Shenandoah Ice Storm Clean up

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Shenandoah National Park, End of December, 2022 — The ice storm from a week ago made Skyline Drive look like a combat zone. Hundreds and hundreds of trees and branches are down along all 105 miles of road that meanders along the ridgeline that forms the backbone of the park’s geography.

Damage reports suggest that the north district from Front Royal to Swift Run Gap seems to have been hit the hardest.

The park leadership assessed the damage and asked qualified volunteers to join the clean up effort.  That request is a testament to the integration of PATC volunteers into park operations and the faith the park has in our ability to deliver value when we are asked to help.

It’s obvious from the photo that the clean up is a labor intensive effort.  Each one of those branches and tree trunks has to be removed from the roadway.  The roadsides also have to be cleared to the treeline so that mowers can operate in the growing season.  That is a lot of stoop labor.

Those of us who normally work on trails learned a lot about the process of cleaning up the “drive” after a storm.  Here’s a hint:  They use a lot of “big boy” toys – bucket trucks, graspers, chippers, and loaders in addition to chainsaws, loppers, pruning saws, and rakes.

The larger debris gets piled up to be loaded into large dump trucks and hauled to the park boneyard.

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The lesser debris is fed into a chipper, thereby speeding up the circle of life by feeding the forest back to itself as mulch.  We learned a lot thanks to our park service partners.

Although there always seems to be a chipper operating in my urban-forested neighborhood, I never gave them much thought.  Now I know they’re driven by a giant flywheel and grinders capable of crunching 15-inch logs with ease!  We even learned how to clear jams and reset them.  Hearing protection is mandatory.  Them suckers is loud!!!

While PATC volunteers were helping in other areas of the park, the North District Hoodlums answered the call in their home territory.  I think the park expected that we would have only enough to help feed the chipper.

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We beat that expectation and divided ourselves up into two groups, one to stuff the chipper and the other to clear the area around the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center followed by work on the drive.

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By lunch time, the chipping was nearly done.  We decided to finish chipping and then join forces for the remainder of the day.

As you can see, it’s tedious work.

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As the day ended, your enthusiastic volunteers dragged their tired butts back to the rendezvous point.  We finished chipping the first four miles of Skyline from Front Royal to Dickey Ridge.  We cleared the drive four more miles beyond, nearly to mile post 9.

This blog is written to offer insight into what goes on behind the scenes.  This was another peek.  Judging by what’s left and the potential damage of today’s bomb cyclone storm, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Thanks to Wayne Limberg, Cindy Ardecki, Justin Corddry, Dan Hippe, Tom Moran and our National Park Service colleagues.  They supplied good company, shared some of these photos and and cared enough to volunteer their time and expertise.

Sisu

Hut Repair and a Day Hike

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Shenandoah National Park, October 21 – 22, 2022 — The park is probably getting tired of me.  I’ve been there six of the last nine days. I won’t mention the gas bill.

First the hike.  We were back at it again last Friday when the Gang of Four -1 plus Sara hiked up North Marshall and down Big Devils Stairs on a leaf peeping sojourn.  We were not disappointed.

We ended with our usual pizza stop at the ever excellent Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen – a brick oven pizza emporium in Sperryville. https://www.rappahannockpizzakitchen.com/

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Now for the weekend highlight.  Gravel Spring Hut is a place for hikers to sleep.  As it’s name implies, it’s adjacent to a spring and comes with campsites and a composting privy we’ve chronicled before.

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The hut’s siding is original inch-thick oak carpentered by the CCC nearly 90 years ago.  After all that time, it’s beginning to rot in places due to insect and water damage.  In order to save as much history as possible, only the rotted parts of the boards are replaced with rough sawn lumber matching the same dimensions.

Boards are surgically removed rather than the chaotic demo seen on TV home renovation shows.

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The scrap was left as a treat for campers to burn.  The volume of activity near the huts ensures there isn’t much small firewood around to collect.  Since most campers don’t carry small saws, they get stuck trying to burn larger branches that don’t readily lend themselves to campfire fuel.

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Next, the boards are cut and sized.  Thank heaven for battery-powered tools.  Sara, aka Ridgerunner 2, stopped in to lend a hand. She’s given a lot to the park the past two years and PATC in 2016.  This year she also was a ridgerunner in Northern Virginia and Maryland.  We’re going to miss her.

The boards are carefully placed and screwed into place.  Screws eliminate the risk of further damage pounding nails might cause.

Special caulk is stuffed into the cracks followed by paint.  Russell Riggs, the hut maintainer, played Rembrandt.  The hut is back in service.  We’ll be back again when we have more lumber which is donated by a local saw mill.

Sisu

Mother Nature’s Party Dress

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Shenandoah National Park, October 15 – 16, 2022 — Mother Nature’s autumn soiree is in full swing.  She’s dressed in loud colors that evoke AC/DC cranked to the max.  She will keep the party rocking until the pumpkin lattes run dry.

The colors truly are spectacular.  These are from the Big Devil’s Stairs canyon and the south side of Compton Peak.

So what were we doing there?  It’s the third Saturday of the month – Hoodlums work trip day.  As always, we organized into several work groups.

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Our group was assigned to hike deep into the Big Devil’s Stairs (BDS) gorge to clear a cluster of massive live tulip poplars recently blown down by a possible microburst.

The lower half of BDS hasn’t been maintained in awhile because there is no access from the park boundary.  Most people hike to the second canyon overlook and then double back.  Few wonder down to the bottom where the views are nil and the trail is steep.

