Seasonal Rhythms

Fall

September 22, 2022 — Today is the autumnal equinox, the day Mother Nature begins disrobing ultimately she’ll bare it all.  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

The End is Near

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Shennandoah National Park and Annapolis Rock Maryland, October 22 – 23, 2021 —  It’s that time again. In the park the end of the trail crew season is in sight.  We have one more trip next month.  In Maryland time expires for the last ridgerunner standing.

In the mean time, the AT section on the south side of Compton Peak, for which I have been responsible and now shared by Caroline, needs a lot of work before the ground freezes.  A recent high intensity storm literally wiped out some of the erosion control structures.

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A Virginia Conservation Corps crew rebuilt the upper two thirds, but the lower third, which is sandy like Saudi Arabia, was completely silted up.  If we don’t get it done before the ground freezes, mother nature herself will rebuild it over the winter.  We may not appreciate her work come spring.

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Meanwhile, the Hoodlums divided into two parties.  One was dispatched to Jeremy’s Run, a serpentine blowdown factory featuring a number of wet-feet stream crossings.

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Jeremy’s Run is located in a federally designated wilderness area meaning only traditional tools may be used.  Photo by Ruth Stornetta via Facebook.

The other group continued to work on the rebuild of the AT on the north side of Compton Peak.  I’m told we have surpassed 700 hours of volunteer labor on this project so far this year.  Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll git ‘er finished in November.

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The Hoodlums at Compton split their labor.  One group continued to repair and replace waterbars and check dams at the bottom of the mountain.  This trail is one of the most popular in the park featuring a nice viewpoint and a unique columnar basalt formation at the summit.  It’s also the first time hikers can be on the AT from the north (Front Royal) entry station.

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The work party I joined was assigned to finish the stone staircase near the top of the mountain, so that’s the bulk of the story we’re telling today.

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The first thing you do is find a large rock, one that will stay put and heavy enough to resist bears checking for lunch underneath.

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Step two is to dig a hole to put it in.  We use pick handles to measure the size of both rock and hole.

Then you have to get the rock to where you want it to be.  The rocks are hard to move because they are too big for people to pick them up, the terrain is lumpy with other rocks, and they are awkward.

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Watch the fingers and toes!

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Then you have to set it and test for wobble.  We broke off the piece that stuck out.

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In the interim, the hikers keep coming.  It was a picture perfect day and the park was jammed.

The number of hikers passing through can hinder progress.  We give them priority except when we’re doing something that could be a safety problem for them.

Rinse and repeat to create more steps.

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We finished early enough that Caroline and I could clear three blowdowns on the AT between Compton parking and the north park boundary.   This was the most magnificent of them all.

This large ash likely fell during a wind storm Thursday before last.  There are many reasons you don’t want to near one of these trees when they come down.  This is not the first time a branch has been driven so deeply into the trail tread that we couldn’t get it out.  Had to cut it off.

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Done.

A day earlier I helped the ridgerunner decommission the Annapolis Rock caretaker site for the winter. Thanks to REI for donating the tent.

When leaves begin to fall so does the caretaker tent at Annapolis Rock. The autumn continues, but the ridgerunner season ends. It’s the saddest day of the year for me. 

To date we’ve had more than 30 ridgerunners since I became responsible for the program.  They are special people who join a long line of others who have selflessly helped protect and preserve the AT which, in and of itself, is a national treasure. But there’s a lot more.  In our area alone, it runs through three national parks, one state forest, five state parks and a couple of wildlife conservation areas.

Sisu

Hoodlums Trail Maintenance Workshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Mike Gergely

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

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

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Photo by Mike Gergely

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

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

We cleaned or replaced 30 check dams and 24 waterbars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beauty and the Beast

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

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

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

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

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

Sisu

I love this job!

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Shenandoah National Park, Hoodlums Work Trip, Saturday, July 17, 2021 — If variety is the spice of life, any break from the drudgery of policing up trash, cleaning privies, camouflage noncomplient campsites, breaking up fire rings, and taking notes adds to the flavor of the ridgerunner experience.

