Seasons end but the work lives on.

 

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The Appalachian Trail, September 30 and October 2, 2022 — We’re a month early but my final chapter leading our ridgerunners has been written.  Dan Hippe will now keep the flame burning brightly with his capable leadership. 

It was a cold and drippy day as Sara and I climbed up to Annapolis Rock one last time to pack up the caretaker site and secure it for the winter.  The stuff good enough for next year was packed into the tool box while we carted the UV-rotted tarps to the dumpster at Washington Monument State Park. 

Since then, Sara has turned in her radio and keys.  She’s hiking all of Maryland’s 41 miles as this is written.  I picked her up at 5 a.m. in Harpers Ferry where she left her van, and shuttled her to the Mason-Dixon Line for a 6:15 a.m. pre-dawn start.  She expects to finish by 11 p.m. tonight.

My larger role may be changing, but the trail maintenance gig has a long runway in front of it. 

The spring on the AT section Caroline and I jointly maintain in Shenandoah National Park was, for all intents and purposes, dry.  The ground was saturated but the flow was virtually nonexistent.  Tina, my friend of 30 years, Gang of Four hiking group member, and occasional swamper, joined us help remedy the problem.

 

We dug a catchment basin, inserted a 5 ft. length of PVC pipe and anchored in with large rocks. 

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It worked!  Our next Hoodlums work trip is October 16.  We’ll check on it then.

The other reason we were working was to rake and shovel silt out of our waterbars (erosion control structures that direct water off the trail).  Our section is particularly sandy and the waterbars need annual cleaning.

This is hard pick and shovel work. 

We didn’t count the exact number, but we got three quarters of our waterbars cleaned out.  We’ll finish the rest next trip.

Exciting news!  After almost two consecutive years working with the Hoodlums Trail Crew and one year co-maintaining this section, Caroline has a trail name. 

It’s not something trite like “Sweet Caroline.”  Regular readers know that she’s an American/Swiss dual national, so she could have been “Swiss Miss.”  It’s far better than those.

Meet Caroline “Dozer” Egli” ’cause she can move dirt.

Sisu

 

Saw, Dig, Pull

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My view of the Thornton Gap Entry Station

Shenandoah National Park, July 24 – 27 — The North District Crew Week was anything but usual.  For one, we tackled a variety of projects.  For another, I only worked three of the five days.  Now, it’s off to Manitoba to fish with my brother and nephews.

Usually crew week offers the opportunity to partner with the park service trail crews on big projects that are too big for either outfit alone.  This year everybody was everywhere all the time.

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We started with the great blowdown hunt.  While the remainder of the group took on some dirt work, Wayne Limberg and I searched for a tree tangle reported by a hiker on the Shenandoah Hikers Facebook page.  Shall we say it wasn’t where it was alleged to be…

On net we hiked about four miles on our search.  We found it about 200 yards from a trailhead parking lot.  It would have been a cinch if we had started three miles south of the initial reported position.

We managed to chew a lot of wood into sawdust, huge piles of it. 

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In the end, the old guys were bushed.

The next day we rehabbed the AT from trailhead parking south to the Byrd’s Nest 4 connector trail.

My last day was best.  A tree on the AT about 200 yards south of Compton Gap parking became a leaner last year and ended up in a near vertical posture.  This was too dangerous for volunteers to cut.  After consultation we and the park crew agreed that it should be pulled down.  This is how it happened.

Rigging the tree.

Dave Jenkins has a new toy.  It’s a motorized winch.  Beats a grip hoist any day.  But, sometimes things don’t exactly go according to plan.

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Ready to go.

Oh oh!  Nothing is happening.

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Ain’t technology great!  What else.  Check You Tube to find out what you did wrong.

Turns out the rope wasn’t wrapped quite the right way around the capstan.  A couple of twists made all the difference. 

But wait.  There’s more.

The tree had dug itself in.  Nothing a pick mattock could not tackle.

On the way.

One more time.

Boom!

All that for 50 seconds of sawing.

Job done.

Sisu

Just in time for the Fourth

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This is the definition of a blowdown.  For perspective, Sara is six feet tall.

