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

Hoodlums Trail Maintenance Workshop

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Shenandoah National Park, September 16 – 19, 2021 — Trail maintainers don’t grow on trees.  We make ’em.  The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club has a good track record of teaching the variety of skills volunteers must know to do the needed work; in the right way, and safely – everything from the use of traditional tools and chainsaws to rigging.

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For more than 30 years, the North District Hoodlums trail crew has organized a skill development workshop in September.  The workshop is designed to train people, from fresh first-timers to those with advanced skills, for the challenges they can expect to encounter doing trail work.  We can accept up to 30 participants.

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For sure, trail work isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t an amateur sport either.  The necessary tasks, techniques and procedures are spelled out in manuals and policies.  Knowing what to do and where and how to do it are important if your goal is to protect and preserve the physical trail itself.

Above all is safety.  We use heavy tools, sharp axes and pruning saws, rock hammers, and chainsaws.  We lift heavy logs and rocks.  We skew older.  While we are covered by workman’s comp; it’s best not to test its limits.

Workshop preparation starts a year in advance when the workshop coordinator reserves the space in the Mathews Arm campground.  S/he reviews the lessons from the previous year and discusses them with the various leaders within the Hoodlums crew.  During the summer with September on the horizon people apply, projects are identified, and project leaders appointed.

Several of us came up early to help split firewood, collect and organize the needed tools, and generally help our fearless leader.

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Photo by Mike Gergely

For the past 15 years Mark Nebut, who is a professional chef, and his brother and sometimes other family members have cooked scrumptious meals to which we look forward with great anticipation. Note the Coleman propane coffee pot.  This is big time glamping for us.

Other brother Dave Nebut recently took charge of the workshop as our organizer in chief.

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Photo by Mike Gergely

We divided into three work groups.  The advanced and novice groups continued our summer project on Compton Peak.  I led the basic (first timers) group on Pass Mountain.  Ironically, we were working on the first and last mountains in the north district.

The basic group totaled six including me.  We gathered at the Beahms Gap parking lot where we introduced the group to the tools we’d be using and the work we’d be doing.  First the work was demonstrated, then the group members each attempted to replicate the results themselves.

We cleaned or replaced 30 check dams and 24 waterbars.

We also built a rolling grade dip.  That’s a waterbar (drain) that is made of a dirt swale instead of logs or stones.

All told we racked up six hours worth of high energy work which was emblematic of this crew’s enthusiasm.  It was a fun day.

What do you do after a day of hard work?  What else?  Gather around a campfire and share stories.  We made a decent dent in the wood pile.

Sunday featured a half day of classes on how to build a rolling grade dip, the use of string trimmers and swing blades, and on crosscut saws.  The lunch that followed capped the day.

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The Thursday before the workshop was my lucky day.  An Appalachian Conservation Corps (ACC) crew needed a project and I had one ready to go.

The section I maintain sustained some serious damage from a microburst storm right after Hurricane Ida.  The sandy soil had silted up the water control structures.  Immediate repairs were needed to prevent severe erosion.  My Hoodlum colleague Cindy Ardecki helped lead the project.

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The ACC crew is an all-woman AmeriCorps group composed of recent college graduates in subjects such as forest ecology, bio science, environmental science and the like.  Listening to their conversations was fascinating.  Most of them joined the ACC for the experience and help deciding on the direction they wanted to pursue for their careers.

The crew cleaned and repaired waterbars, built rolling grade dips and cleaned and replaced check dams.  Their work will make a huge difference.

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Beauty and the Beast

Breaking news:  The section I’ve been maintaining since 2015 now has a co-maintainer.  Caroline Egli joined the Hoodlums this summer.  She’s eager to learn more about trail maintenance and I can use the help.

After the workshop we hiked what is now our section and discussed the recent work and the work that needs to be done before winter.  For example, once the leaves are down, the waterbars have to be raked out to keep them open.  I normally do this on Black Friday.  Beats shopping.

Otherwise, most times you’ll find us working either the Friday before or the Sunday in conjunction with Hoodlums work trips.

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Once in awhile the views from Skyline Drive are simply spectacular.

Next up:  A hike of the PATC AT 240 from Rockfish Gap to Pine Grove Furnace State Park, PA.  It starts Friday.  The purpose:  Put a dent in the COVID 15 muffin top.

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

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

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

Have Backpack. Will Travel.

