Gilligan’s Island Hike. What could go wrong?

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Appalachian Trail south of Harpers Ferry, WV, Friday, October 2, 2020 — We rendezvoused at the church parking lot next to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry.  Hot Starbucks and blueberry muffins fortified the blue sky, dry air and perfectly cool autumn morning.

Bellies comfortably full, the Gang of Four plus one piled into my Subaru, masks on and windows down for the shuttle to our starting point at the Keys Gap trailhead.  From there we planned a three hour tour to Harpers Ferry with a detour to the Loudon Heights scenic overlook.

Our plus one was Nancy who was dubbed the Iron Ranger for her roots in Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.

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The start was uneventful.  We marched six to eight feet apart. 

The AT is infamous for its rocky tread.  It wasn’t long before the Iron Ranger got bucked off her horse in a classic face plant that dealt her a bruised cheek and a small skinned area on the palm of her hand.  She’s made of Viking stock, so patched up, she soldiered on.  Little did we know that by day’s end we would each do some serious soldiering.

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Taking a break.

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Badass removes a branch blocking the trail, her first experience as a trail sawyer.

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Along the way we photographed natures interesting handiwork.

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Not far from the orange trail that goes to the overlook on Loudon Heights.  This where the “What could go wrong” part comes in.

I’ve hiked through here dozens of times but had never diverted to see the overlook after seeing photos taken there.  It’s excellent, but Maryland Heights was much better, so I never bothered.  Besides I was always in some kind of hurry.

We rallied at the turn off behind the trail sign.  My assumption for a number of reasons was that the viewpoint was less than a mile out of the way.  When we returned, the sign said it was two miles. 

Round trip that’s at least two extra hours.  So instead of finishing at 3 p.m. we finished at 5:30 when the walk all the way back to the church parking log was factored in.  Probably would not have done that if I’d looked at the sign.

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This view of the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers was the holy grail. 

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Trophy pic.

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By the time everyone reached the overlook many of us were spent.  We took plenty of rest breaks on the way to Harpers Ferry.

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Full circle.  Lunch turned into dinner at Keys Gap. Our weary bodies smacked the log benches with the sound of a waitress wet-ragging a plastic table cloth.

There we were with quads made of jelly, sore feet and empty fuel tanks.

Seemingly to pick us up, AWOL bragged her gluts were in fine form.  That was a rare opening.  She has wanted a new trail name, so we started riffing – Hardass, and Buns of Steel emerged as candidates.  Being who we are, Iron Butt won the day.  Iron Butt it is.

At some point I think I was charged attempted murder if not formally that’s what everyone was thinking.  I thank them for the acquittal.

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Saturday night was Badass’s birthday.

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Happy Birthday!

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Celebrating six feet apart at Bulldog’s house. 

Guess what? We had as much fun as they did on Gilligan’s Island and we’re already planning our next outing.

Sisu

Emptying the Gravel Spring Privy

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The corrugated bin cover (extreme right) is off.  Steve and John plot the attack.

Shenandoah National Park, Gravel Spring Hut, August 17, 2020 — One would not consider August an ideal month to be emptying the compost bin of a backcountry privy but PATC’s faithful Crapper Crew reported for duty anyway armed with buckets, shovels and digging bars.

Most privies in our region are a simple design consisting of two bins and an outhouse that can be moved from one bin to another. One side is active while the other is composting which normally takes about two years. Users are asked to cover their business with wood shavings from a bucket to allow air to enhance the process. Urine adds needed moisture.

Extra wood shavings and cleaning supplies are stored in the long silver box in the upper right of the lead photo. It’s not a coffin for any dead bodies we might find.

Normally the heat and humidity of a mid-Hotlantic summer is unbearable. Add close proximity to the active side of the privy and the word ripe could be an understatement. Let’s just say that we got lucky. Starting temps were in the mid 60s tickled by a gentle breeze. We took it.

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The ramp had to be removed before we could start.