Shenandoah and the Washington Nationals Parks, July 1 – 4, 2022 — The month of Hades arrived right on schedule and so did Sara Leibold to pick up her AT ridgerunner duties right where she left off last year.

This tough angel does not fear the month of July in Virginia when it’s hot, hot, hot – and muggy.

We started out with the usual equipment issue and check into White Oak Cabin where Sara checked the log book to see who’d been there since her time last season.  We then adjourned for the first night at Indian Run Maintenance Hut, but not before picking up some pizza in Luray.

Muscleman Dan split some firewood.

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I’ve had to saw my way down the fire road the last three visits.

Before any of this happened, Sara stopped at my house for a special pizza and to pick up the keys she needs at PATC Hq. where she found a shelter log book from 2016 that documents her first night as a ridgerunner.

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Sara loves Apple House doughnuts, a treat from a local eatery.  Dan brought some for breakfast at our first shelter stop and Sara ate even crumbs down to the last grain of sugar.

By now, readers know the drill – break up illegal fire rings, clear brush and disguise campsites that are noncompliant with backcountry regulations.

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Tree crown across the trail.

Clearing the brush.  The reference to Silky is a professional brand of pruning saw.

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Sara notes results.

More necessary drudge.  At least she can claim the views.

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Ridgerunner perk – blackberry milkshakes at Elk Wallow.

While Sara continued her patrol, I enjoyed the Fourth with dear friends and our hapless Nats.

Sisu

Continue reading

Trail of Two Ridgerunners

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The sleeping pad is tilted because several gallons of trash are wrapped inside.

Michaux State Forest, PA, June 15 – 19, 2022 — We have a split season in Pennsylvania this year.  Chrissy Funk is the bun wrapped around Wendy Willis’s burger in the middle.

Chrissy’s first ridgerunner tour ended last Sunday.  The next day her jeep aimed for North Carolina where she would reunite with her pampered pug, Zsa Zsa. 

The day after Chrissy left, Wendy’s car crunched to a stop on the gravel near the Mason-Dixon Line in the Penn-Mar Park overflow parking lot.  From there we were shuttled to the Pine Grove Furnace General Store to begin her 37-mile journey back to Penn-Mar.

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Obligatory first picture.  Note how Pennsylvania marks its AT road crossings.

Wendy is an ornithologist who partly grew up in Mexico and most recently worked with a bird sanctuary in Peru.  She is a PATC trail maintainer in Northern Virginia whose Spanish and English are interchangeable.  She’s spending a month of her sabbatical this summer with us.

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The first couple of days were humid as Hades with sweat dribbling down our noses like a leaky faucet.  It soaked our clothing which ultimately ripened into that mellow hiker essence we all know and love.

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Someone’s TP got wet in the rain so, rather than packing it out, they parked it in a fire pit, maybe as future kindling?  Nice try.  No cigar.

The most common Leave No Trace aphorisms are “pack it in, pack it out” and “take only photos, leave only footprints.”  If people would do that much it would help.  Obviously stacking rocks surpasses leaving only footprints.  In our region rock stacks don’t survive contact with the first responsible person who finds them.

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Wendy signs in and checks each shelter log book looking for any remarkable content.  The coffee cans behind her contained food left as trail magic for hikers.  Luckily it didn’t attract any animals before she had a chance to hike it out to a dumpster 20 miles to the south.

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Breakfast at Birch Run and a little map recon of the day’s journey.

Wendy sawed this five inch obstruction and flipped it out of the way.  Her first.

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What luck to run into Dr. Ken “Nimbus” Bunning, former ALDHA (Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association) Coordinator, who was out for a few days.  Ken truly is one of the greats.

You may remember the smashed roof at the Quarry Heights Shelter from the previous blog two weeks ago.  It’s fixed thanks to the PATC North Chapter. 

Quarry Heights may be the most intimate shelter space on the trail.  It’s enclosed by a grove of rhododendrons, features a porch swing, potted flowers, tent platforms and is always in mint condition.

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Preparing to truck some trash down the mountain to the dumpster in New Caledonia State Park.

Sawing another small blowdown.  Sometimes you apply too much energy and bend your saw which then binds in the kerf.

The Mountain Laurel were peaking while the caterpillars are about to feast upon the oaks.