The Appalachian Trail, March and April to date, 2021 —  We’re back in the saddle.  It’s been nearly 20 months since the eponymous sound of my Jet Boil stove signaled that morning coffee was close at hand.  From now until when, subject to the inconvenience of pandemic protocols, we’re in the backcountry in full force patrolling, building, digging, and sawing.  The ridgerunners, the North District Hoodlums and the trail maintainers are riding again.

Now it’s been a minute since the last blog post.  There’s a lot of catching up to do.  The excuse is simple, WordPress decided to reject the original file format in which the newest Apple phones store their images.  It’s taken awhile to figure out a relatively convenient way to make it work.  Meanwhile the other social media automatically convert the files and everyone is none the wiser.  If Word Press can’t figure this out and become a little more customer friendly, I’m moving to a new platform.

April 1, aka April Fools Day, kicks off the year.  Job one is establishing the caretaker site at Annapolis Rock, a beautacious overlook and campground just off the AT.  First we pitch the tent, graciously donated by REI.  Then we string the tarps.  They help protect the tent from UV and the picnic table from sun and rain.

Once the caretaker site is established, we walk the area for orientation and OJT.  In the beginning of the season, there’s always noncompliance issues to fix including dismantling fire rings, picking up a load of trash and cleaning the privies.

This humongous fire ring is the largest I’ve ever seen.  It’s at group site 1.  The sign on the tree says “No  fires.” No irony intended.

Branden has muscles!

Gone.   Ash has been shoveled and scattered in the woods.

I’ve been volunteering to do this job since 2015.  That experience has taught me to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.  This act vandalism was truly upsetting.  This was a beautiful grassy picnic spot just south of the main overlook.  Some people built a large fire and smashed their alcohol bottles on the rocks carpeting the space with small shards of broken glass.  It was a perfect area denial attack.  The amount and size of the shards are impossible to clean up.  It is no longer a place to spread your picnic blanket.  Of course the sign says no fires and no camping.

Here’s what really frosted my sense of humor.  The process of destruction cooked this environmentally valuable nonvenomous snake. I hope there is a special place in hell for people like the ones who did this.

The amount of trash was not bad for this time of year.  Fortunately the maintainer had been there within the previous month.

The next step in OJT is patrolling.  This hike covered the nine miles from Washington Monument State Park to Gathland State Park.  Of course there’s the ubiquitous trash haul.

Ridgerunner duties include sweeping out the shelters and tending the composting privies.  This time Branden is dispersing the “cone of deposition” which had risen nearly to seat level.  Glamorous job it ain’t.  Critical job it is.

Ridgerunners perform light trail maintenance.  In practice that means clipping vegetation which generally means chopping back thorny briars and berry vines. They also have a 12-inch folding saw which allows them to clear obstructions too small for chainsaws.

Large  blowdowns are photographed and geolocated in the FastField app.

In this case we cleared a path for hikers by removing small branches.  In concept we are trying to prevent errosive social trails from forming before a saw crew can address the big stuff.

We spent the night at the Crampton Gap Shelter.  Branden had not set up his new tent before.  It was not intuitive.  Let’s just say it took awhile.

Let’s call it dinner on a rock.  The best practice is to transfer freeze dry meals from their heavy and bulky packaging to freezer bags.  Freezer bags don’t melt or transfer a plastic taste to food.  The name of the meal is written on the outside along with the amount of water needed to rehydrate. No dishes to clean, zero risk of food poisoning, and very little trash to pack out.

Morning giddy up juice.

Humans tend to have common instincts and ridgerunners develop a sense where people hide trash.   They type of trash suggests an overnighter or a short stay by a homeless person.

Patrol complete.  That’s nine miles worth of trash.  The red object is a sleeping bag intended for a sleep over or possible summer car camping.  Clearly its owner didn’t think it was valuable enough to hike out.

The Shenandoah ridgerunner starts tomorrow.  Stay tuned for the next adventure.

Sisu

Garvey Shelter Vandalized

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The Appalachian Trail, February 28, 2021 —  Unfortunately everything that happens on the Appalachian Trail is not positive.  This is one of those stories.

Earlier this month a member of the Trail Dames hiking group planned a stop at the Ed Garvey shelter in southern Maryland.  In fact, it’s the first shelter in Maryland, just 6.3 miles north of Harpers Ferry, WV.  It is a popular spot frequented by local campers as well as long distance hikers/backpackers on the AT.

She was shocked by what she found.

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Someone had built a fire on the shelter’s lower sleeping deck.

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The fire burned through the deck doing considerable damage.  It was only thanks to luck that the shelter itself did not burn down.

