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

 

 

 

Earth Day Hike

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The Maryland ridgerunner’s Earth Day view of Greenbriar Lake.

Appalachian Trail Maryland, April 22, 2020 — “Love your Mother!” captained one of the earlier Earth Day Posters I can remember.  The admonition still applies, though one could easily argue we haven’t been doing such a good job of it.  If nothing else, the recent smog-free views taken of and in cities around the world offer evidence that we can do a better job of taking care of planet earth.

Love your mother

On the first Earth Day in 1970 I was an Army lieutenant stationed at Fort Benning, Ga.  I was way too busy to take much notice.

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I figured that the Hippies of that era existed to protest.  At the time, anti-Vietnam war protests were beginning to wain.  I reasoned that they needed a new subject and the environment was it.

I obviously wasn’t spending a lot of time thinking sophisticated thoughts then.  I was simply trying to do my best at the hardest job I’d ever had.

Earth Day was on my mind when I picked today for my weekly sojourn with Wes.  The pandemic we are experiencing has been tied to climate change and to other things Earth Day exists to bring to our attention.

I like to walk with Wes about once per week.  We’re not camping this year, so I haven’t had as much OJT time as usual.  Given the mandate to shelter at home, Earth Day seemed appropriate.

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We wore cloth masks while hiking.

We met a little before 10 a.m. at our destination, donned our N-95 masks, and shuttled to the start point at the Thurston Griggs trailhead.  This easy side trail connects to the AT at the Pogo campsite.

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Black birch blocking the trail.  “This is why we give you a saw.”

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Oh oh!  This one’s a little bigger.

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I have a sixteen inch folding saw, so we decided to take off the upper branch.  That would make this blowdown easier to step over.  The trunk obviously requires a chainsaw.

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We took turns.  Physical labor with a mask on isn’t fun.  Can’t wait for July – not!

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Now to dispose of the log.

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Finished job.

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A group of sorority sisters not practicing safe social distance at Black Rock.  Sometimes people think the rules of reality are suspended when they are out in nature.

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In the woods violets are flowers.  In your yard, they are weeds.  I like them as flowers.

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We counted 62 day hikers including three climbers.

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Common!

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This is under a no fire sign.  People do thoughtless things.  Fires sterilize the soil so it’s years before vegetation returns.  The fire scar is ugly.  One of the ridgerunners removed the soot from the rock with Elephant Snot a couple of years ago.  It appears no fires since.  That’s good news.

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Checked the caretaker site and hoovered some micro trash from under the picnic table.

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We were happy to clean up our mother’s backyard.  Couldn’t think of a better thing to do on this auspicious 50th Earth Day.

Sisu

 

COVID-19 knows no boundaries.

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Home sequestration, March 27, 2020 — This past week has seemed like a year.

It feels like Mother Nature has put the entire country in time out.  We got sent home from school for bad behavior. We’re stuck in our rooms.  Justification: Failure to be good stewards of our lonely blue marble.  Maybe Mamma’s gettin’ even?

But like Biblical pestilence, famine, the sword, beasts, plague, and their friends, sometimes it feels like the four horsemen are thundering just over the horizon.  Other times we simply long for companionship.  The urge to invite family to dinner or gather with like-minded friends is overwhelming.

Then, there’s always wine.  And Zoom.  Because Amazon has run out of lamb’s blood.

Gather together.  Isn’t that what humans do in stressful times?  We are herd animals, like it or not. But, the herd is too big and the big dogs are making a cull.

For example:

AT Closed

The overcrowding up and down the AT and in the National Parks that I reported last week exploded over the weekend.  Rocky Mountain, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and The Great Smoky Mountains national parks are closed to the public for public health reasons.

Forest Order

On the east coast, the Chattahoochee, George Washington and Jefferson National Forests are completely closed to visitors.  Too many people, people.

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This illustrates the overcrowding out west.

More parks are considering closing.

A Maryland State Park Service ranger told me that they were “Slammed!”  over the weekend.  Twenty-one million people live within two hours of most Maryland parks.  Seems like a big bunch of them showed up.

