The AT is a place to serve

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The Appalachian Trail, October 27, 2021 — This month’s “AT Journeys” magazine reflects on the AT’s history and features essays on the experience of some of it those highly connected to it.  The essays prompted me to ask myself, “Why?”  This is my answer.

For me the AT is not some romantic ideal.  I don’t go there to find myself or heal from hurt.  Instead, it represents a kindred community and an open-ended opportunity to rake, pound, shovel, and make sawdust.

Selfless service has been the central ethos of my life.  It began as a family value, was reinforced by my military service and yet again at the culmination of my career by the very purpose of the Corporation for National and Community service, the parent of AmeriCorps.

Community service as a post retirement mission was a given.  My lifelong love affair with nature, backpacking and endurance athletics led naturally to the Appalachian Trail which runs less than an hour from my house.

I thought the best way to prepare for my, then pending, 2,200 mile AT thru hike should include involvement in service to the trail, a deposit in the karma account.

Two months after retiring I was cleaning waterbars, clipping vegetation and the other tasks novice maintainers do.  By the end of that summer, building log structures and stonework had been added to my rookie resume.  I was hooked.

Later, that thru hike proved to me the priceless value of those who lend their muscle, money and intellect to preserving and protecting trails.  Mother Nature can easily reclaim her ground if we don’t take care of it.

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Since scaling Katahdin I’ve been privileged to clear blowdowns, empty privy compost bins, be a ridgerunner, and serve in leadership roles.

The selfless example of the countless volunteers with whom I’ve been privileged to work is the beating heart of this experience.  Some have been showing up for decades.  Many drive hours just to get to where they’re volunteering.  These givers stand in sharp contrast to the takers in our society.

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No one volunteers for the pay.  Everyone does it for the camaraderie and satisfaction of knowing their effort matters.  Their example keeps me coming back.

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A successful thru hike and years of hiking with our ridgerunners have allowed me to witness the evolution of trail culture. Change is inevitable, driven by the advent of lighter equipment, new technology, social media, and the march of new generations.  It morphs a little each year, but the underlying spirit of the community remains constant.  All told, the AT offers an amazing place to serve and do.

Sisu

The End is Near

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Shennandoah National Park and Annapolis Rock Maryland, October 22 – 23, 2021 —  It’s that time again. In the park the end of the trail crew season is in sight.  We have one more trip next month.  In Maryland time expires for the last ridgerunner standing.

In the mean time, the AT section on the south side of Compton Peak, for which I have been responsible and now shared by Caroline, needs a lot of work before the ground freezes.  A recent high intensity storm literally wiped out some of the erosion control structures.

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A Virginia Conservation Corps crew rebuilt the upper two thirds, but the lower third, which is sandy like Saudi Arabia, was completely silted up.  If we don’t get it done before the ground freezes, mother nature herself will rebuild it over the winter.  We may not appreciate her work come spring.

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Meanwhile, the Hoodlums divided into two parties.  One was dispatched to Jeremy’s Run, a serpentine blowdown factory featuring a number of wet-feet stream crossings.

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Jeremy’s Run is located in a federally designated wilderness area meaning only traditional tools may be used.  Photo by Ruth Stornetta via Facebook.

The other group continued to work on the rebuild of the AT on the north side of Compton Peak.  I’m told we have surpassed 700 hours of volunteer labor on this project so far this year.  Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll git ‘er finished in November.

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The Hoodlums at Compton split their labor.  One group continued to repair and replace waterbars and check dams at the bottom of the mountain.  This trail is one of the most popular in the park featuring a nice viewpoint and a unique columnar basalt formation at the summit.  It’s also the first time hikers can be on the AT from the north (Front Royal) entry station.

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The work party I joined was assigned to finish the stone staircase near the top of the mountain, so that’s the bulk of the story we’re telling today.

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The first thing you do is find a large rock, one that will stay put and heavy enough to resist bears checking for lunch underneath.

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Step two is to dig a hole to put it in.  We use pick handles to measure the size of both rock and hole.

Then you have to get the rock to where you want it to be.  The rocks are hard to move because they are too big for people to pick them up, the terrain is lumpy with other rocks, and they are awkward.

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Watch the fingers and toes!

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Then you have to set it and test for wobble.  We broke off the piece that stuck out.