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Meanwhile, a few miles north of us in Maryland, Kasey was wrangling copperheads to help them avoid unsuspecting hikers at a popular overlook.

Sisu

Breaking News.

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Appalachian Trail and Annapolis Rock, Maryland, April 1 – 7, 2022 — This just in:  The end is near if seven months away counts.  This will be my final season as the PATC ridgerunner lead.  After that, Dan Hippe will take responsibility.  We want to get it right, so Dan will shadow me until November 1.  Then it’s his show.

Dan is a recently retired geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.  He has extensive backpacking and outdoor leadership experience.  As I told one of my friends, “He will take good care of the troops.”  Of that I am certain.

I originally promised five years.  We’re now in year eight and new blood is due.  It’s also best to get off the horse before you fall off.  Not sure that would be anytime soon, but to be fair, it’s time.

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Meanwhile Dan has been out there helping as we prepare Kasey Kohlmeier for her season.  Here we broke up an illegal fire ring at Black Rock.

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If the last is the saddest day of the ridgerunner calendar, then the first is the most promising.  The new season is fresh and the possibilities are endless.

We gathered at the recently renovated “barn” to haul the caretaker tent and other gear up to Annapolis Rock.  There we spent a couple of days learning the ins and outs of the caretaker’s responsibilities.

The site is up.  The sunset spectacular.  My new tent is sturdy.  The REI-donated tent and the rain tarp survived the strong winds over the next several days.  Count success where you find it.

The usual mess at Black Rock.  It is a popular spot, mostly with locals.

Hiking back from Black Rock we found an unfortunate man who face-planted, suffering a bloody nose and some ugly wrist abrasions.  He passed concussion protocol, so we encouraged him to stop by AR where we patched him up.  We also found a heart rock someone had propped against a tree and fresh bear sign.  Of course the view of Green Briar Lake never disappoints.

On the way out we destroyed an illegal fire ring at group site 3, locked the tool box, noted damage caused by the ATVs belonging to the first responders and held up our trash collection as a trophy.

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After a couple of days off, we were at it again.   This time from Penn-Mar/ Mason-Dixon line to the Raven Rock Shelter. The forecast was ominous – two inches in less than 24 hours.  But, we got a dry start up the rocky approach to the shelter.

Along  the way we cleared six blowdowns, some small like this one.  Others in the six-inch class.  We stopped at the hot mess known as High rock.  It’s county property, not the AT.  Someone said it’s a rock with Tammy Faye Bakker make up, a generational reference to a TV preacher couple only a Boomer would appreciate.  Of course privy maintenance was front and center.

Stopped at the Raven Rock overlook.  Yes, there was a fire ring.  Found another spirit tree.  Someday I’ll do a blog on those.  I have dozens of photos in a folder.  Paid homage to a fallen soldier.

The rain pounded the area overnight and as we hiked.  In total two inches worth made a river out of the tread.

The stream crossing at Raven Rock Rd. was a bit iffy.

When we stopped at the Pogo camping area we discovered the South Mountaineer trail crew had delivered the prize of prizes.  The old pit latrine is GONE!  Earlier this week I sent these photos to the 13 people who have previously been ridgerunners in Maryland during my tenure.  Nobody cried over this stinking portal to hell.  It’s been replaced by a composting privy up hill.  Privy photos by Dave House.

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Have to own up.  I slipped on a wet rock and smacked my hand.  It’s all good now, but it hurt like hell at the time.

Sisu

Hoodlums spring cleaning!

Caroline is a beast!

Shenandoah National Park, March 19, 2022 — The daffodils are up and so is the Hoodlums trail crew.  Yesterday 26 Hoodlums gathered in three different places to begin spring cleaning on the north district’s hiking trails.

The three groups gathered at the North Marshall trail head, Piney Ridge and the Pass Mountain blue blaze trail.  My assignment was to report to North Marshall where Caroline and I won the bonus prize of breaking big rocks into little ones with sledgehammers!

Ultimately fate spared us and our mission changed.  We were dispatched on a blowdown search and destroy mission.  So, that’s the story we can tell.

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Photo by Mike Gergely

The Pass Mountain crew, led by Head Hoodlum and north district blue blaze district manager, Noel Freeman, removes a large locust blocking the trail.  The trail is in a federally designated wilderness, so muscle-powered tools  are required.

