth the risk camping or hanging out under or too close to such a risk.

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The brown substances at the base of the black opening is rotted tree material.

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Healthy-looking crown of the same tree.  This is a tree of concern.

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Stump of a rotting tree preemptively felled at the Annapolis Rock caretaker site.

Trees that might fall are another potential risk. They may be dead or diseased. Sometimes it doesn’t matter. If the ground is highly saturated; high winds can push trees over because the roots can’t hold in waterlogged soils. This year’s heavy rains saturated soil and fallen trees increased the number of down trees maintainers had to remove from the trail.  After a March storm, 700 blowdowns were removed from the 102 miles of AT in Shenandoah National Park alone.

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Healthy trees rooted in rain-saturated soil, blown down by light winds.

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Removing a hazard tree near Bears Den hostel.

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Storm damage.

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Storm damage.

Don’t assume that, because you’re in a preexisting campsite or in the area of a shelter, there is no danger. Maintainers, rangers and forest biologists watch for trees of concern, but they can’t find them all.

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Nuff said.

Trees of concern aren’t a huge risk, but it always pays to be prudent and add them to your checklist when you’re in the backcountry.

A version of this blog was originally published by the author on the Appalachian Trail Expert Advice Facebook page.

Sisu