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In the interim, the hikers keep coming.  It was a picture perfect day and the park was jammed.

The number of hikers passing through can hinder progress.  We give them priority except when we’re doing something that could be a safety problem for them.

Rinse and repeat to create more steps.

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We finished early enough that Caroline and I could clear three blowdowns on the AT between Compton parking and the north park boundary.   This was the most magnificent of them all.

This large ash likely fell during a wind storm Thursday before last.  There are many reasons you don’t want to near one of these trees when they come down.  This is not the first time a branch has been driven so deeply into the trail tread that we couldn’t get it out.  Had to cut it off.

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Done.

A day earlier I helped the ridgerunner decommission the Annapolis Rock caretaker site for the winter. Thanks to REI for donating the tent.

When leaves begin to fall so does the caretaker tent at Annapolis Rock. The autumn continues, but the ridgerunner season ends. It’s the saddest day of the year for me. 

To date we’ve had more than 30 ridgerunners since I became responsible for the program.  They are special people who join a long line of others who have selflessly helped protect and preserve the AT which, in and of itself, is a national treasure. But there’s a lot more.  In our area alone, it runs through three national parks, one state forest, five state parks and a couple of wildlife conservation areas.

Sisu

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

The page turns.

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2021 PATC Ridgeerunners absent Sara at the Blackburn Trail Center on Aug. 26.  L to R:  Witt Wisebram, me, Chris Bowley, Darrel Decker, Kaela Wilber, and Branden Laverdiere.

Shenandoah National Park (mostly) August 26 – September 14, 2021 —  Come Labor Day the summer chapter in our trail story ends and the page turns toward autumn.  The cast of characters is down to one.

When the five o’clock whistle announces the Labor Day weekend wind down, the clock runs out for five of our six ridgerunners.  For them it’s time for next steps.  Two have taken seasonal work with the mid-Atlantic AT boundary monitoring team.  They check surveyor’s monuments to ensure that the bench marks and the witness trees are still there and search for encroachment on federal land.  One headed for Vermont’s Long Trail and there bumped into the ridgerunner who had her job in 2016!  Small world.  Witt returns to endurance running.

Branden is the last man standing, at least until Halloween.  Until then, he’ll patrol Maryland’s 42 miles during the week and spend weekends caretaking at Annapolis Rock.

This year’s team was particularly noteworthy for their dedication, teamwork, innovation, and extra effort.  Everyone associated with them will miss their enthusiasm and presence.

Meanwhile a lot happened before the story ended.

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Chris reported this rat’s nest on the AT in the middle of the north district.

I had time to kill while waiting for Chris to catch up and swamp for me.  Sawyers are not allowed to saw without an assistant – to call 911 when we screw up.  That gave me  time to recon the blowdown and develop a plan of attack.  Along the way I was saddened to discover that my favorite tree in the park had passed.

I first discovered it on a foggy walk in April 2013.  Hikers spend more time looking down than up in order to keep from tripping on the ever present rocks and roots.  In the fog that day, the old oak startled me looking very ominous, reminding me of the Whomping Willow in the Harry Potter series.  I’ve loved it ever since.  Soon we’ll be sawing up its bits and parts and nature and gravity slowly reclaim it.

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Chris’s did a great job using his folding saw to clear as much as possible to make it easier for hikers to pass.

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Chris acted as the swamper and moved most of the pieces out of the way.

The rest was a simple matter of converting gas to noise by chopping the thing up from left to right.  Now it’s history.  Elapsed time:  10 minutes thanks to the recon.

Is that it?  No!  There’s more.

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You stood tall next to the AT at Beahms Gap until you succumbed to the emerald ash borer.  Now you’ve got to go.  Since you can’t do it on your own, Mr. Stihl will help.

There’s a teaching point here.  Note how the tree is lying across the trail.  What you cannot see and neither could I is the tree’s crown.  There was too much vegetation in the way.  Here’s what happened:

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The part of the trunk on the left side of the photo should not be expected to rise.  The tree was once very tall and the majority of its weight was across another blowdown parallel to the trail.  That blowdown acted as a fulcrum allowing the trunk to rise when cut.  Once in the air I could see clearly what happened.