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You need a team to do this.  First up is the digger who scoops out the compost and puts it in one of several five gallon buckets.  Second is the picker who hand picks and trash-bags the stuff that’s not supposed to be in the privy.  Last is the bucket brigade whose members spread the compost on the forest floor.  All told, we totaled five.

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You find a lot of detritus in the compost.  There is usually at least one pair of underwear.  Wipes, which don’t decompose, in spite of what the packaging says,  are the most common item followed by the likes of food packaging, bottles, feminine hygiene products, and clothing.  Once we found a potty trowel used by hikers to dig cat holes.

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This trip hikers gifted us two bags of trash.  That’s about normal.

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The digger gets in the bin so they can reach the gold at the bottom.

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Once the composting bin is empty, the crew slides the outhouse over the empty bin and bolts it back on. 

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The bin cover is placed over the newly inactive side and the ramp is reattached.

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Long deck screws finish the job.

Ok.  I know.  I didn’t answer the question you’ve been thinking about the whole time.  No, the compost does not smell. 

Sisu

Spring cleaning delayed.

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Home, April 14, 2020 — As the debate about when America can go back to work stutters along, I’ve been wondering when trail maintainers can start digging dirt again.  We want to work too. Time’s a wasting.

I am under no illusion that someone is going to flip a magic switch and the world will shift from black and white to living color regardless of the political pyrotechnics.  The virus doesn’t care.

Until there is an effective vaccine, COVID-19 can be a potentially mortal threat to anyone who catches it. Respect alone for this potential will certainly cause some people to avoid crowds and certain public places.

Nevertheless, at some point the parks and trails will reopen to the public. People think they’re far from others when they are in the woods as if civilization can’t follow them there.  It’s an attractive illusion, so they’ll be back.

For one, I’d like to have the trails safe and ready when they come.

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The problem is that the trail you tidy up in the fall …

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… looks very different in the spring.

Between now and when the people come back, nature will be hard at work.  Spring has sprung and the weeds are growing.  It won’t be long before they take over the joint unless they are cut back.

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Why worry about weeds?  They are the way ticks carrying Lyme disease get to hikers.  Lyme disease or COVID-19?  Each is ugly in its own way.

Weeds are only one of the jobs that need to be done in the spring.

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The tread itself needs maintenance.  Water control structures silt up or rot over the winter.  A bear destroyed this one.  This waterbar has to be cleaned and rebuilt.  It’s clear from the detritus that it’s no longer effective.

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Blowdowns also have to be cleared.

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We’ve has several howling windstorms recently which increase the probability of finding blown down branches as well as tree trunks.

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Everyone I know is itching to get a jump on spring maintenance before hikers return.  Trail maintainers like nothing better than packing up for an honest day’s work, although I despise the two-hour drive each way.

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The tool caches are ready.  With the people gone, we could get a lot done when it’s easy to maintain safe social distance.  Maintainers in our area are spread about one to two miles apart.

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But, like they say, the trail will be there when the time comes. True dat.  Meanwhile, I’m on the bench yelling, “Put me in coach!”  Where’s coach?  He’s sheltering at home just like the rest of us.

Sisu

 

2020 continues to disappoint.

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Appalachian Trail, April 12, 2020 — The Appalachian Trail is closed to thru hiking with no camping or facility use allowed now on any federally owned land and in multiple states.

People everywhere, who are in effect under house arrest, have been paroled by governmental authorities to do just two things – go to the grocery store and exercise. Tens of thousands naturally swarmed the hiking trails, especially the signature locations – the ones that make every top ten list.

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McAfee Knob, VA.  Courtesy Creative Commons

This is McAfee Knob, near Salem, VA.  It is probably the most iconic spot on the AT.  Imagine this space mobbed with 150 people instead of the 13 in this photo.  The flash mobs happened here and nearly every other popular hiking trail and overlook along the trail.

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Annapolis Rock is another tiny beauty spot that is often overcrowded, especially in a time of safe social distance.

