Reviving the Silver Creek Nature Trail

Littledale entrance.

Labor Day, Kensington, Maryland, September 7, 2020 — There’s a semi-secret nature trail in the neighborhood if you know where to look for it. Judging by the traffic it is less secret than it is secluded. Regardless, the trail that runs parallel to Silver Creek from Littledale to Saul is a gem.

The trail is known as a social trail meaning people created it by habitual use. It was not planned and officially does not exist so no known entity is responsible for its upkeep.

Lately it has needed some love. This large pine fell several years ago and users rerouted the trail to the first passable place. Kids love it, but it’s a literally a pain for adults with stiff backs.

Lately two more trees have roadblocked tread. Called blowdowns in trail maintence lingo, they are large enough to require a chainsaw for removal.

Beyond blowdowns the trail has become overgrown. Here Japanese stilth grass, an invasive, has taken over.

All along the trail briars and other sticker bushes have intruded. This is particularly painful for folks wearing shorts but for little ones, some of these prickly stickerberry vines are at face level making them potentially dangerous to a child.

This matters because vegetation on hiking trails is tick vector. The disease-bearing vampires crawl up onto vegetation. From this ambush position their intent is hitching a ride and and sucking dry the next convenient mammal.

The best way to limit exposure to Lyme and other tick borne diseases under these circumstances is to cut back the weeds and shrubs along the trail.

That’s why Friday, after communicating with homeowners association leadership, I asked for volunteers on the Rock Creek Hills listserv. I figured, judging by the volume of free stuff available at curbside, that a lot of people were staycationing and that some of them might be looking for a break at a safe social distance.

At 9 a.m. this morning our crew totaled 10 intrepid volunteers armed with an assortment of loppers, clippers, a weed wacker, a McLoed fire hoe, and a chainsaw.

We broke into groups and tackled the offending plants from both ends and the middle. After two-and-a-half hours the results speak for themselves.

No prisoners taken here.

In progress.

Hard work.

Vegetation free super highway.

Before.

After.

Before.

After.

Before. The original trail is to the right, the new trail to the duck-under is to the left.

In progress. Folks are clearing away the vegetation and the blowdown.

After. Original route restored.

We left this for the kids.

Saul entrance facing south, before.

Same place after.

Saul entrance facing north before.

Saul entrance after.

Thanks to Hill Carter, Maria Dinger, Chris Hankin, Meg Hankin, Mike Silverman, Jim Brandscom, Mike Mazzella, Osborne Parchment, and Elizabeth Kingery. You rock!

Would it have been more fun if we could have grilled some burgers and sloshed some beer afterwards? You bet, but these days you take what you can get.

Sisu

Earth Day Hike

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The Maryland ridgerunner’s Earth Day view of Greenbriar Lake.

Appalachian Trail Maryland, April 22, 2020 — “Love your Mother!” captained one of the earlier Earth Day Posters I can remember.  The admonition still applies, though one could easily argue we haven’t been doing such a good job of it.  If nothing else, the recent smog-free views taken of and in cities around the world offer evidence that we can do a better job of taking care of planet earth.

Love your mother

On the first Earth Day in 1970 I was an Army lieutenant stationed at Fort Benning, Ga.  I was way too busy to take much notice.

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I figured that the Hippies of that era existed to protest.  At the time, anti-Vietnam war protests were beginning to wain.  I reasoned that they needed a new subject and the environment was it.

I obviously wasn’t spending a lot of time thinking sophisticated thoughts then.  I was simply trying to do my best at the hardest job I’d ever had.

Earth Day was on my mind when I picked today for my weekly sojourn with Wes.  The pandemic we are experiencing has been tied to climate change and to other things Earth Day exists to bring to our attention.

I like to walk with Wes about once per week.  We’re not camping this year, so I haven’t had as much OJT time as usual.  Given the mandate to shelter at home, Earth Day seemed appropriate.

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We wore cloth masks while hiking.

We met a little before 10 a.m. at our destination, donned our N-95 masks, and shuttled to the start point at the Thurston Griggs trailhead.  This easy side trail connects to the AT at the Pogo campsite.

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Black birch blocking the trail.  “This is why we give you a saw.”

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Oh oh!  This one’s a little bigger.

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I have a sixteen inch folding saw, so we decided to take off the upper branch.  That would make this blowdown easier to step over.  The trunk obviously requires a chainsaw.

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We took turns.  Physical labor with a mask on isn’t fun.  Can’t wait for July – not!

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Now to dispose of the log.

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Finished job.

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A group of sorority sisters not practicing safe social distance at Black Rock.  Sometimes people think the rules of reality are suspended when they are out in nature.

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In the woods violets are flowers.  In your yard, they are weeds.  I like them as flowers.