This is not particularly dangerous.  We are trained to watch for possibilities like this.  Nevertheless, the day you think you’ve mastered the art of bucking blowdowns, you should think again.

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Another blowdown in the history books.

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The next stop was dropping my friend Crissy at a central Virginia trailhead.  She’s walking 500 miles before moving to Colorado to be with her father who is ill.  I’ll join her in a couple of weeks to hike the last half.

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You’d think there would be enough nature on the trails, but noooooo. Backyard buck is chowing down on the landscaping to build strength for the mating season.  Note the cat in the chair.

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While the deer was destroying the flowers, the guard cat could not care less.

Next steps:  Tomorrow brings trail work with an all-woman Virginia Conservation Corps crew followed by the Hoodlums annual instructional workshop on trail maintenance.

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

I love this job!

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Shenandoah National Park, Hoodlums Work Trip, Saturday, July 17, 2021 — If variety is the spice of life, any break from the drudgery of policing up trash, cleaning privies, camouflage noncomplient campsites, breaking up fire rings, and taking notes adds to the flavor of the ridgerunner experience.

We always invite our ridgerunners to join trail maintenance activity. It breaks up their routine and helps them learn more about what it takes to keep our hiking trails open and serviceable.

It was early on Saturday morning when I waved to Sara at the Gravel Spring parking lot where we were to rendezvous and join some Hoodlums to work on the two-and-a-half-mile Pass Mountain Trail. The trail spans the distance between the Pass Mountain Hut and the park boundary at Hwy. 211. We would be joined by ridgerunner Chris Bowley and fellow Hoodlum Greg Foster.

Our job was to clear 16 reported blowdowns while another group of four would chop weeds overgrowing the trail. Since the trail is located in a designated wilderness area, only muscle powered tools are allowed.

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On the way to meet the others at the Panorama parking lot, we chainsawed this blowdown which we had left in this condition two weeks earlier.

From Panorama we spotted a car at the bottom of the trail at Hwy. 211; then shuttled up the Pass Mountain Hut access road so we could work down hill thereby saving energy with a gravity assist.

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From time to time, team ridgerunner took on team Hoodlum in the crosscut classic.  Let me tell you a secret, the old guys have much better technique.  This wasn’t our first rodeo.  The ridgerunners got to do something that you don’t see or do every day and they got pretty good at it.

Crosscut saws are incredibly efficient. That efficiency helped build this country. This particular saw was purchased by my grandfather in 1945. It works as well as the day it left the Simonds factory in Fitchburg, Mass. Simonds has been in the cutting tool business since 1832.

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This 14-inch ash was the last large blowdown we found. After this one, there were a couple of smaller ones.  By the time we got this far, lightning was cracking all around us as we hurried to get off the mountain. 

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Most sawyers really don’t like clearing the smaller logs.  They live for the big honkers that present a challenge and bragging rights.  When I saw this tree, my morale shot sky high.  This would make us sweat, but it would be fun.  Instead it was more than a match.  The yellow arrow is the reason why. 

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This was a huge tree.  The main trunk was more than 36 inches in diameter before it split into four large trunks.  At some point before the tree fell, a combination of ice and wind probably bent over the trunk designated by the arrow.  As nature would have it, the bent over trunk was now vertical.   At 12 inches, it was big and heavy enough to behave in unpredictable ways once we started bucking the blowdown.

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It took a lot of force to bend this live tree.

We pondered what to do before deciding to lop away the poison ivy and leave the tree for the park service professionals.  The upright trunk put this blowdown well beyond my experience and expertise.  Better safe than sorry was top of mind.

Yesterday the park service professional trail crew managed to cut the higher trunk blocking the trail.  The other, featuring the upright, was left in place as too dangerous under the circumstances.  At least now it will be easier to climb over.

By the way, the count for the day was a little off.  We cleared 19 blowdowns and left the one.  That may be a record.

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We finished around 2:30 p.m.  With deep hunger and time to spare we drove to the Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen in Sperryville. Their wood fired pizza oven makes tasty pizza.

For Sara and me, the day’s total was 20 blowdowns, but wait!  There was one more waiting for us at the Indian Run Maintenance Hut where we spent the night.

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We ate snacks, sipped beer and listened to the rain patter on our tents.  The reflector fire kept the bugs away while we reminisced about the days events.