Ultimately hikers were unable to maintain safe social distance forcing the Appalachian Trail Conservancy which manages the trail for the National Park Service, and the National Park Service AT office, to ask for and receive permission to close federally owned land.

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At nearly the same time, the national parks through which the AT passes closed themselves to the public for the same reason.

As all of this unfolded, most thru hikers took heed and suspended their hikes, their life-long dreams dashed like glass bottles thrown on the rocks.

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Thru hiking is not a casual endeavor.  Many take years to save enough money, buy their gear and find six months they can spend on the trail.

To have it unexpectedly end for reasons far beyond their control is a personal tragedy. Many will never get another chance.  Others will resort to section hikes over many years. The lucky ones will rebound next year for a second crack.

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A few hikers are pressing on in spite of warnings that they may help spread the virus, in spite of learning that some of the small rural towns aren’t welcoming them, knowing full well that medical care in rural Appalachia is barely available on a good day, and in spite of ATC policy not to record them as thru hikers.

These hikers been criticized as selfish and self-centered.  Some may be.  But thru hiking isn’t a mean feat.  It’s more like an Olympic class athletic event.  The hike itself has to be the most important goal in your life at that time with a focus that cuts steel like a laser.  It is do or die.  For someone in that state of mind, it has to be hard to throw in the towel.

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There also are international hikers who, for a raft of reasons, can’t get home until their visas expire.  Rural transportation networks are rickety with reduced service.  Some want to shelter in town “until this blows over.”  They plan to continue when the AT and national parks reopen to the public.

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Normally by now, the caretaker’s tent is pitched on the platform and there’s a tarp over the picnic table.  This year it’s possible that may never happen.  Depending on circumstances, it might not happen next year either.

If you left the trail, there’s good news and bad news.

In the good news category, your gear will still be good next year and for years to come.

You now have an idea what a thru hike is all about, especially those who made it a few hundred miles.

You probably still have the bulk of the money you saved for your hike.

You can stay in physical condition and even get stronger.  You’ve got a much better idea of what it takes.

The bad news is finding the time a second year in a row.

Worse, with the economy in suspended animation, far too many may have problems finding work.  They may have to burn through their AT nest egg just to survive.

The trail infrastructure is likely to drastically change.  Hostels are fragile businesses with thin margins. They needed the cash from this season to make it through next winter.

Me.  I’d take it one step, one day, one week, one month at a time.  We will eventually hike on.

Sisu

 

COVID-19 knows no boundaries.

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Home sequestration, March 27, 2020 — This past week has seemed like a year.

It feels like Mother Nature has put the entire country in time out.  We got sent home from school for bad behavior. We’re stuck in our rooms.  Justification: Failure to be good stewards of our lonely blue marble.  Maybe Mamma’s gettin’ even?

But like Biblical pestilence, famine, the sword, beasts, plague, and their friends, sometimes it feels like the four horsemen are thundering just over the horizon.  Other times we simply long for companionship.  The urge to invite family to dinner or gather with like-minded friends is overwhelming.

Then, there’s always wine.  And Zoom.  Because Amazon has run out of lamb’s blood.

Gather together.  Isn’t that what humans do in stressful times?  We are herd animals, like it or not. But, the herd is too big and the big dogs are making a cull.

For example:

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The overcrowding up and down the AT and in the National Parks that I reported last week exploded over the weekend.  Rocky Mountain, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and The Great Smoky Mountains national parks are closed to the public for public health reasons.

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On the east coast, the Chattahoochee, George Washington and Jefferson National Forests are completely closed to visitors.  Too many people, people.

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This illustrates the overcrowding out west.

More parks are considering closing.

A Maryland State Park Service ranger told me that they were “Slammed!”  over the weekend.  Twenty-one million people live within two hours of most Maryland parks.  Seems like a big bunch of them showed up.

It’s boring sitting at home.  Or is it, if you can’t maintain a safe distance between yourself and the next person?  And oh, by the way, please take your trash with you when you leave.

Dear Darwin Award candidates.  It won’t be boring in the ICU, that is if you can get a ticket.