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We counted 62 day hikers including three climbers.

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Common!

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This is under a no fire sign.  People do thoughtless things.  Fires sterilize the soil so it’s years before vegetation returns.  The fire scar is ugly.  One of the ridgerunners removed the soot from the rock with Elephant Snot a couple of years ago.  It appears no fires since.  That’s good news.

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Checked the caretaker site and hoovered some micro trash from under the picnic table.

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We were happy to clean up our mother’s backyard.  Couldn’t think of a better thing to do on this auspicious 50th Earth Day.

Sisu

 

Hoodlums October Work Trip

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Nine a.m. safety briefing at the Piney Ridge ranger station.

Shenandoah National Park, October 19, 2019 — Beautiful autumn weather welcomed around two dozen Hoodlums to our October work trip.  The turnout was as brilliant as the weather.

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After roll call and introductions we divided into four work parties – two on the AT, one for general maintenance, and one to construct a lateral drain.  Two crosscut crews attacked blowdowns in wilderness areas on the blue blaze side trails.  One of the crews cleared 29 down trees.

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Constructing a drainage dip.

My work party did general tread work on the AT section from Jenkins Gap to the Hogwallow overlook.

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In total we cleaned all the waterbars and check dams, replaced four log waterbars with drainage dips, and removed four blowdowns.

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We took advantage of the perfect weather to break for lunch.

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As we completed our work at Jenkins Gap, we met two thru hikers finishing their hike.  His partner was camera shy.  They were constructing a 2,192.0 marker out of leaves to memorialize their finish.  We were delighted to congratulate them.

The pot luck theme was Oktober Fest.  Everyone supplied their favorite German delights.

November encore?  Stay tuned.

Sisu

 

Hoodlums Crew Week

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Butterfly on short final for thistle pollen.  They have been abundant this year.

Shenandoah National Park, August 18 – 23, 2019 — Every year the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) Shenandoah trail crews organize crew weeks.  That’s when members can work closely with the park’s professional trail crews. It’s good for morale and camaraderie.  It’s also fun to play in the dirt like a five-year-old.

The five-day experience couples the satisfaction of teamwork and hard work with the joys of barracks-style living – nine people sharing a single bathroom and rush-hour-like  kitchen congestion.

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On the way to our work base in the park’s Pinnacles area, I stopped at my AT section at Jenkins Gap to refresh a flaky blaze.

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First you need exterior grade white paint, a brush and a scraper.

Next you remove the old paint and just enough bark to help the paint stick.

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Andy Warhol would be proud (I hope).

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Raiding the tool cache for tools needed for the the week.

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Loaded van, ready to rock and roll.

Monday we split up for a range of jobs.  Mine was on a “weeding” crew for an overseer who has been ill.

For arm chair trail maintainers, weeding translates to a roaring string trimmer frapping poison ivy into an evil green pesto that coats exposed skin like white on rice.  Need I say more?

It’s hot, sweaty and buggy work, all necessary to remove habitat for the ticks that cause Lyme disease.

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Day two dawned with the full brutality of mid-Atlantic summer heat and humidity.  It was so hot that the burning crosscut kerf spit fire and brimstone.

We teamed up to rip our way through this 18-inch blowdown.  It’s in a federally designated wilderness near the park’s western boundary.  By definition, power tools cannot be used for trail work in wilderness areas, hence the muscle power.

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Anna, 65, and Mary, 68, proved age is no limit.

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The guys had several bites at the apple too.

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Half done, but the heat index was oppressive.  We were working at least 1,500 feet lower than the ridge above us where the temp would have been 10 – 15 degrees cooler.

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Shortly after we snapped this victory photograph, one of our members showed symptoms of heat exhaustion.

In this case the symptoms were: dizziness, dark urine, fatigue, transient nausea, vision issues and lack of coordination. Skin was cool and normal color, but she wasn’t sweating much.  Heart rate and breathing remained within a normal range under the conditions.  Her awareness and alertness (A/O) score remained at 3 for the entire time.

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Treatment included moving the patient into the shade, soaking her with water, placing chemical cold packs against her carotid arteries, taking her vital signs, and ultimately getting her to sip a liter of Pedialyte.  In total she drank 2.5 liters of Pedialyte and water.

We radioed Shenandoah dispatch about 15 minutes after the onset of symptoms for a backcountry EMT.  Her symptoms were worsening.

We knew it would be awhile.  The plan was to continue treatment until the EMTs could arrive or, if she improved sufficiently, to walk her out over the mile-and-a-half down hill to the trailhead.

Unfortunately emergencies in the backcountry are never trivial.  Help can’t arrive easily or quickly.  We coach our ridgerunners to prepare to be on scene without help for up to three hours in a worse case scenario.  Depending on the nature of the injury, that’s a lot of time for bad things to happen.