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The three of us went to Sara’s favorite restaurant for breakfast.  Shall I say the apple doughnuts are yummy?  They are.

After dropping Sara off at Beahms Gap to contiunue her patrol, Chris and I schlepped a chainsaw and a string trimmer up to AT section I maintain on Compton Peak.  I weeded and cut logs.  Chris camouflaged a new noncompliant campsite that is, ironically, 200 yards from a legal one.

With that, the weekend work was done.  Blowdown total:  Twenty one.  The sense of accomplishment:  Priceless.  That why I Iove this job.

Sisu

 

Sara (Tidewalker) Saves the Day

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Sara Leibold and the obligatory north boundary photo.

Shenandoah National Park, July 1 – 5, 2021 — They say luck is when preparation meets opportunity.  We recently found ourselves needing a little luck when a very disappointed Joanne Renn reported that an injured knee would keep her from being the park’s midsummer ridgerunner. 

The second ridgerunner doubles our coverage when the number of midsummer visitors swells around the Fourth of July holiday.  It’s also when the last of the northbound thru hikers arrive.  In some years the so-called “trouble bubble” also drifts in.  They are the crowd that cares more about partying than packing out their mess.  In any case, the extra hands made a difference.

We could get by with one ridgerunner, but it would not be ideal.  The amount of litter and other trash would be harder to manage.  With just one ridgerunner on patrol, the huts and camping areas are visited once every two weeks.  Two ridgerunners allow weekly coverage of the entire AT within the park. 

So, there we were …

As it happened, Sara Leibold – 2016 PATC ridgerunner in Northern Virginia – was hiking from Rockfish to Harpers Ferry with a friend she made on her 2011 AT thru hike. Better yet, she had time to give before her next planned activity.  That’s the definition of preparation and opportunity.  We offered.  She accepted as luck would have it.

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Sara is a worldwide trekker.  Her hike in Nepal is my favorite.  She was a varsity NCAA student athlete at the University of Alabama (crew).  In addition to her hiking adventures, she has rowed the Mississippi River from the Twin Cities to New Orleans and has plans for bigger and better trips ahead.  She also is one of the most agreeable people I have ever met.  It’s a joy to have her back on the PATC ridgerunner team, if only for a month.

Sara started on July 1.  After the obligatory orientation and equipment issue at the backcountry office, we toured beautiful downtown Luray, stopped by the Open Arms hostel, and got a bite at Skyland. 

On July 2 we spotted her car at Big Meadows, drove to park mine 50 miles northward at Compton Gap and started her patrol with a check of the Indian Run Maintenance Hut and a trip to the north boundary kiosk.  From there it was on to Gravel Spring where the grand total population for the night was five including us!

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Along the way we clipped a lot of vines and picked up enough trash to slow us down from making our ETA.  On North Marshall Sara had to extend her itinerary with the dispatch center which tracks ridgerunner whereabouts and progress.

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We spent a lot of time on this patrol documenting and geo-locating campsites that are noncompliant with park backcountry regulations. The proliferation of these sites is profound thanks to the Guthook App and other social media that enable hikers to readily share their locations.

Backcountry rules excerpt:

Know how to choose the right campsite.

Allow time in your trip to look for a legal, comfortable, and safe place to camp before dark. It is strongly recommended that you camp at pre-existing campsites; these campsites have been created and established by prior visitor use and are not posted, signed, or designated by the Park. Remember, good campsites are found, not made! Campsites must be at least:

  • 10 yards away from a stream or other natural water source.
  • 20 yards away from any park trail or unpaved fire road.
  • 50 yards away from another camping party or no camping post sign.
  • 50 yards away from any standing buildings and ruins including stone foundations, chimneys, and log walls.
  • 100 yards away from a hut, cabin, or day-use shelter.
  • 1/4-mile away from any paved road, park boundary, or park facility (i.e. campgrounds, picnic grounds, visitor centers, lodges, waysides, or restaurants).

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It  might also be possible that enjoying the views slowed us down a bit.

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As those who read these pages know, ridgrunners do a lot of things including reporting blowdowns.  They file a weekly report on a smartphone app complete with photos of what they find.