There is an inverse ratio equation that may apply here:  FOMO is inversely proportional the closer you get to the ICU.

(Thanks for the concept Tom Toles, Washington Post editorial cartoonist.)

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With the closures, the trails resemble a reverse scene out of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.”

Absent were the humans.  The sound of their chatter.  The crunch of their boots.  The crinkle of their candy wrappers. The scraping of their potty trowels. The soft poof of their TP tulips making trash landings faded away. Only the chirping of chickadees and the buzz of the bees, harmonized with the rustling leaves and the beavers’ baseline to entertain the squirrels, the deer and the bears.

Please stay home.  This article explains why.  This is why.

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We had another conference call this week to reassess ridgerunners.

 

AT Closure

Each year our trail club hires six ridgerunners to patrol the 240 AT miles we maintain. The trail is, in effect, closed.  Accordingly, the club is supporting the land manager partners who still want ridgerunners.

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We’re now down to three ridgerunners – Shenandoah National Park, Northern Virginia and Maryland.  Shenandoah is delaying the start of all their seasonal employees until circumstances sort themselves out, April 30 at the earliest.

The nature of the COVID-19 virus will dictate profound changes to the normal ways ridgerunners function, not the least of which is maintaining social distance.

Until further notice, the ridgerunners will not enter shelters, tend privies or sleep in the back country.  Each has a discrete residence that they don’t share with anyone else.  Health insurance is provided this year as an extra precaution.

With the ridgerunner question settled, home sequestration isn’t the end of the world in my neighborhood.  If you can’t hike far away, you can hike near by.

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The 40-mile long Rock Creek Trail is a leafy block-and-a-half away.

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The walks are agreeable in spite of the urban location.

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My neighborhood has plenty of pleasant walking.

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We are very situationally aware as a neighborhood.  This family always has a sense of humor – and Halloween decorations that can be amortized over additional use.

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Campfire anyone?  Who’s afraid of a ferocious house cat?

Our house is a comfortable redoubt for a reason.  It was built for a man with ALS who loved the outdoors.  You wouldn’t know his name, but you do know his work.  He invented those bumpy tiles at crosswalks and along train platforms in his workshop in the basement of this house.

Thanks to Robert Kramer, this is a more than pleasant place if you have to hole up.

Oh! One more thing. The radio and TV are off.  Podcasts beat the hell out of newscasts. Old Time Radio podcasts are my favorites along with “Ben Franklin’s World,” “What you Missed in History Class” “Sawbones,” and “In Our Time” from the BBC.

Be safe.

Sisu

Hiking with Contagion

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Everywhere, March 23, 2020 — On a cool spring morning, on the Appalachian Trail in Maryland, we were on a 12-mile hike that would put this state’s 42 miles in the books.  It would mean one state down and 13 to go for Bulldog on the AT.

In some ways nothing has changed.  Hikers still have to lift their feet one step at a time.  In other ways everything has changed.  In addition to an over abundance of pollen, the invisible threat of the COVID-19 virus ominously hangs in the air.

As governments closed restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and other gathering places, the media observed that at least the hiking trails were open.

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Shenandoah National Park Photo

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Shenandoah National Park Photo

It didn’t take long for people to figure that out. They have been swarming the trails, especially the beauty spots such as trails with popular waterfalls and overlooks. The overcrowding defeats nature’s benefits.

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Bulldog needed the most popular section in Maryland to fill in her dance card.  This is the footbridge across I-70 near Boonsboro, MD.

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Social distancing from above.

In the course of the first eight miles, from Washington Monument State Park to the Pogo campground, we counted 50 hikers, 17 of which were backpackers.  From talking with them, noting more trash than usual and the type of trash, and from observing the size of backpacks and bear spray, we deduced the crowd was mostly novice.

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The miles after eight are less popular and we saw no one.

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Bulldog’s step count.