After an hour, our patient improved and felt strong enough to attempt to walk out.

The EMTs were still on the way, so we radioed dispatch that we were walking out.  We met the EMTs and park rangers at the trail head where they were preparing to hike in with the guide we had sent ahead.

Our patient was assessed and monitored for almost an hour before being discharged to our care.

A law enforcement ranger who responded paid our team the ultimate compliment.  “It was,” he observed, “nice to see people in the backcountry who were properly prepared.”

Amen to that.

The next day’s weather forecast was for molten metal falling from the sky, so we decided to take a zero day which would allow us to slip behind the public access curtain to see what we could learn. Our thanks to Rebecca Unruh, the ranger who coordinates our volunteer activities.

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The park archives are an amazing collection of records and artifacts dating back before the park’s creation in the 1930s.

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What’s in this box?

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Original maps.

Next stop, Rapidan Camp. The camp was President Hoover’s country (very rustic) retreat.  It was the model for Camp David, the current presidential retreat, located about 150 miles north in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Park.

fullsizeoutput_2064Our zero day ended on a Sundae.

fullsizeoutput_2056  Throughout the year we partner with the National Park Service rangers.  Dave Jenkins is responsible for trail maintenance in the northern half of the park.

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Building a drainage dip for a wet spot.  We are shifting from hard-structure waterbars (drains made of wood and stone) to dirt mounds variously called swales, rolling grade dips, or as the trail maintenance manual (p. 65) calls them, “drainage dips.”  They are more natural and have less environmental impact.

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The dirt is raked down hill and hard tamped into a mound set at a 45 degree angle to the trail forming a ditch-like structure.

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We also cleaned and repaired serviceable log and stone waterbars.

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Some people pose with trophy animals.  We, on the other hand …

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Last project.

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Closeout discussion with Ranger Rebecca Unruh at our barracks.

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Final portrait.  One more crew week in the books.

Sisu

 

 

Black Friday = Green Friday

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Shenandoah National Park, Black Friday, November 23, 2018 — Everybody needs a ginormous boob tube to watch foooball and swill cheap beer, right?  When’s the best time to score one?  Black Friday, of course.

Everybody who needs more stuff, raise your hand. Mall warriors betting they won’t lose yardage tackling a foreign-made discount TV at the local running of the fools, please do the same.

Guess what?  There are alternatives.  Turn off your phone.  Go outside.  Volunteer.  Make a change. Be productive.  That’s what two of my friends and I did and what a day we had.

The curtain rose on a leaden sky, accompanied by a biting wind.  We linked up at the Jenkins Gap trailhead parking at a leisurely 9:30 to avoid suffering Washington’s mad dog, crack-of-dawn, Black Friday shopping traffic.

Bright sunbeams were piercing the cloud deck like metaphorical knitting needles as we pulled our gear out of our SUVs. The day ended in warming sunshine.

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There were three of us.  Kelly, me and her husband Phil.  We were armed with a shovel, a McLoed fire hoe, and a pick-mattox respectively.

The plan, march 2.3 miles to the top of Compton Peak and work our way back to the cars.  In between we’d clear waterbars (drains) of debris, improve those needing work, replace at least one, and clear blown-down trees and branches blocking the trail.

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The first order of business was to test the frozen ground to see if we could actually dig.  If we not, plan B was to take a long hike.

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Ice formed a crust about an inch thick.  It was easily cracked by our tools.

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Some waterbars needed only to have the leaves raked out.  Others, like this one, had silted up and needed extensive rebuilding.

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My resident bear sow ripped this waterbar apart discarding the rotting log off to the right.  The park’s policy is be more environmentally gentle and avoid, where possible, using wood and rock in building trail structures.  This swale, sometimes called a “grade dip” replaced the log.  Grade dips actually require less long-term maintenance, so what’s not to like?

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Keeping track.

We also cleared the path of several large branches knocked down by a recent storm.  After three hours, we were done, with enough time remaining to take a little stroll.

We drove one car south to the Hogback overlook trailhead, leaving one at Jenkins to which we could return.

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What we’d hoped would be a pleasant walk turned into another three-hour maintenance trip.  In all, we found 10 trees blocking the trail.  We removed three with the small folding saw we had, trimmed a couple like this one making it easier for hikers to pass.  The rest we reported.

We finished up having turned Black Friday into a green one; also knowing the overseer for this section would soon be in need of elbow grease aplenty.

Happy Green Friday!

Sisu

Widowmakers

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Would you camp under this tree?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Standing dead trees.

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

These hazards are not trivial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Removing a hazard tree near Bears Den hostel.