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While everyone else was “working,” Caroline and I were eating blowdowns for lunch with my Stihl MS 261 with a 20″ bar.  That’s the military equivalent of an 8 inch howitzer.

Our itinerary included a big honker on the Gravel Spring hut blue blaze access trail, a smaller one on the AT near the Keyser Run parking access trail and several near Beahms Gap and Neighbor Mountain.  We left for our first objective at 0920.

A hiker told us the blowdown at Gravel was near the bottom so we used the fire road to get closer.  Oops.  Not so fast.  The tree broke apart after we sawed it.  Made it easier to move for sure.

The tree we were after was a hundred yards up hill from the hut.  The double trunk and the slope made bucking this one a little more challenging than normal.  The base was about 20″, making the salami slices large and heavy.  Caution required.

We’re not fake news.  Not every chunk we moved went as smoothly as the one at the top of this page.

In this case, Caroline is the “swamper” or sawyer’s helper.  Her job is to caddy the saw, and help remove the debris.

Ultimately the path was cleared.  The two blowdowns near Gravel Spring consumed nearly an entire tank of gas.  In comparison, I can usually saw for an entire day on a single tank.  We finished at 1140 and drove to Keyser Run parking for lunch.

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Our next objective seemed fairly simple, but it wasn’t.  The fall created several spring poles,  live trees bent over and held down.  Spring poles can be very dangerous.  The amount of energy stored in any one of them can be shocking.  Don’t let the size of these saplings fool you.

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Caroline checks out one of the spring poles.  She was surprised at how much energy was released when I demonstrated an improper cut on one of the tiny ones.

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The first blowdown at Beahms Gap.  It was a single cut.  The rest were similar.  Nothing found on the hike over Neighbor Mountain.  Time out:  1530.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Mother Nature never seems to run out of blowdowns.  That said, Caroline was disappointed that she didn’t get to bust rocks.  Maybe next time…

Sisu

Treemegedon!

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Prince William Forest National Park, VA, January 2022 — The mid-Atlantic experiences a wide range of weather.  The the spring flowers are spectacular, summers are hot and humid, the autumns colorful, and the winters – well let me tell you.

The National Capitol Region winters are really mild until they aren’t.  Remember those icy presidential inaugurations?

About every fifth year or so the snow gods like to play around with us.  They want to find out how much heavy, wet snow we can take.  As I remind them, nobody is actually from around here.  We come from cold hard places named Buffalo, Missoula, Bangor, Fairbanks, Leadville, Minneapolis and the grand daddy of them all, International Falls.  We know how to sharpen our snow shovels and win the fight.

Sadly the trees are from around here.  They’re not so tough.  Wind, ice and heavy wet snow play hell with the soft and brittle ones.  The rocky soil and shallow roots don’t help the cause.

Recently we experienced a classic nor’ easter, a storm fed by tropical waters that rolls up the Blue Ridge  carpet bombing havoc all along the trace of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.  In this case, it slid a little to the east missing the AT for the most part.  It did clobber a neat little gem of a park just outside the Marine base at Quantico, VA.

Info on Prince William Forest Park

Thousands of trees are down or broken.  Large limbs have been ripped from trunks.  The hiking trails, which for trail runners are the best in the region, are impassable.

Cue Task Force Snowmegedon, an ad hoc collection of PATC chain sawyers who gathered from near and far to turn blowdowns into sawdust.  We’ve been at it for the better part of two weeks with at least another week to go.

The ratio of tree crowns, sometimes called “rats nests” blocking the path, to the number of large tree trunks is rather large.  Regardless, there are plenty of large trees blocking the trail.

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These are live trees.  They bind in ways unlike the dried out dead ones do.  We’ve learned that pole saws are much safer to use as we wade into these rats nests.  The stand off distance from branches that sometimes whip when their energy is released is a godsend.

This was the Mother of all Blowdowns for last week.  It was complex and full of stored energy as the branches flexed in different directions when they fell.

Bind, or the way a tree is compressed, is sometimes difficult to read, even for the most experienced sawyers.  The large branch that pinched and trapped this saw moved horizontally away from the sawyer.  We unbolted the powerhead and made a vertical cut on the opposite side which released the pressure and the bar.