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Stay tuned for the next state.  It’ll probably be West Virginia’s less than five miles.  After that, they’re pretty much out of day-hiking practicality.  Virginia’s 500+ miles are a prime example.  Remember this sucker is 2,200 miles long.

We did not wear masks while hiking.  We could easily stay six feet apart and well away from other hikers.  We did mask up to shuttle our cars to the start and end points.  I am in a vulnerable group relative to gray hair and having allergy-related asthma.

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“Zooming” with Sandi Marra, president of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Our hike was only the kickoff event for a relentless week.  As the CDC and state governors refined their guidance, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy needed to make decisions relative to hiker safety, the ridgerunner season, trail conditions, meetings and a lot more.

As of this writing, noon Monday, March 23, the following closures and restrictions have been announced: Rocky Mountain National Park is completely closed.  Shelters/campgrounds closed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park, George Washington National Forest, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Numerous hostels and trail centers have also closed.  Trail crew work trips are canceled including my beloved Hoodlums.

This just in:  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy will officially ask Americans to stay off the AT until further notice!  The overcrowding is unsafe.  Darwin Award candidates everywhere.

I’ve asked the park if I should do this or not.  Thursday I’m driving up to Shenandoah to prepare my AT section for spring, raking leaves out of the waterbars (drains), paint some blazes, and a couple of other small projects.  Will count cars in the parking lots on the way out.

Stay tuned and stay safe everyone.

Sisu

Witt’s Chainsaw Rides Again!

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That white glaze isn’t frosting.  It’s ice which atomizes when the teeth bite in.

Appalachian Trail, Northern Virginia, January 21, 2020 — The thermometer was slinking past 19 degrees this morning when we crunched gravel in the Keys Gap trailhead parking lot.  We were on a search and destroy mission to clear six blowdowns on the AT.

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The frosty air pinched our noses as we rucked up the chainsaw and all its trimmings.  The first blowdown was quick on the march.  The white stuff is ice.

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The chainsaw makes quick work of these guys.

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All clear.  The next five were attacked in quick succession.

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One side down.

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Side two.  The round, or the middle chunk of log we removed, had to be cut in half.  It was too heavy to manhandle out of the way.

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The formula is simple.  Convert gasoline to noise.  Noise is a catalyst that converts wood to sawdust.  Done.

Sisu

First Day Hike 2020

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Tina’s inevitable selfie marking our start at Gathland State Park, MD.

Appalachian Trail, MD, Gathland to Weverton, January 1, 2020 — Do this math.  It was the Gang of Four, minus one who had to work, plus three.  If Mary was one of them, how many oranges did Mary have left if she ate two?  Answer:  6.5 miles.  Makes as much sense as most word problems.

The confusion doesn’t matter because these intrepid hikers braved the morning frost to mark the New Year in search of burgers and beer at the end of the rainbow.

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Rest stop at the Ed Garvey Shelter

The trail between Gathland and Weverton Cliff is gentle and not very rocky by AT standards.  Tina, who was on the nine-mile Black Friday march, was delighted both by the relative absence of rocks and by the gentle terrain.

The hike follows a wooded ridgeline that is semi exposed to the predominate northwesterly winds.  At times the gusty breath of Mother Nature nibbled at exposed skin, but in return, the sun represented her comforting motherly hug.  Layers and hats were on, and off, and on again for most of the day.

We were a merry band on our march.  We wished “Happy New Year!” to everyone we met along the way.  While the trail wasn’t crowded, the number of families enjoying a First Day hike was impressive.

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Our second rest top was Weverton Cliff.

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Weverton Cliff offers sweeping vistas of the Potomac River all the way to Harpers Ferry.

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“Bulldog” is noted for finding and photographing natural art.

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Weverton has LTE.  Can you tell?

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Glam shot of “Bad Ass.”  She was once a television correspondent for a network you would recognize.  She still looks the part.

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It’s almost a military formation!  The front two are military veterans leading the way.  Note Sam’s “Air Force gloves.”

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Railroad bridge closure notice at the trailhead.  We’ll soon know soon how much longer repairs are expected to take.