We always invite our ridgerunners to join trail maintenance activity. It breaks up their routine and helps them learn more about what it takes to keep our hiking trails open and serviceable.

It was early on Saturday morning when I waved to Sara at the Gravel Spring parking lot where we were to rendezvous and join some Hoodlums to work on the two-and-a-half-mile Pass Mountain Trail. The trail spans the distance between the Pass Mountain Hut and the park boundary at Hwy. 211. We would be joined by ridgerunner Chris Bowley and fellow Hoodlum Greg Foster.

Our job was to clear 16 reported blowdowns while another group of four would chop weeds overgrowing the trail. Since the trail is located in a designated wilderness area, only muscle powered tools are allowed.

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On the way to meet the others at the Panorama parking lot, we chainsawed this blowdown which we had left in this condition two weeks earlier.

From Panorama we spotted a car at the bottom of the trail at Hwy. 211; then shuttled up the Pass Mountain Hut access road so we could work down hill thereby saving energy with a gravity assist.

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From time to time, team ridgerunner took on team Hoodlum in the crosscut classic.  Let me tell you a secret, the old guys have much better technique.  This wasn’t our first rodeo.  The ridgerunners got to do something that you don’t see or do every day and they got pretty good at it.

Crosscut saws are incredibly efficient. That efficiency helped build this country. This particular saw was purchased by my grandfather in 1945. It works as well as the day it left the Simonds factory in Fitchburg, Mass. Simonds has been in the cutting tool business since 1832.

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This 14-inch ash was the last large blowdown we found. After this one, there were a couple of smaller ones.  By the time we got this far, lightning was cracking all around us as we hurried to get off the mountain. 

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Most sawyers really don’t like clearing the smaller logs.  They live for the big honkers that present a challenge and bragging rights.  When I saw this tree, my morale shot sky high.  This would make us sweat, but it would be fun.  Instead it was more than a match.  The yellow arrow is the reason why. 

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This was a huge tree.  The main trunk was more than 36 inches in diameter before it split into four large trunks.  At some point before the tree fell, a combination of ice and wind probably bent over the trunk designated by the arrow.  As nature would have it, the bent over trunk was now vertical.   At 12 inches, it was big and heavy enough to behave in unpredictable ways once we started bucking the blowdown.

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It took a lot of force to bend this live tree.

We pondered what to do before deciding to lop away the poison ivy and leave the tree for the park service professionals.  The upright trunk put this blowdown well beyond my experience and expertise.  Better safe than sorry was top of mind.

Yesterday the park service professional trail crew managed to cut the higher trunk blocking the trail.  The other, featuring the upright, was left in place as too dangerous under the circumstances.  At least now it will be easier to climb over.

By the way, the count for the day was a little off.  We cleared 19 blowdowns and left the one.  That may be a record.

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We finished around 2:30 p.m.  With deep hunger and time to spare we drove to the Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen in Sperryville. Their wood fired pizza oven makes tasty pizza.

For Sara and me, the day’s total was 20 blowdowns, but wait!  There was one more waiting for us at the Indian Run Maintenance Hut where we spent the night.

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We ate snacks, sipped beer and listened to the rain patter on our tents.  The reflector fire kept the bugs away while we reminisced about the days events.

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The three of us went to Sara’s favorite restaurant for breakfast.  Shall I say the apple doughnuts are yummy?  They are.

After dropping Sara off at Beahms Gap to contiunue her patrol, Chris and I schlepped a chainsaw and a string trimmer up to AT section I maintain on Compton Peak.  I weeded and cut logs.  Chris camouflaged a new noncompliant campsite that is, ironically, 200 yards from a legal one.

With that, the weekend work was done.  Blowdown total:  Twenty one.  The sense of accomplishment:  Priceless.  That why I Iove this job.

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