This video is worth watching to the end.  It’s approximately three minutes long.  The sawyer is National Park Service Ranger Mike Custodio, who is responsible for roads and trails in the park. He’s tackling this one because his saw is the only one long enough to take on the mammoth trunk.  His objective is to get the trunk on the ground where it will be easier and safer to clear.

Mike knows how this tree is going to behave based on the size of the root ball and its angle.  This is his plan of attack:

First Mike clears two saplings on the far side of the trunk to ensure the nose of his saw doesn’t hit them and dangerously kick back.

Second he makes a large pie cut on top of the trunk to allow room for the tree’s eventual behavior.

Third Mike makes an undercut to prevent a “barber chair” split when the trunk is cut through.

Fourth, Mike is very cautious as he makes his reverse keystone cut to allow the tree to behave without binding.  This tree is going to release a lot of energy and he wants to live to tell the tale.

Fifth, watch all of the video.  There is a surprise ending.  No spoiler alerts.

Lunchtime planning session.

Lunch on various days.

Another one bites the dust.

Our newest sawyer scores a KO!

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Part of the park visitors don’t see.

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Instructor/evaluator sawyer, Robert Fina’s master class.

We’ll be back again next week.

Sisu

Last of the old year. First of the new.

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Shenandoah National Park, December 28,  2021 and January 1, 2022 — PATC’s newest certified sawyer had a brand new Stihl electric chainsaw that was burning a hole in the bed of his pick’em up truck.  The park had blowdowns to give.  What a coincidence. 

The rain stopped right on time for a First Day Hike a couple of days later.  Shenandoah is truly the magical “The daughter of the stars.”

Dan Hippe is a recently retired geologist who spent the summer banging around with the Hoodlums and taking on trail maintenance projects.  His energy and enthusiasm  earned him a seat in the park’s newest chainsaw certification course we just finished.

Last Wednesday we met at the Thornton Gap entrance to pick up a park radio and chase a few blowdowns that had been languishing on the AT and side trails.  His electric Stihl was up to snuff.  I scratched together a short video using an iMovie template rather than post 50 photos of our escapade.

This year’s First Day Hike was the Gang of 4 minus three plus Jessica Say, one of our newest maintainers.  We originally planned to start at 10 a.m., but the rain gods forced a two-hour delay.  We quickly scrambled up North Marshall for what turned out to be a much better view than the expected fog.

IMG_8248Along the way we camouflaged some non-compliant campsites and broke up an illegal fire ring.  Campsites must be 60 ft. from the trail.  Most are within 10 ft.

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Eventually the sun poked its head through the cotton candy clouds.

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We had a relaxing walk before the long drive back to reality.

Happy New Year everyone!

Sisu

Chainsaw School

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Shenandoah National Park, November 29 – December 2, 2021 — Once upon a time the kid thought he knew a fair amount about chainsawing – not everything, but enough.  After all, he’d owned one for 30 years and first used one about age 16.  Then I took my first sawyer certification course from the National Park Service in 2015.  It was a major wake up that hit me up side the head like a beaned baseball batter.

I realized that I knew nothing compared to what I needed to know; sawing small bore firewood is nothing compared to bucking huge oaks and tulip poplars; professional chainsaws are bigger and badder than the backyard models I’d been using.  So began a steep learning curve seasoned with a lot of caution.

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Previously chainsaw training for volunteers took place over a weekend with some homework done prior to class.  After some lecture and passing the written test, a practical exam followed in the field where students demonstrated the required competency to be certified.

For decades there has been a tug of war on chainsaw certification between the U.S. Forest Service (Department of Agriculture) and the National Park Service (Department of the Interior).  It’s my guess that the NPS moved toward the USFS judging that chainsaw training is now 40 hours and far more comprehensive.  Now we receive the exact same comprehensive training park service employees get.

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Ya gotta love COVID, grrrr.  The masks weren’t really that much of an inconvenience. 

The course did cover some things we, especially the volunteers, didn’t need to know.  When learning to sharpen chains, I noted that if my chain got dull, I’d simply change it and take it to the shop when I got home.  I have six, in part because I don’t have the patience to sharpen them.