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We took the long way to burgers and beer, stopping to admire the view at Jefferson Rock.

Total trash collected and packed out:  One gallon by volume.

All in all, the First Day was a good day.

Sisu

The AT’s Newest Sawyer

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Appalachian Trail, The Rollercoaster, Virginia, December 28, 2019 —  Some folks who spend time preserving and protecting hiking trails are possessed by the demons of perfectionism.

Knowing something isn’t right is like an itch they can’t scratch.  They obsess about it until whatever ‘it’ is, is fixed.  In this case ‘it’ was blowdowns.

Pair uncleared blowdowns with a newly certified sawyer itching to practice, and a chainsaw gets to go for a hike along with a couple of enthusiastic swampers !

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By way of introduction, our sawyer is Witt Wisebram who was last season’s ridgerunner in Northern Virginia and ultra distance runner.  The Atlanta native is now the winter caretaker at the Blackburn Trail Center.

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A “pie cut,” sometimes called a wedge cut, is used because the bind is on top and the log isn’t thick enough to use wedges.  It’s too close to the ground to attack from underneath.

The first few blowdowns were little more than a nuisance to hikers.  They are step-overs that can be ignored, at least the small ones can.  They are removed because they can cause erosion.  The greater challenge for the sawyer on this type of blowdown is to avoid sawing rocks and dirt.

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This tree trunk blocks the trail.  There’s no way around it.  It’s equally difficult to crawl over or under.  Because it’s a “leaner,” care is taken to read it in terms of bind, how the log will behave once the tension is released, including whether it might roll.

You also want to keep your feet out from under the top section of the trunk which will hit the ground with a heavy thud.

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The pie cut missed but the angle cut worked anyway.  Experience gained.  Witt’s friend Jason congratulates!

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Clean up.

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Finishing the job.

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Funny how they seem to fall perpendicular to the treadway.

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Blowdowns come in all sizes.  Witt captured the white blaze for display at Blackburn.

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People have been painting rocks and leaving them along the trail as decorations.  Now it’s golf balls.

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This is how we found it.  Needless to say we packed it out.

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This large branch buried itself more than a foot into the ground.  It was too big to move without being reduced to bite-size chunks.

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Mother nature saved the tenth and best blowdown for last.  The bigger ones are more fun to cut.

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A log this large – in this case about three inches thicker than the length of the chainsaw bar – sometimes the round will bind and not drop to the ground.  An inverse keystone cut is used to ensure the cut out section falls to the ground.

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Note the end of the bar is not sticking out. That means the sawyer has to cut from both sides.

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We used wedges to keep the kerf open. It worked as planned.

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The trail is clear.

Stay tuned for the Gang of Four’s First Day Hike.

Sisu

 

 

 

 

Myron Avery Award

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Vienna, VA. November 20, 2019 — The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s annual awards banquet offered yours truly a wonderful surprise in the form of the club’s highest honor, the Myron Avery Volunteer of the Year Award.

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PATC Myron Avery Award.

“Named in honor of the founder of the PATC, the Myron Avery Award recognizes a substantial achievement by a PATC member who most exemplifies the spirit of volunteerism through his or her contribution to PATC during the past year. This is the highest honor bestowed upon members of the club and is awarded to the PATC volunteer who most exemplifies Mr. Avery’s dedication and devotion to PATC’s mission. The contribution can be to any type or combination of club service activities, e.g., devoting many hours above and beyond the norm to service activities, including travel time, or making an exceptional contribution to a particular project.”*  Avery also founded the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Two people are principally responsible for creating the Appalachian Trail.  Benton MacKaye supplied the vision.  Myron Avery got it done.  Myron Avery

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Volunteers are the heart and soul of the AT and our national parks.  About 250,000 volunteer hours annually are needed to keep the AT properly maintained and open.

Thousands of volunteers across 14 states, hundreds from the PATC alone, give what they can in time, money and sweat for a labor of love.  I’m proud to be counted among them.

Sisu

*www.patc.net