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Weeding is the most important trail maintenance activity.  Weeds are the source of deer ticks which spread Lyme disease as this report by Dr. Karl Ford indicates:  AT Lyme Disease Study

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This is what a well-weeded trail should look like.

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Ridgerunners also clear or trim blowdowns.  This one was near the Overall Run trailhead.

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Ridgerunners carry 12-inch folding saws that can help prevent erosive social trails from forming. 

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Now we have an easy step-over.  The main trunk is 8 inches, too large for a 12-inch folding saw.  The Hoodlums will chew this one up with a chainsaw next weekend.

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This one was easily dispatched with the saws on hand.

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Trash is always an issue.  This is the Gravel Spring tent stake collection. 

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If every responsible hiker would carry a bag and pick up trash, especially the TP tulips, Mother Nature would reward you with less unsightly mess.  We did bury two piles of human feces.

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Ridgerunners also stop at every hut and clean the privies along the way.  They have keys to the tool boxes and combos for the privy boxes.

The berries are almost edible.  That’s a treat for the bears and a caution for hikers.  Keep your distance from a feeding bear.  It will defend its food source.

After Northern Virginia’s infamous Rollercoaster, the Shenandoah views are a treat. 

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The deer were ubiquitous.  But, I’ve hiked nearly 100 miles in the park this season and have driven twice that many and have yet to see a bear!  Scat and shredded logs, yes.  Bears that are responsible for the signs, no.

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One of the most important things ridgerunners do is talk to hikers.  This hiker lives in the D.C. area, but was originally an active member of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club.  She gave us feedback on navigating the AT reroute at Skyland.

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Mother Nature.  Please put your dog on a leash.

One of the more onerous ridgerunner duties is to ask people to keep their dogs leashed.  The rule is necessary.  A ridgerunner was bitten three years ago.  About the same time a bear killed a dog on Dickey Ridge. 

The wildlife has the right to live without being harassed by dogs.  Moreover, Rover lives on carpet and grassy lawn.  Domestic dogs are ill-equipped to tangle with wildlife – skunks, raccoons, porcupines, snakes, bears and all the rest.  Owners always say, “My dog is well-behaved and under voice control.”  That’s true until the prey instinct takes over and the dog gives chase.

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We shared a wonderful patrol from the north boundary to Big Meadows.  It truly is about the smiles, not the miles.

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Here we are driving from Big Meadows in Sara’s car to mine at Compton Gap.  She thought she her car was unique in its configuration for sleeping.  She was pleasantly surprised to learn that Kaela Wilber in Maryland and other ridgerunners have done the same.  It was, I  must say, the most unique car ride I’ve had in awhile.

Welcome back Sara and thank you.

Sisu

What Pee Buddy Really Means

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***Trigger Warning.  Normally this is a family blog.  I avoid some topics and euphemistically discuss others.  This one is different.  This blog post contains explicit photos and discussion.  Fair warning.***

Shenandoah National Park and the Great Outdoors, June 19, 2021 — We have seen the future and it’s ugly.  The barbarians are at the gates and they are overrunning our public parks and forests.  Since the inception of the pandemic, leaders and others have urged the public to visit nature – national parks and forests, state parks and forests, regional and municipal parks, and all the rest.

People who were cooped up indoors were more than happy to oblige.  They swarmed the beauty spots in droves, and they’re still coming in inordinate numbers with no end in sight 

Buckle up.  For every action there is a reaction. Two national parks have initiated a reservation system.  No more spontaneous trips for them.  Other parks have exceeded capacity and temporarily limited access.  It follows that other popular places may have to follow suit and adopt similar policies.

Hoards are coming to the parks, forests, trails and the backcountry. They are ignorant and unprepared about Leave No Trace ethical practices.  Leave No Trace was created to minimize the impact of the backpacking boom in the 70s and to help protect newly designated wilderness areas.  Learn more about leave No Trace:  http://www.lnt.org

Those of us who help maintain these spaces want you to come, but we want you to come educated and prepared to minimize your impact on these precious resources.  We would hope that you could respect nature and your fellow visitors as well.

 When you do something for a long time, you get jaded.  You’ve seen it all. Right about then, a surprise bites you in the bum.