Before we get down to muscle business, let’s celebrate an encore appearance from a special Hoodlum.

Sam Keener became a Hoodlums regular just before the pandemic.   During lockdown we met twice weekly over Zoom for personal training sessions.  Later she joined the FBI, graduated from their academy at Quantico and is now a Special Agent.  Fortunately we’re fake hoodlums.  Besides, she’s one of us!  You can’t bust yourself.

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Sam gave me a FBI Pittsburgh Field Office challenge coin which is now front and center in my trophy case along with a chunk of the Berlin Wall and a piece of the foundation from Check Point Charlie – made famous by a Berlin Crisis standoff between Russian and American tanks.

Back to business.

The going on this one was rough.  The bind on each of them was such that these trees wanted to move like Superman, up and away.

We hacked at this cut for more than an hour without being able to muscle through.  Sam is a power lifter, so she makes the friction seem far less than it was.

Nearby, the other crew was slogging too.  The binds were unusual – side and bottom.

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Ultimately we walked down to the other crew.  The clock had run out.  We’ll be back with many more bodies to finish the job. This was much bigger than five people.

As we licked out wounds, Mother Nature flashed her jewelry in the form of this young timber rattlesnake.

Ole Jake No-shoulders was nonplussed by our presence.

On Friday I sneaked up early to pick up six chainsaw chains I’d left with the Stihl dealer for sharpening.

I spent the night in solitude at the Indian Run maintenance hut, aka Hoodlums clubhouse.  I had to hack my way in for the sixth time this year!  If only Mother Nature would stop throwing her party favors on the access road!  The hut does look like it would be fun to spend an evening there during the Christmas season.

Sisu

Tom Moran kindly contributed photos and videos to this post.

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

 

Seasonal Rhythms

Fall

September 22, 2022 — Today is the autumnal equinox, the day Mother Nature begins disrobing.  Ultimately she’ll bare it all.  To my delight, she showed a little ankle on my neighborhood walk today, a bright splash teasing what she has on offer.

So it goes in the world of hiking trails and life in general.  Events happen more or less in order and on schedule – the circle of life’s rhythms and flow.

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If it’s the third weekend in September, it must be the Hoodlums’ annual trail maintenance instructional workshop in Shenandoah National Park.  Thirty folks ranging from raw beginners to the well-experience gather to live an learn.  Picks are swung, fires are made and beer, shall we say, is swallowed.

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This crew repaired part of the Appalachian Trail Caroline and I maintain on the south side of Compton Peak, about 11 miles south of the park’s northern boundary.

Heavy use and heavy weather was taking its toll on a steep traverse.  Eight waterbars (erosion control drainage structures) were torn out and reconstructed.  Rocks were dug out of the tread to smooth it out and make it a bit safer.  It’s good for at least 15 more years.

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Caretaker area at Annapolis Rock – Caroline, Sara and Sierra.

This also is the time when the ridgerunner program shrinks to Maryland only.  We lost Kasey to a family matter, so Sara Leibold shifted from Shenandoah to Maryland to help us out.  She and Sierra will complete the season – my last.  I will miss the interviewing, hiring and hiking with the amazing people – nearly 60 all told – who have graced us with their selfless service to the hiking community.

Caroline let me know that she was thinking of taking a Saturday hike on our section.  Knowing I would be there Monday, I suggested she hike up to Annapolis Rock with me.  Since she and Sara are friends, I thought a two fer would be fun – see Sara and a new place.

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While inspecting the area, eagle-eye Sara spied a spotted lantern fly.  It’s an invasive insect that is wrecking havoc on the region’s fruit orchards.  Did you know that if the jar says Smuckers or Mussleman’s, it probably came from this orchard-rich area?  We made the required report.

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Unfortunately, on the way to the car I noticed this graffiti and the axe blaze on the tree not far from the upper trail to the Pine Knob shelter.  We’ll use Elephant Snot to get ride of it, but why people think vandalizing nature is ok is beyond me.  The rock is sedimentary, the remnant of an ancient sea bed.

Tina, aka “Bulldog”, my friend of nearly 30 years, dating back to our days at the White House, has been my swamper on several trips.  She pitched in again this month.

The rhythmic drumbeat of blowdowns crashing to the forest floor is quickening.  The supply is nearly infinite.  Invasive insects have recently killed the red oaks, ash, and hemlocks.  The chestnuts and elms are long gone.  A native blight is currently attacking white oaks.  Have chainsaw.  Will travel.

I’ll close on a sad note.  We lost Mittens to brain seizures.  He was 15 1/2.  As the alpha cat, he could be a pain.  But, a Formula 1 Ferrari could not compete with the throb of his rhythmic purr. Frank Sinatra’s eyes could not have been bluer.  In fact, I wanted to name him “Frank,” but was overruled by my daughter.  RIP Big Guy!

Sisu

Stuff Happens

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The Appalachian Trail, May 2022 —  Stuff happens is a metaphor most people understand.  It’s been a month full of grab bag stuff starting with T storms destroying the caretaker tent at Annapolis Rock, emptying a composting privy, blowdown removal and some lovely flowers.  Enjoy.

Rock Spring is ready to “go.”

D2C201A7-FE61-45DA-987F-45245AB472CESomebody ruined a chain.  They have chains that can cut rocks, but this wasn’t one of them.

Time for a clean up.

REI is donating a new caretaker tent.

Dan Hippe’s electric Koolaid chainsaw show.

The summit of Pass Mountain is clear.

Flower power.

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We’ll be weeding next week.  So begins weed season.

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

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