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Storm damage.

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Storm damage.

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

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Nuff said.

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

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

Sisu

Ten Glorious Days

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

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Hike across Maryland hikers resting at the Ed Garvey shelter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obligatory horsing around photos.

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We made it!

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

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

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

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

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

Sisu

Windstorm Cleanup

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Shenandoah National Park, Sunday March 11, 2018 — About ten days ago a nor’easter ripped through the mid-Atlantic on its way to hammer New England.  Large trees were snapped and uprooted like toothpicks, dragging down power lines as they crashed to earth.  Widespread power outrages bloomed in the winter storm’s aftermath.

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Our own electricity in the big city burbs was out for four days thanks to a big old tree that landed in the wrong place.

Soon word spread of massive blowdowns all along the Appalachian Trail, especially in Shenandoah National Park.  What’s a dedicated trail maintainer gonna do except saddle up and ride toward the sound of cracking tree trunks?

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This tree snapped near its base, and in the process, blocked a four-way trail junction.  Bucking this 20-inch tree was an interesting puzzle requiring careful attention to safety and a step-by-step approach.

fullsizeoutput_154bStep one was trimming away the smaller branches and reducing the blowdown to its bare structure.

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Step two is getting the main trunk on the ground where it’s safer to chop it up.

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Step three is reduce the main trunk.  Here, with a top bind, after an initial cut about eight inches deep, wedges are driven to keep the cerf from closing and trapping the saw in the cut.

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Wedges in, the job can be finished.

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Step four is get the slash off the trail and out of the way.  Best of all, we converted a lot of chainsaw gas into sawdust.

Job. Done.

All told, we cut six blowdowns on the section I maintain.  The subject tree was on the southern end.

After that, we moved to the Indian Run fire road which is the access to the Hoodlum’s maintenance hut.

We quickly picked off three minor blockages on the fire road.

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Of course there’s always “that one.”  This 12-incher was draped in vines and it was hollow making it a bit more sketchy to cut.

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The approach was to trim away the vines and branches before dicing up the trunk from the top down.

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Like dicing vegetables for roasting.

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Sliced into small enough chunks to drag off the trail.

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Ten obstructive trees were gone.  Then we found this.  This tree is a good 20 inches alone.  It has a twin right behind it. That’s a twofer.  It’s also a “leaner.”  The angle isn’t bad, but this multi-ton tree’s top is hung up requiring care to safely bring it to justice.

The day was getting late.  Fatigue proved the better part of valor and a safety rule red light, so we left the remaining trees for the Hoodlums to tackle on Saturday.

Sisu

 

A Remarkable Blowdown

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Shenandoah National Park, October 20 – 21, 2017 — Imagine finding a 50-year-old locust tree prostrate on your favorite picnic table like a drunk passed out in a dark alley.  Most of us didn’t know this stately friend had a problem.  Regardless, there it was.

The Hoodlum’s crew weekend was off to an exciting start.

We suspect the last gasp of one of the recent hurricanes was responsible for doing a number on this poor tree that used to live at the Hoodlums trail crew hangout at Indian Run.  The tree’s lush leaves fooled us.  Termites had found its heart.  It was weakened and didn’t need much to do it in.

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The dead picnic table wasn’t the locust’s only victim.  Our recently repaired reflector fire took a glancing blow significant enough to pop a few rocks loose.

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On its way down or on a bounce, the dearly departed tree crunched our backup picnic table too. To add to the misfortune, we replaced the wood in each of the picnic tables only a year ago.  Damn!

The good news is that the Indian Run maintenance hut suffered no damage. Amen!

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Hasty clean up cleared usable space.

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The fire was built on schedule.

The Hoodlums worked Saturday as scheduled on various trail repair projects with a small work party assigned to clean up this tree.  Bottom line:  We’ll have enough firewood for a next year.

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I was in the park earlier on Friday to work on the AT section I maintain and to get ready for a large work party assigned to help me finish rehabbing its erosion control structures and remove two blowdowns.  After all of the leaves are down, I’ll make a trip to rake them out of the waterbar drains and put this puppy to bed for the winter.

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A dirt waterbar called a grade dip.  We’re getting away from using logs and stone whenever possible.

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A downed apple tree in an old orchard through which the AT passes.

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My guess is that a bear was climbing the tree an broke off a large limb.

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There were dozens of apples on the ground.  This is unusual because the bears and deer love them and normally by this time, they are no longer on the market.  The mast (food) has been excellent this year.  The immediate area is full of oak and hickory trees and the nuts, apples and berries have been overstocked in contrast to two years ago when there was virtually nothing because of drought.

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The potluck theme was Oktober Fest.  IMG_1726

The kraut and brats were yummy.