I found something new near the trail Saturday while we were there to clear blowdowns on the AT.  It was a “PEE-BUDDY” feminine urinary funnel.  Feminine urinary funnels are hardly new.  Shewee, pStyle, Freshette, and others have been around for more than 20 years.  They are made of silicone and are meant to last a long time.  You can do an internet search if you want to learn more.

What’s different about PEE-BUDDY is that it is disposable.  Thus it was trail trash when I found it, and that’s the problem. The woman who used it dropped it when she was finished.  Did she think her trash would make the trail more attractive?  If she anticipated the call of nature and brought her PEE-BUDDY in the first place, should she not have anticipated proper disposal?  Who did she think was going to pick it up? 

Like lady, handling an object upon which you’ve urinated is just what this volunteer wanted to do.  Made my day.  I won’t mention other feminine products and by products we also regularly find.  But, I’ll let you in on a secret.  Just as maintainers have nick names for the TP you drop after urinating, we call tampon applicators “Beach whistles.”  Just so you know.

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Opps.  Forgot someone forgot their stove and a plastic bottle.

For one, my arms are getting tired lugging trash off the trail.  That trash includes nearly anything you can imagine from TP tulips, wrappers, bottles, cans, dirty baby diapers, uneaten food, and discarded gear of all sorts from tents and sleeping bags to ill-fitting boots to wet clothing.  Part of this is what I signed up for, but it’s getting worse.

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Trash bag contents.

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Regular readers of this space hardly ever see a photo of a ridgerunner or maintainer without a bag of trash.  We anticipate ignorant and unprepared people coming out.  It is in part why we’re there.  But it’s at another level since the pandemic.

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Grafitti and tagging are multiplying.  I imagine that if it’s cool to tattoo your body, marking Mother Nature seems like the right thing to do.  A lot of this activity is not friendly to the families who also love to bring their children out to enjoy the outdoors. 

Let’s not let an opportunity go to waste. Finding an international orange phallus painted on a tree certainly presents an opening for parents to discuss the birds and bees with their young children.

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Fire pits seem to attract trash.  Ninety nine percent of what people put in a fire pit does not burn!  Note the trash bag.  It’s full of burned cans, foil and even cigarette filters.

This has been ugly.  I didn’t show you feces and other gross stuff, but it’s there — right on the trail.

Maybe the disposable urinary funnel was the straw that broke the camel’s back and launched this rant.  All we need is another disposable item for the trash bag.

Everyone involved is redoubling their efforts to educate the public on Leave No Trace so that they can recreate responsibly.  The PEE-BUDDY is a symptom of a larger challenge.  Regardless, if the numbers continue to rise, it might not matter.  You might need reservations.  If I had my way, you’d have to pass an on-line Leave No Trace course in order to make them.

From Axios News:

1 coming reality: Reservations for open spaces
Visitors at Adirondack Mountain Reserve. Photo: Julie Jacobson/AP

The days of the spontaneous national park road trip may be on their way out, thanks to surging crowds and overwhelmed park rangers.

The big picture: “This year has been over the top with new visitors who really are not educated as to how to appropriately recreate,” Joette Langianese told AP.

Between the lines: Reservation systems for park entry are in place at Rocky Mountain and Yosemite National Parks, with the prospect of more. Arches National Park in Utah is on track to have its busiest year ever, causing the park to close its gates over 80 times so far in 2021, AP notes.

Sisu

Summer Specials

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Appalachian Trail, June 14, 2021 — Trail life is more than hiking, snagging trash, and cleaning out fire pits. Occasionally you meet people who can tell you stories and celebrate life.

The trail also has a cast of characters.  No, this isn’t Gandalf though he would be a good stunt double.  He has been maintaining Pinefield hut for 30 years with an list of stories long enough to put Amazon’s inventory to shame.

You will recall Chris Bowley started in mid-April.  Sunday he helped the Crapper Crew empty the compost bin at Pinefield Hut in Shenandoah National Park.  He also cleaned the trash out of the fire pit.  All in a day’s work.

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Flash forward to last night.  One of our ridgerunner almuni was in the area.  Kiki was one of our 2018 Maryland ridgerunners and ridgerunner alumni are royalty.

Kiki Dehondt and Kiera Johnston are recently engaged to be married.  Certainly a celebration was in order.

Witt and I cooked hamburgers for them at the Blackburn Trail Center.  We served the burgers with champagne and craft beer as a special treat.  More valuable from a thru hiker’s perspective, they got to take hot indoor showers!

