Govmint is shutdown. Now what?

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My chainsaw weighs 11 lbs. including the hard plastic sheath on the bar.  If you carry one far enough on your shoulder, it can rub you raw.

Home, January 8, 2019 — Part of the federal government is shutdown over a political dispute.  I have strong views, but won’t share them here.  This blog is about protecting and preserving hiking trails and related matters.

The 31 maintaining clubs that perform trail maintenance on the Appalachian Trail (AT) operate under agreement with the National Park Service (NPS) and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), the nonprofit tasked by the NPS to manage the trail.

My club, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), is responsible for maintaining most of the hiking trails in the Washington, D.C. region including 240 miles of the AT, 102 of which are in Shenandoah National Park.

The club’s activities in Shenandoah are sanctioned under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for maintenance activities and for managing rental cabins.  We have a separate Cooperative Agreement to manage the ridgerunner program.  These are legal documents that spell out the rules of the road for us and for the park.

One benefit of volunteering in the park is that we are covered under the Volunteers in Parks (VIP) program.  There is a similar VIF program for national forests.  Essentially we have workman’s comp coverage when engaged in officially sanctioned activities.

With the government shutdown, our VIP coverage is suspended.  Accordingly, we aren’t allowed to volunteer.  The last thing I would want is to get kicked out of the park and probably out of the club for doing something I’ve been officially asked not to do.

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Hiking with my Kevlar safety chaps on backward.

Back to humping chainsaws.  When you have to hike in a long way, some of us stuff our saws in old frame packs for easier carrying.  The also make it easier to carry the safety gear, first aid kit, lunch, plus extra fuel and bar oil.

But, there are times when throwing the saw on your shoulder happens.

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With little to do today, I decided to make a chainsaw pad out of leftover carpet pad from the recently installed carpet in the basement.

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First I cut a hunk of spare pad to size.

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Checking the fit.

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Preparing to tape it together.  The plastic vapor barrier side goes on the inside.

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So far, so good.

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After taping the seam, duct tape makes the outer layer.

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Done.

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It fits.

 

Storm Clean up

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

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Photo courtesy Shenandoah National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sawyers are distinguished by their red Kevlar chaps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sisu

 

Widowmakers

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Would you camp under this tree?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Standing dead trees.

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

These hazards are not trivial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Removing a hazard tree near Bears Den hostel.

Tree bent by ice storm

Storm damage.

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Storm damage.

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

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Nuff said.

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

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

Sisu

It’s a Wrap – Literally

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Crew and cast of a video for Nature Valley.

Appalachian Trail October 25 and 31, 2018 — “It’s a wrap!” called the director.  With that exclamation, the formal volunteer season ended with the sunset melting behind the horizon west of Shenandoah’s Black Rock summit.  Fade to black.  Hike to the trailhead.

That was the symbolic climax.  The actual ending occurred a couple of days later on Morgans Mill Rd. when the last of the season’s Road Scholars finished their strenuous ride on the Roller coaster section of the Appalachian Trail in northern Virginia.

First, let’s go behind the scenes at Black Rock.  (Anna Porter’s FB post).  A couple of weeks ago I saw a post on Facebook asking about locations to shoot a commercial in Shenandoah. It seems Nature Valley, the granola bar company,  is making a serious gift to the National Park Foundation to fund and maintain hiking trails in several parks including Shenandoah.

As people on Facebook suggested their favorite spots in the park, I realized no one had ever been involved in making a commercial and had no idea how ill-suited some places might be.

Having executive produced two regional EMMY-winning commercials, I jumped right in using industry vocabulary.  Soon the producers and I were talking.

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Ultimately we agreed on Black Rock Summit, probably the most dramatic location in the entire park.  Moreover three different trails intersect nearby allowing for a variety of b-roll locations and different looks.

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My “co-star” and partner in crime was Anna Porter and her dog Traveller, an inveterate hiker who completed the park’s 500 miles of trails in the 1990s This was long before hiking the Shendoah 500 was popular.

As Anna noted in her Facebook post, she learned a lot about making videos – notably just how boring it is.  Like the Army, you stand around and wait for the technicians to set up, not to mention the countless shots and occasional repetition needed to get them good enough to stitch the story together.

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We were each interviewed and asked to pose for dramatic effect.  Yes Mr. DeMille, we’re ready for our closeups!  We joked about signing autographs on the red carpet.  Bet she styles high-heeled hiking boots!

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The golden hour produces the most dramatic light as Anna and Traveller admire the sunset.

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There were shots from every angle possible.

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Photo by Anna Porter

I felt like a bronze statue wanna be.

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The final chore, capturing the sunset.

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Nice shot.  Of note, the temperature was racing the sun to the bottom.

