The Great Blowdown Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love making sawdust!
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Sisu

Hoodlums 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

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

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.

Sisu Continue reading

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

A special crosscut returns to service.

EE5115FA-5804-4E6E-A8B1-75809FB250D8_1_201_aShenandoah National Park, Sunday, May 31 – Jim Grant was my grandfather.  He’s been gone for 42 years, but he lived again today.  No, Mr. Grant wasn’t reincarnated in the flesh.  His memory reawakened in the form of a newly restored four-foot crosscut saw he once owned.

It was there to tackle a huge blowdown on the Little Devils Stairs trail.  The objective was a long dead, 26-inch, double trunk tulip poplar.  Venus Foshay, my fellow Hoodlum trail crew member is responsible for that trail and she requested reinforcements.  Sam Keener and I answered her call.

Following our safety discussion, my grandpa’s precious saw bounced lightly on my shoulder as we headed down the Keyser Run fire road to the intersection with Little Devels Stairs.  Along the way, I thought deeply about what my grandfather meant to me.

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Me with my grandpa.

I imagined my grandfather hoisting that very same blade to his slender right shoulder.

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It would have rested on his black-and-red-checked Filson Mackinaw coat, steadied by is work-gnarled hands swaddled in his trademark deerskin mittens with the green woolen liners that I still have.

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The blowdown was a monster.

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The smaller trunk was broken off and offered an easy bottom bind cut.

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Sam won the trophy photo.

The larger trunk presented tricky top bind for a crosscut saw.  It would require two cuts.  Normally you can make reverse keystone cuts and roll the billet out of the middle.  In this case the proximity and angle of the root ball would force the billet to bind.  We knew we were in for an “Oh joy!” day.

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After amputating the smaller trunk, we applied muscle to the larger one.  To maintain safe social distance we used the saw in single sawyer mode and rotated as our arms tired.

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I have at least 10 wedges in my car.  I only brought three because the tree was site unseen.  We had to be creative to keep the kerf open.

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We sawed from both sides to keep the cut level.

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The “easy” part was over.  This is where the real battle began.  We thought we could lever out the billet with a log.  WRONG!

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While Venus hiked and drove back to the Piney River tool cache to get a couple of rock bars, Sam and I hiked to the bottom of the trail to clear a second blowdown.

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Social distancing was a problem all day.

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Little Devils Stairs is one of Shenandoah’s picture book hikes featuring several waterfalls, many creek crossing and lots of rugged scrambling.  She’s on the trail, by the way.  With this many rocks, I’m befuddled why the AT wasn’t routed through this canyon.

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Rock bars are all about brute force and ignorance.  It’s all muscle.

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Almost there.

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Success!

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Sam’s look says it all.  Thank heaven she’s a power lifter.

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Victory.  All that for this.

_____________________

Here’s the backstory.

I thought all of my grandfather’s tools and gear were lost to history.  Family legend was that my mother sold everything when she moved her elderly parents from International Falls, Minn. to her home in Greeley, Colo.

Last October.  Location:  My brother’s garage in Loveland, Colo.

Me.  “Wow!  A crosscut saw.  Where’d you get that?”

Brother.  “That was grandpa’s saw.”

Me.  “I thought mom sold all of his stuff when she moved grandma and grandpa out here.”

Brother.  “Not this.”

Me.  “What do you plan to do with it?”

Brother.  “I was going to hang it on the wall.”

Me.  “No way.  I could use it.  I have a friend who restores old crosscut saws.  I’ll ask him to fix this up and I’ll put it to work clearing trails.  Grandpa would like that.”

Brother.  “Ok.”

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Me.  “I’ll make a box and ship it today.  Where’s the nearest UPS store?”  The truth is that I wanted to get it out of there before he could change his mind.

The story added a new chapter today.  But, where did it begin?

_____________________

James Grand circa 1920

International Falls, MN circa 1920.

Who was Jim Grant?

James Earl Grant was my namesake.  Growing up, he was “Big Jim” and I was “Little Jim.”

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Favorite fishing rock.  My brothers and I have caught a lot of walleye there.

Jim Grant was a lumberjack, teamster and avid fisherman who immigrated from Alberta, Canada to International Falls, Minn. to cut trees for the Minnesota and Ontario paper company, now Boise-Cascade.  We’re not sure when.

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Born in 1900, Jim Grant was a good and kind man who had lived his life well. A third-grade education limited his opportunities, but he worked hard and made the most of those that came his way. He lived to be 78 before succumbing to prostate cancer.