Kiki and Kiera have known each other for 10 years.  Ironically, Kiera was also known as Kiki when she was a child.  Just yell “Kiki!”  They’ll both come running.

I was somewhat surprised to learn that thru hiking was her idea. They’ll soon be in Maryland where surely Kiki will introduce Kiera to all the friendly rocks he met when he was a ridgerunner there.

On deck:  A ridgerunner alum is about to make an encore appearance.  Stay tuned.

Sisu

The Ridgerunners are at Full Strength

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Brandon can drive with his eyes closed.

On the Appalachian Trail in Southern Pennsylvania and Northern Maryland, May 29 – June 6 2021 — Memorial Day weekend broke windy, cold and wet, the trifecta of misery for those who tramp around the woods with their house on their back. 

Nobody likes to walk in the rain when the temperatures are hovering around 40 and the wind is popping.  It is a recipe for hypothermia at worst and guaranteed discomfort at best. 

Branden and Kaela shuttled me to Pennsylvania’s Pine Grove Furnace State Park.  The park is the northern boundary of the 240 AT miles that the Potomac Appalachian Tail Club maintains.  There I would meet Darrel Decker and we would hike southbound to the Mason-Dixon Line where his responsibilities terminate. 

After leaving Darrel, I planned to hike solo another 20 miles to my car at Washington Monument State Park in Maryland.  From there, after a zero day, I’d return to rendezvous at Raven Rock Shelter with Kaela who would be hiking in from the Mason-Dixon Line at Pen-Mar Park.  We would then hike south to where my car was stashed. The net AT mileage for me would be about 80.

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This is the official halfway sign between Georgia and Maine.  When I reached this point in 2014 I recall my emotions deflating as I realized that after months of punishing effort I was only half done.  By then I understood the enormity of repeating the challenge.  Pulling up my socks and getting my head in order for another long march was not a small challenge.  In that single moment, I understood why so many people give up and quit.

Darrel is a repeat customer.  He was a ridgerunner in the Michaux State Forest for the club in 2009, 10 and 11.  That experience and time between service is rare and valuable.  He will be able to tell us what’s changed since he was last here.  One thing he noticed right away is the expanded sprawl of tent sites associated with the shelters. 

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Veteran ridgerunners know how to find and haul trash.  He found a bunch. 

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The rain was mostly light and intermittent.  The tread conditions were good though wet rocks are always slippery.

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Damp camp at Burch Run.  I like the patter of rain on my tent fly until it’s time to pack up a wet tent.

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Lunch break at a campsite.  Needless to say we found plenty of trash, especially in the fire pit.  It amazes me that people think that foil among other things is combustible.  Truth is that they don’t think.  They just do.

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Recording a blowdown on the smart phone app we use for reporting.  Not all of them are conveniently located next to a road.

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Quick stop to clean up the Rocky Mountain Shelters.  The sun was welcome; the cool weather even more so.

Spent the might drying out on a tent pad at Quarry Gap.  One young hiker was reminded of the Hansel and Gretel story.  This place was too good to be true, he reasoned.  Would the witch eat him?  I told him I thought he was safe because I heard that the Inkeeper had a freezer full of hikers left over from last year.

 

Tumbling Run.  Snoring or non-snoring.  Strictly “enforced.”

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The mountain laurel are ready to pop.

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Welcome trail magic at Old Forge picnic area courtesy of a former thru hiker.  I scarfed two hot dogs, a Gatorade and a bag of chips.

After our mid-morning snack we marched on to the Deer Lick Shelters and then to Pen-Mar where I continued northward and Darrel reversed course.

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Once across the border into Maryland, adjacent to the AT there is an municipal park known as a graffiti hot spot.  Not Banksy is spreading up and down the AT which is spitting distance away.  Maintainers will remove this with a product called Elephant Snot which essentially is jellied acetic acid formulated to eat spray paint.

I rarely get to hike solo.  Hiking with someone tends to focus attention on conversation and away from nature.  Hiking alone tunes the senses to your surroundings.  Also, as someone who maintains trails, I pay a lot of attention to the tread, weeding and developing problems.