It’s boring sitting at home.  Or is it, if you can’t maintain a safe distance between yourself and the next person?  And oh, by the way, please take your trash with you when you leave.

Dear Darwin Award candidates.  It won’t be boring in the ICU, that is if you can get a ticket.

There is an inverse ratio equation that may apply here:  FOMO is inversely proportional the closer you get to the ICU.

(Thanks for the concept Tom Toles, Washington Post editorial cartoonist.)

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With the closures, the trails resemble a reverse scene out of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Absent were the humans.  The sound of their chatter.  The crunch of their boots.  The crinkle of their candy wrappers. The scraping of their potty trowels. The soft poof of their TP tulips making trash landings faded away. Only the chirping of chickadees and the buzz of the bees, harmonized with the rustling leaves and the beavers’ baseline to entertain the squirrels, the deer and the bears.

Please stay home.  This article explains why.  This is why.

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We had another conference call this week to reassess ridgerunners.

 

AT Closure

Each year our trail club hires six ridgerunners to patrol the 240 AT miles we maintain. The trail is, in effect, closed.  Accordingly, the club is supporting the land manager partners who still want ridgerunners.

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We’re now down to three ridgerunners – Shenandoah National Park, Northern Virginia and Maryland.  Shenandoah is delaying the start of all their seasonal employees until circumstances sort themselves out, April 30 at the earliest.

The nature of the COVID-19 virus will dictate profound changes to the normal ways ridgerunners function, not the least of which is maintaining social distance.

Until further notice, the ridgerunners will not enter shelters, tend privies or sleep in the back country.  Each has a discrete residence that they don’t share with anyone else.  Health insurance is provided this year as an extra precaution.

With the ridgerunner question settled, home sequestration isn’t the end of the world in my neighborhood.  If you can’t hike far away, you can hike near by.

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The 40-mile long Rock Creek Trail is a leafy block-and-a-half away.

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The walks are agreeable in spite of the urban location.

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My neighborhood has plenty of pleasant walking.

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We are very situationally aware as a neighborhood.  This family always has a sense of humor – and Halloween decorations that can be amortized over additional use.

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Campfire anyone?  Who’s afraid of a ferocious house cat?

Our house is a comfortable redoubt for a reason.  It was built for a man with ALS who loved the outdoors.  You wouldn’t know his name, but you do know his work.  He invented those bumpy tiles at crosswalks and along train platforms in his workshop in the basement of this house.

Thanks to Robert Kramer, this is a more than pleasant place if you have to hole up.

Oh! One more thing. The radio and TV are off.  Podcasts beat the hell out of newscasts. Old Time Radio podcasts are my favorites along with “Ben Franklin’s World,” “What you Missed in History Class” “Sawbones,” and “In Our Time” from the BBC.

Be safe.

Sisu

Hiking with Contagion

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Everywhere, March 23, 2020 — On a cool spring morning, on the Appalachian Trail in Maryland, we were on a 12-mile hike that would put this state’s 42 miles in the books.  It would mean one state down and 13 to go for Bulldog on the AT.

In some ways nothing has changed.  Hikers still have to lift their feet one step at a time.  In other ways everything has changed.  In addition to an over abundance of pollen, the invisible threat of the COVID-19 virus ominously hangs in the air.

As governments closed restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and other gathering places, the media observed that at least the hiking trails were open.

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Shenandoah National Park Photo

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Shenandoah National Park Photo

It didn’t take long for people to figure that out. They have been swarming the trails, especially the beauty spots such as trails with popular waterfalls and overlooks. The overcrowding defeats nature’s benefits.

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Bulldog needed the most popular section in Maryland to fill in her dance card.  This is the footbridge across I-70 near Boonsboro, MD.

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Social distancing from above.

In the course of the first eight miles, from Washington Monument State Park to the Pogo campground, we counted 50 hikers, 17 of which were backpackers.  From talking with them, noting more trash than usual and the type of trash, and from observing the size of backpacks and bear spray, we deduced the crowd was mostly novice.

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The miles after eight are less popular and we saw no one.

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Bulldog’s step count.