Final product:  https://www.instagram.com/p/BrOUysghBnK/?fbclid=IwAR0H8ersNcy3XvYtHJ-cmht8Qic24xSj9y_siXorHReejtE2tWTe9kpb_5U

 

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Flash forward a couple of days and the roller coaster ride left the station.  This was another great Road Scholar group.  Now, with the benefit of several years experience leading these hikes, I realize that most of them seriously underestimate the physical challenge of this hike.  It is defined by rough, rocky terrain, three steep climbs, and some challenging down hill that’s punishing for some older knees.

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Consequently we take lots of breaks to enjoy the tranquility and serenity of our surroundings.    Some remind me of their age only to learn that I’m usually older than they are.  I remind them that if one is lucky enough to avoid devastating maladies, and if you put in the effort to stay in shape, you can crush the average 40-year-old for a long time to come.  You just have to make it a priority – that’s the hard part.

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I ask every group what they think of this experience.  They find it challenging, but gratifying at the same time.  At the end, they realize how much they’ve overcome and what they’ve accomplished.

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As goes the leaf litter, so goes the season.  Can’t wait to do it again next spring. Meanwhile stand by for winter adventures.

Sisu

Ten Glorious Days

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Hiking and Working on the Appalachian Trail and Shenandoah National Park, October 4 – 10, 2018 — Being busy beats boredom more often than not. It’s the same when work is pleasure and pleasure is work.

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Hike across Maryland hikers resting at the Ed Garvey shelter.

Road Scholars offers several hikes in our region.  The one in which we are normally involved is hiking legs of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in four states – Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia – in that order.  We have one more of these on schedule for this season.

The other offering is four days hiking the AT across Maryland’s 42 miles.  This is a gentle hike compared to rest of the AT with most of the miles spent running a ridgeline on an old logging road converted to trail.

We were asked to fill in for leaders who could not make it.  Good weather graced our participation and the hikers marched into Harpers Ferry in good spirits.

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The next day, my friend and colleague Mary Thurman, currently Blackburn Trail Center caretaker, offered to help with some trail maintenance on the AT in Shenandoah National Park.

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On a grossly muggy day, we weeded a couple of miles worth of trail on two sections in the North District and removed seven blowdowns, two by handsaw; the rest with a chainsaw.

The long sleeves, gloves, face shield, and buff are to protect from poison ivy which is atomized by the string trimmer.  You can feel the spray as you go.

Soon Mary will be headed for her next gig at the Grand Canyon.  I’m going to miss her. This spring my wife and I are going to celebrate my 70th birthday in Colorado with my siblings and cousins.  Mary and I plan to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim on the way.

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Twelve hours later.  Here we go again.  Time for the White House Hiking Group’s planned hike up Old Rag, Shenandoah’s most popular hike – so popular that it was on Thomas Jefferson’s bucket list back in his day.

We rendezvoused literally at Zero-dark-thirty in order to get a jump on the crowds.  On a rare dry day in a rain soaked summer, you just knew people were gonna come, and they did.

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Dawn cracked with an unexpected overcast.  Since you hike Old Rag for the views we prepared for disappointment.  Imagine our delight, popping out of the gloomy clouds  into happy sunshine.

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Obligatory horsing around photos.

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We made it!

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Brick oven pizza and a brew in nearby Sperryville capped the day.

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No rest for the wicked.  Tuesday and Wednesday brought the Road Scholars again, this time hiking the AT in four states.

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This bunch was unique – a running group from Grand Rapids, MI.  They’ve been together for decades and were a hoot!

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Meanwhile Sophie endured surgery to remove a cancerous cyst. The bounce is returning to her step and the prognosis is good.

Not until the heavy exercise was over, did the weather turn toward autumn.  The humidity and temps are mercifully down just in time for the Hoodlums trail crew next weekend.  See you there.

Sisu

Hilton Hotels Community Service Project

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Harpers Ferry, WV.  September 28, 2018 — Many corporations have programs which allow employees to perform community service on company time.  Younger employees especially like this idea.  For them it’s a habit.  They’ve been performing community service since they were young students.

Allowing employees to do good in the company name offers excellent brand recognition while employees get to enhance morale, build camaraderie, and recharge their batteries.

Yesterday, as a representative of the PATC Trail Patrol, I led a group from the Hilton Hotel corporate headquarters on the portion of the Appalachian Trail that is co-located on the historic C&O Canal tow path. Though they didn’t know it before starting, the volunteers would visit three national parks that day – C&O Canal, the Appalachian Trail and Harpers Ferry National Park.

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In ninety short minutes, these volunteers collected approximately 40 gallons of refuse from either side of the tow path and from the canal itself.

Another group covered the six miles on the AT between Gathland State Park and Weverton Cliff parking.

Thank you@hiltonhotels.

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Thanks also to my friend Mary Thurman, caretaker at the Blackburn Trail Center. Mary acted as the sweep, ensuring that the entire group arrived together.

Sisu