This year I’ve noticed hikers by-passing even the smallest inconvenient rocks, rises and roots.  They are creating social trail by-passes in the process.  It matters because erosion can develop and what is supposed to be a narrow pathway can become a dirt autobahn in no time.  We have ways of deterring social trail development with stacked rip rap or brush.  Just another job to put on the task list.

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Of course the cicadas are out in force.  I can attest that the world’s largest orgy is LOUD!  Of note, some areas are chock full of them while others have none at all.  Can’t come up with any correlation as to why.

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After four days with Darrel and one by myself, I welcomed a zero day with Sophie the shedding lap cat.  Zero stands for zero miles hiked, by the way.

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Here we are, off the grid, hiking to Raven Rock from Wolfsville Rd.  The waving fiddleheads were soothing in the rare absence of cacophonous cicada pick up lines blaring from the branches overhead. 

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No, that’s not an IV line.  It’s a water purification system.

Kaela struggled into Raven Rock hauling 30 lbs. of trash gift wrapped in a cheap green plastic camping tarp she found.  She was daunted by the prospect of dragging that mess another 30 miles.  She earned her ridgerunner challenge coin with this effort. I was reminded of my own travails as a Georgia ridgerunner where similar trash hauls happened.

This scenario is exactly why I like to hike with new ridgerunners.  Call it OJT, spring training or what you will, the old guy knows a few tricks like the one where you take the trash to the nearest road and cache it to be picked up later.  The spring was on the way to the road, so when we went to get water, the green tarp and its contents came along for the ride.  I picked it up two days later and the dumpster is its new destiny. 

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Occasionally a little adventure.  We cautioned a couple of very tired and reluctant thru hikers to relocate their tent which was pitched next to three dead trees.  With high wind gusts in the overnight forecast, we were in no mood to medevac people in the middle of the night.  We shared our concerns with the Maryland Park Service which can fell the potential widowmakers.

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We ate dinner with four lovely ladies from the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club who are hiking the AT in sections.  Their accents, smacking of cheesy grits and buttermilk biscuits, reminded me of friends it turned out we share in common. After momma nature turned out the lights, they built a fire and talked well into the night.  When I got up at six thirty, they had already beaten feet.  You go girls!

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People like to camp at an interesting rock formation about a half mile south of Raven Rock.  In Maryland dispersed camping is illegal so we have to “clean it up.” 

Three years ago Kiki Dehondt and I tossed about a million rocks into crevasses between boulders thinking we could eliminate the fire rings.  (Kiki and his fiance will appear in this space soon.) 

We were right and wrong.  Now the campers build fires without the benefit of a fire ring.  We bagged the ashes and scattered them in the woods before covering the area with leaf litter.

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1960s vintage bike.

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Water and snack break.

When we reached the Cowall shelter, I noticed Kaela was really hungry.  Since my car was a quarter of a mile away and knowing the town of Smithburg was just down hill from there, I offered to buy Kaela , whose trail name is Pizza, an eponymous lunch.  We couldn’t find an open pizza place so we refueled at a Mennonite grocery and deli.  After hiker food, it was glorious.

Next I dropped Kaela to finish her patrol; then headed to Devil’s Race Course to snatch to cached trash and on to home.

In training we tell the ridgerunners that they are about to meet the dark side of the trail.  That side has many forms from the often bureaucratic to the rarely malevolent.  In addition to help search for a missing hiker who ultimately turned up in a Gettysburg bar, Darrel and I encountered a hiker who said he’d been bitten by an aggressive dog at the Pine Knob shelter in Maryland.  He said he would report the bite to the National Park Service AT incident line: 866-677-6677.  Later Kaela and I found the dog.  It was not friendly and the owner was unconcerned about it.  We moved on and notified the the right folks.

Protecting food from bears is important.  A bear conditioned to human food becomes a safety problem and sometimes must be put down.  “A fed bear is a dead bear,” the saying goes. 

I’ve previously written about bear canisters and Kevlar sacks.  I noticed the Georgia ladies were using Ursacks.  The one depicted is properly tied to a tree.  The problem is that bears can always crush your food and sometimes they can get in. 

Fortunately every shelter in the PATC section has a bear pole, bear box or cables to help hikers protect their food.

The forest is a magical place.  You never know what you’ll find be they witches, beasts or fairies. 

Sisu