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Stay tuned for the next state.  It’ll probably be West Virginia’s less than five miles.  After that, they’re pretty much out of day-hiking practicality.  Virginia’s 500+ miles are a prime example.  Remember this sucker is 2,200 miles long.

We did not wear masks while hiking.  We could easily stay six feet apart and well away from other hikers.  We did mask up to shuttle our cars to the start and end points.  I am in a vulnerable group relative to gray hair and having allergy-related asthma.

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“Zooming” with Sandi Marra, president of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Our hike was only the kickoff event for a relentless week.  As the CDC and state governors refined their guidance, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy needed to make decisions relative to hiker safety, the ridgerunner season, trail conditions, meetings and a lot more.

As of this writing, noon Monday, March 23, the following closures and restrictions have been announced: Rocky Mountain National Park is completely closed.  Shelters/campgrounds closed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park, George Washington National Forest, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Numerous hostels and trail centers have also closed.  Trail crew work trips are canceled including my beloved Hoodlums.

This just in:  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy will officially ask Americans to stay off the AT until further notice!  The overcrowding is unsafe.  Darwin Award candidates everywhere.

I’ve asked the park if I should do this or not.  Thursday I’m driving up to Shenandoah to prepare my AT section for spring, raking leaves out of the waterbars (drains), paint some blazes, and a couple of other small projects.  Will count cars in the parking lots on the way out.

Stay tuned and stay safe everyone.

Sisu

Witt’s Chainsaw Rides Again!

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That white glaze isn’t frosting.  It’s ice which atomizes when the teeth bite in.

Appalachian Trail, Northern Virginia, January 21, 2020 — The thermometer was slinking past 19 degrees this morning when we crunched gravel in the Keys Gap trailhead parking lot.  We were on a search and destroy mission to clear six blowdowns on the AT.

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The frosty air pinched our noses as we rucked up the chainsaw and all its trimmings.  The first blowdown was quick on the march.  The white stuff is ice.

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The chainsaw makes quick work of these guys.

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All clear.  The next five were attacked in quick succession.

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One side down.

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Side two.  The round, or the middle chunk of log we removed, had to be cut in half.  It was too heavy to manhandle out of the way.

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The formula is simple.  Convert gasoline to noise.  Noise is a catalyst that converts wood to sawdust.  Done.

Sisu

The AT’s Newest Sawyer

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Appalachian Trail, The Rollercoaster, Virginia, December 28, 2019 —  Some folks who spend time preserving and protecting hiking trails are possessed by the demons of perfectionism.

Knowing something isn’t right is like an itch they can’t scratch.  They obsess about it until whatever ‘it’ is, is fixed.  In this case ‘it’ was blowdowns.

Pair uncleared blowdowns with a newly certified sawyer itching to practice, and a chainsaw gets to go for a hike along with a couple of enthusiastic swampers !

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By way of introduction, our sawyer is Witt Wisebram who was last season’s ridgerunner in Northern Virginia and ultra distance runner.  The Atlanta native is now the winter caretaker at the Blackburn Trail Center.

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A “pie cut,” sometimes called a wedge cut, is used because the bind is on top and the log isn’t thick enough to use wedges.  It’s too close to the ground to attack from underneath.

The first few blowdowns were little more than a nuisance to hikers.  They are step-overs that can be ignored, at least the small ones can.  They are removed because they can cause erosion.  The greater challenge for the sawyer on this type of blowdown is to avoid sawing rocks and dirt.

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This tree trunk blocks the trail.  There’s no way around it.  It’s equally difficult to crawl over or under.  Because it’s a “leaner,” care is taken to read it in terms of bind, how the log will behave once the tension is released, including whether it might roll.

You also want to keep your feet out from under the top section of the trunk which will hit the ground with a heavy thud.

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The pie cut missed but the angle cut worked anyway.  Experience gained.  Witt’s friend Jason congratulates!

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Clean up.

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Finishing the job.

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Funny how they seem to fall perpendicular to the treadway.

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Blowdowns come in all sizes.  Witt captured the white blaze for display at Blackburn.

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People have been painting rocks and leaving them along the trail as decorations.  Now it’s golf balls.

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This is how we found it.  Needless to say we packed it out.