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It’s possible that who ever built the fire also strung this tarp across the opening.  In some ways this is senseless.  There’s a very sheltered sleeping area on the upper level.

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She also found other detritus.

In addition to the damage to and evidence in the shelter, someone broke into the tool storage and took a couple of minor items.  Not much is ever stored near shelters for this reason.

What happened?  Was this caused by inexperienced people in competition for a Darwin Award?  Could it have been pure vandalism?  Could the damage have been caused by someone who is homeless?

The latter is most probable given the theft and the placement of the fire.  Many homeless suffer from mental illness or from drug/alcohol addiction.  They occupy shelters, intending to stay awhile, and tend to leave at least some of their belongings behind.  We may never know for sure.

The good news is that the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club maintainers in Maryland had the damage repaired within a couple of days after its discovery.

Edward B. Garvey is the shelter’s namesake.  More on Mr. Garvey at this link.

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Trail Design Workshop

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Determining the slope angle.

Shenandoah National Park, December 2 – 3, 2020 —  We gathered for our sustainable trails design, construction and rehabilitation field training in the Compton Gap parking lot where we engaged in initial introductions, orientation and safety talk. 

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We were leaders from the park staff and PATC who are involved with backcountry trails and the park’s historic legacy.

As each of us spoke in turn, the sharp wind assaulted our clothing like a rusty razor shaving a drunken sailor’s belly.  It attacked the tiny gaps, exploited thin layers, nipped exposed skin, and stung our nerve endings with the efficiency of a serial killer wielding an ice pick. 

Still, we focused on the subject at hand, sustainable design, restoration and maintenance of Shenandoah’s hiking trails. 

Did I mention that the wind chill was cold?

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After the preliminaries we crossed Skyline Dr. and began marching on the AT up the north side of Compton Peak.  The trek leads to a nice viewpoint to the west and to the east the best example of basalt columnar jointing in the park.  Needless to say this section of the trail is popular and receives a lot of traffic.

The route was originally built by the CCC and some of their stonework still stands although, after 80 years, is breaking down.  Our mission was to learn how to identify it and sustainably restore it for another generation to use.

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Brinnon Carter, Cultural Resource Program Manager, discussed CCC trail design.  Those who have hiked on the north side of Compton know the trail passes two very large boulders.  That, it turns out, didn’t happen by accident.

Along the way we discussed water/erosion management, design criteria including selecting ascending and descending grades and other design criteria such as the amount of traffic and two-way traffic considerations.  Most of this is not new, but the review fit the context of the primary purpose of the workshop which was to identify and preserve the CCC’s work.

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In the afternoon we walked to the north boundary kiosk discussing the merits of keeping the trail on the old roadbed and ways of aligning it for a more esthetic hiker experience.  Some Myron Avery’s old maps were informative. 

While Benton MacKaye envisioned the Appalachian Trail, it was Myron Avery who scouted the route and got it built.  He also was the founder of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  For more, click here.

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The stillness of the second day’s dawn at Thornton Gap was remarkable in contrast to day one.  While the ambient air temperatures were similar, the wind was elsewhere afflicting other people, and thankfully not us. 

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Stephanie passed out excellent homemade cookies to help fuel our climb to 3,300 foot high Mary’s Rock.  Info on Mary’s Rock here.

Our purpose on the climb was to examine the CCC’s crib walls and learn how people and nature have caused changes over the previous 80 years.  The question was how to catalogue, grade and monitor them for maintenance and restoration.  Climbing while masked didn’t prove to be a hardship.

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We stopped several places to look at examples of the CCC’s work and learned how to identify it and assess the condition.  Along the way we found two of these painted sticks abandoned at different places along the trail.  I brought one home to burn in my backyard fire pit.  Please, Leave No Trace!

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Lunch was pleasant absent the wind.  The program featured a well-known local comic.

After lunch we moved southward to the White Oak Canyon parking lot.  From there we examined the Skyland horse, Limber Lost and a bit of the White Oak Canyon trails.  The last is one of the busiest in the park.

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You can discuss the placement, effectiveness, merits and demerits of a waterbar ad infinitum. 

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Limberlost Trail is the only ADA handicapped accessible trail in the park.  We divided into groups and walked along entertaining discussion questions, the answers to which were debriefed to other groups.

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Once back in the parking lot we filled out a matrix informed by our group discussions.

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The workshop finished with each of us briefing back to the group what we had learned and its future application. Meanwhile there is a ton of CCC work to find, identify and catalogue.

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