In reality Grant was my mother’s stepfather.  He had once asked my grandmother to marry him, but she declined and later said yes to another man, also a Canadian.  Her husband, John Wesley Jordan, died at age 30 of kidney failure in 1930 as the Great Depression sunk its jaws into the Northern Minnesota economy.  In those days there was no safety net.  She was 30 with three children and they struggled.

After arriving in International Falls with his two brothers, Walker and Clarence, Jim Grant cut and skidded pulp wood in Minnesota’s north woods until he was drafted in WWII.  In the war, his age and lack of education led to work as a hospital orderly making beds and emptying bedpans at Camp Carson, Colo.

He loved Colorado and regaled me in childhood with stories of his Rocky Mountain adventures and tall tales of ghost towns like Cripple Creek.  Later on when I was stationed at that very same Army post, the first place I went was Cripple Creek where I imagined his stories playing out among the mining relics.

Fortunately Jim Grant was a patient soul who truly loved my Grandmother.  When he returned from his WWII service, he proposed a second time to my widowed grandmother and she accepted.  He never could have become my hero without that unfortunate chain of events.

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After the war, he purchased the saw I now have.  It is a Simonds Crescent-Ground, One-Man Crosscut Saw model 223.  The aux handle can be moved to the far end allowing for two-person use.

I found the saw in excellent condition, still sharp with very little surface rust.  It wasn’t used enough to completely erase its factory markings which is how we know the model and approximately when it was made in Fitchburg, Mass.

Link to Simonds Saw Catalog

The catalog says that this saw “will stay sharp longer than any one-man saw made.”  It also notes “Large hand hole in handle permits sawing with mittens or gloves in cold weather.”  That would have been practical because most of the timbering was done in winter when the lakes and dirt logging roads were frozen solid.

The light usage suggests he didn’t do much lumberjacking after the war.  We know that he found less strenuous employment on the papermill loading dock where he worked until retirement in 1965.  Thanks to a strong union, he had earned health insurance and a modest pension that he and my grandmother could live on in their own home for the rest of their lives.

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Today Jim Grant’s Simonds model 223 was reborn as a working tool in Shenandoah National Park.  When my time ends it will pass to the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club where it will enjoy a long and noble life thanks to, and in memory of James Earl Grant, lumberjack.

Sisu

 

 

 

We’re back at Annapolis Rock!

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Annapolis Rock, Maryland, Saturday, May 20, 2020 — We’re back!  Today we set up the caretaker camp – pitched the tent and strung the tarps – at Annapolis Rock.  In a normal year, this is the first ritual of the season. Obviously this year is different.

The long-season Maryland ridgreunner is the first to start on April Fools Day and the last to finish on Halloween.  Aptly chosen dates once one experiences what happens in between, from naivete to the spirits of the dark side.  It’s a long season with all that the full range of human behavior has to offer.

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Putting together this camp is one of my favorite ways to bond with a ridgerunner.  Most years I spend up to four days there working on OJT and otherwise coaching them on how to manage the site.  Stringing ropes and setting up tents isn’t fun wearing a mask.

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We start with the tent, an REI Big House generously donated by the co-op.

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It’s always somewhat of a mystery.  We read and reread the directions for each step.

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We put a sun tarp over the tent and fly so shade it from the UV so it will last a little longer.  We average four years/tent.

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“Ok.  How do I organize all the stuff in this tool box?

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Done.  Tarp strung over the picnic table.  We’re an all weather operation now.

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Some noobs left us a present at the picnic table.  Really.  You can’t put it in your pocket and carry it out?

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Social distancing at the overlook was “iffy” at best.  We’re not in the public health business.  Hiking is an “at risk” activity.  It’s also a pass/fail IQ test.  Have at it.

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I love irony.  The Annapolis Rock trailhead parking on Rt. 40 was recently expanded.  In return, the busy highway’s shoulders became no parking zones.  The Maryland State Trooper in the circle had more than 30 tickets to write.  Yes!

Tomorrow my grandfather’s crosscut saw sees action for the first time since the 1940s.  We’ll be tackling some large blowdowns in Shenandoah National Park with this priceless, to me, artifact that has been passed down by my personal hero.  Stay tuned.

Sisu

 

Shenandoah. At last!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the park.

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

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Eight hours later.

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

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Black birch is easily dispatched with a folding saw.

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

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

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

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

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Just over the hill from the last photo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sisu