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Demonstrating cuts.  The bucket is the fake log.

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Chainsaw accidents happen in a flash and they’re ugly.  We’ve always been drilled on safety, but this course went into a lot more depth.  For someone with several years experience, I learned more about safety and accidents than I knew before the course. 

Safety is a big damn deal as it should be.  Rule one:  If you are uncomfortable with your assignment, decline.  No one will fault you for doing so. 

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I passed on one this summer and the park service crew did too.  Too hairy.  It’s in a wilderness area where it’s well within policy to leave it.

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The course reminded me a lot of military training where everyone starts at square one and demonstrates competency at each step of the way.  Here is square one:  Safely starting your saw.  There are wrong ways that are very unsafe.

Steph has an electric chainsaw and used a standing start. Dan is using my saw which was already warm.  He used a ground start.

Steph was in my last recertification class and allowed me to borrow her saw for my competency demonstration.  They are very cool featuring less pollution, noise, and maintenance.  Their power is good and battery life ok.  I’d eventually like to get one, but would probably buy three batteries.  Of course, electric chainsaws are like printers.  The saw costs far less than the batteries.

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Note how John applies the chain brake immediately after cutting.  That’s a safety rule.

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We practiced making sawdust and demonstrating the cuts we’d have to make.  Everyone passed.

We stayed in PATC’s Huntley cabin, just outside the park.  It’s a fully modern and well designed building with a NYC apartment-size kitchen.  The three of us there took turns making dinner.  Let’s say everybody got a go on that assignment.  I made prosciutto, green apple and Gorgonzola pizza.

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We woke up to a light dusting one morning.

The capper was a display of some vintage and very ginormous chainsaws.  No chainsaw envy here.

The next day Gang of Four member Catherine “Badass” Berger and I pounded out the final 12 miles she need to complete the AT in Maryland and earn her Maryland end to end patch.   We found some work for the Maryland sawyers along the way.

Sisu

Hoodlums 2021 Finale

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The trailing edge of early morning sunlight. The reds have dulled leaving the last of the copper and gold to color the ridgelines standing sentry over the Shenandoah Valley.

Shenandoah National Park, November 20, 2021 — As mother nature turns down the color temperature of the fall foliage, the Hoodlums trail crew gathered for its last work trip of the season.

The Hoodlums organized into three work parties.  Two were assigned crosscut duties on north district blue blaze trails while the remaining group worked hard to put the finishing touches on the Compton Peak project to restore the tread to the original CCC trail.  Compton was yours truly’s duty station.

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Photo by Mike Gergely from Facebook

Piney Ridge crosscut crew.

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Photo by Mike Gergely from Facebook

It’s sad when a grand old oak falls.

I showed up early to check on the work Caroline Egli and did two weeks ago.  It was in good shape.  We weren’t certain because we were building with wet soil that is mostly sand.

Best of all, the leaves have hit the dirt meaning that our plan to rake them out of the waterbars on Black Friday is a go assuming cooperative weather.

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Your Compton crew minus the cell phone camera operator.

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Our first concern was whether the ground was frozen.   If frozen, picks tend to bounce off the dirt like bullets smacking armor.  We were fortunate.  The tread was hard packed from decades of pounding boots, but not particularly difficult for a pick to penetrate.

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We set about building and replacing waterbars and check dams, chopping roots, and leveling rocky sections.

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We dig trenches about half as deep as the log and crib them with small rocks to set and lock them in place.

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We ran out of previously cut logs so we had to make more using a vintage crosscut saw.

I asked Nikki why she volunteers.

Crosscut in slo mo.  Turn up the sound. 

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Once you cut the log, you have to schlep it up the hill.

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Hoodlums:  Where all the women are strong and the men think they’re good lookin’!

The buckets are for hauling dirt to places where we need it.

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No problem!

After digging “excavaciones profundo” and humping logs and rocks all over the place, the restoration of the original CCC work on Compton is 99 percent complete.  Hope everyone enjoys the improvements.

It’s worth mentioning that drumming the ground with a pick, toting logs, crosscut sawing, and all the rest of the exercise associated with trail work is better and much cheaper than therapy.  When the Hoodlums are working, the doctor IS in!

Sisu