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This large branch buried itself more than a foot into the ground.  It was too big to move without being reduced to bite-size chunks.

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Mother nature saved the tenth and best blowdown for last.  The bigger ones are more fun to cut.

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A log this large – in this case about three inches thicker than the length of the chainsaw bar – sometimes the round will bind and not drop to the ground.  An inverse keystone cut is used to ensure the cut out section falls to the ground.

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Note the end of the bar is not sticking out. That means the sawyer has to cut from both sides.

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We used wedges to keep the kerf open. It worked as planned.

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The trail is clear.

Stay tuned for the Gang of Four’s First Day Hike.

Sisu

 

 

 

 

Black Friday Hike

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Stone walls evoke a certain nostalgia for hopeful yeoman farmers long since passed into history.  The truth is that most of these walls were built by slaves who enjoyed no hope at all.

Appalachian Trail, Maryland, November 29, 2019 —

It was Black Friday and all through the world, the shoppers were teed up to give it a whirl.  The hikers instead would rather not fight, we would go walking with nature’s delights.  And so we did.

The ever-flexible Gang of Four tentatively planned a Black Friday outing.  This iteration was minus two.  Alexis and Catherine were out of state at family celebrations.  Being working journalists, their free time is limited, especially in news-rich times like these.

Tina and I decided we were going anyway.  Her demonstrated determination on this trip and others earned her the trail name “Bulldog!”

We decided to do the Maryland Road Scholar route.  It’s rich with Civil War history, mostly gentle, and has a nice viewpoint.  At nine miles, it’s just long enough for a good workout with delightfully civilized start and stop times.

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Note the knit cap.  I could not resist noting, as a Red Sox fan, I have several.

After dropping a vehicle at the end point in Gathland State Park, we displaced northward to Washington Monument State Park.  There we dashed up the hill for a quick selfie at the monument to memorialize the start. 

The weather was a crisp 34 F with a light wind.  The scattered clouds feathered some of the sun.  They ultimately evaporated allowing the sol’s rays to befriend us as the temp climbed to the day’s high of 46 F.

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Lambs Knoll communications towers, reached just after lunch.  From the Dahlgren Chapel.

The route is rich with trail candy.  The first highlight is the Dahlgren Chapel, at Turner’s Gap, immediately followed by the Dahlgren campground, then Fox Gap, Rocky Run Shelter, the White Rocks viewpoint; with an end at Crampton’s Gap.  The lot of it is on South Mountain, the site of several Civil War battles.

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The campground features showers, tent pads and picnic tables.

Big blowdown at Dahlgren Campground.

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The circumference of this blowdown was in the neighborhood of 30 inches.  For scale, the longest bar I have for my chainsaw is 20 inches.

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Another view.  It’s the devastating work of the emerald ash borer.

We’ve recently had severe winds which knocked down several trees and large limbs.  We were able to clear three small blowdowns with my hand saw.

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The “Bulldog” on the attack.

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White Rocks viewpoint.

Just after the viewpoint we found an 18-inch blowdown.  That’s way too large for my hand saw, so I reported it to the local trail maintainers.

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What was this camper thinking? The stuff seems carefully arranged as if cached for later or for someone to find.  Love the socks.

The hike was almost over except for the walk out.  There we were, loping along, looking forward to our traditional post hike burger and a beer, when off to our right was this.

Weekend warriors have a some redeeming values.  For one, they’re out there trying to appreciate nature.  For far too many of them, that’s about it.  Their ignorant behavior overcomes the rest.

For anyone in the ridgerunning world, it’s easy to deride these guys – yes, they’re almost always men. The synonym for ridgerunner is janitor and this exemplifies one of the reasons why.

Women weekenders have few exceptions, they always take a more informed approach.  They do their research, plan ahead, prepare and take care to leave wildlands better then they found them.

Bubbas, on the other hand, are a literal mess.  They fit several cultural identities and stereotypes – lumber-sexuals, cammo-sexuals or ammo-sexuals; preppers and survivalists; middle-age boy scouts; or sometimes the unfortunate homeless.

In no case are these folks educated and aware of how to Leave No Trace.  In every case and  everytime I stumble upon a mess I have to clean up, I ask myself, “What were you thinking?”

The perp who’s the subject of this rant left a 1960s vintage Optimus 8 stove.  I had one in the early 1970s.  The food selection included military MRE packets, sardines, Ramen noodles, instant oatmeal, coffee, a spoon, and assorted other stuff.  Way too much for even a four-day hike if the hiker started Thanksgiving eve.

Here’s the issue.  Had this person planned ahead and prepared, Maryland’s rules would have been familiar.  They are posted at every trailhead, online, and in guide books.  No camping or fires except at designated shelters or campgrounds such as Dahlgren. This was an illegal campsite located less than one-third of a mile from the Crampton Gap shelter which has lots of good secluded campsites.

The current fire danger is high and insufficient space is cleared around the fire ring.  Lastly, you pack it in, you pack it out.  Otherwise it’s animal food.  The volume was approximately three gallons which we wrapped in my pack’s rain cover.  Bulldog schlepped most of it out.

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After our burgers and beer, the sun was dropping as fast as the temp when we shuttled back to my car at Washington Monument.  Fade to black, Friday.

Sisu and Bulldog

 

Myron Avery Award

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Vienna, VA. November 20, 2019 — The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s annual awards banquet offered yours truly a wonderful surprise in the form of the club’s highest honor, the Myron Avery Volunteer of the Year Award.

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PATC Myron Avery Award.

“Named in honor of the founder of the PATC, the Myron Avery Award recognizes a substantial achievement by a PATC member who most exemplifies the spirit of volunteerism through his or her contribution to PATC during the past year. This is the highest honor bestowed upon members of the club and is awarded to the PATC volunteer who most exemplifies Mr. Avery’s dedication and devotion to PATC’s mission. The contribution can be to any type or combination of club service activities, e.g., devoting many hours above and beyond the norm to service activities, including travel time, or making an exceptional contribution to a particular project.”*  Avery also founded the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Two people are principally responsible for creating the Appalachian Trail.  Benton MacKaye supplied the vision.  Myron Avery got it done.  Myron Avery

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Volunteers are the heart and soul of the AT and our national parks.  About 250,000 volunteer hours annually are needed to keep the AT properly maintained and open.

Thousands of volunteers across 14 states, hundreds from the PATC alone, give what they can in time, money and sweat for a labor of love.  I’m proud to be counted among them.

Sisu

*www.patc.net

It’s a wrap for the last ridgerunner standing.

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Annapolis Rock, Maryland, October 18, 2019 — It’s that time again.  Our longest ridgerunner season is running out of altitude and airspeed.  The sprint to the finish line is underway.

Friday, Mary Thurman and I struck the caretaker tent, packed it up and hiked it down the mountain to the ridgerunners rustic apartment at Washington Monument State Park. There it is interred in a closet for a long winter’s rest.

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At first we thought something had gone terribly wrong. The tarp protecting the tent from UV rays was in shreds.

Had a bear attacked it?  Vandals?  Actually high winds the previous night destroyed the sun-weakened tarp which had valiantly done its duty.  Now dead, its dumpster-destined remains are nothing more than worthless weight on the hike out.

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Mary was relieved to find the tent intact.

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Packing up.

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Tool box locked.  Site secure.

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It was a brilliant day on the rock.

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Farewell visit to the viewpoint.

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Reflecting on how the season opened last April with Sabine Pelton who patrolled Shenandoah National Park.

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Out-a-here!  The final two weeks will be spent on patrol or tenting in one of the Annapolis Rock tents sites.

Until next year.

Sisu

Educating Hikers

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This was my final trash run. The load included a discarded tent, new boots, wet cotton clothing and uneaten food. Total pack weight was close to 70 lbs.

September 12, 2019 — There’s a popular website/blog/resource for hikers called the Trek.  It was originated by my friend Zach Davis who wrote an excellent book about psychologically preparing for an AT thru hike called “Appalachian Trials.”

Recently a writer for the Trek interviewed me and others about educating hikers.  Here’s the result.

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Link to Trek Article

Sisu