Cowboy Candle

This is a cowboy candle.

This is a cowboy candle.  More about that in a bit.

Shenandoah National Park, Mathews Arm Campground, September 18 – 20, 2015 —  Come September mother nature begins nodding off as she contemplates her year’s achievements and a well-deserved winter rest.  Her spring creations are mature now having flourished in the embrace of warm summer sun and slaked by rain.  It’s time to lengthen the nights, turn down the heat and prepare to swaddle in blankets of white.

With the humidity having been wrung out of the autumn air, my car pulled in just after 8:30 p.m. Friday evening.  I’d been helping with a thru-hiker event at an REI store in Virginia that nailed my feet to the floor until after six — dead into the locked jaws of outbound D.C. area traffic.

The penalty of “rush hour” tacked a vexing extra hour to my trip, thank you very much! Traffic is the only thing in Washington that isn’t in a hurry.

As I shut off my ignition, it was dead dark and I was much later than I wanted to be. I still had to find a spot, pitch my tent, cook the a la foil steak resting in my cooler, and get some rest before the starting gun popped Saturday morning.  The night was warm with a gentle breeze that allowed me to snooze on top of my sleeping bag.

The workshop is a cooperative effort between the Hoodlums trail crew and the Shenandoah park rangers.

The workshop is a cooperative effort between the Hoodlums trail crew and the Shenandoah park rangers.

Our workshop is an excellent training exercise limited to 30 participants.  They are divided into three groups classified as novice, intermediate and advanced trail maintainers.  People come from other geographical areas and maintaining clubs to take part.

I led an intermediate level group of five to build check dams and water bars on my section of the Appalachian Trail.

I led an intermediate level group of five to build and rehab check dams and water bars on my section of the Appalachian Trail.

So much for the work.  The best part is socializing at the bookends of the day.  We each contribute to a kitty so that we can hire caterers from Pennsylvania who have been with us for years.  All we have to do is schmooze and have fun.

The Park Service sets up an awning for us.  Thanks to good weather we didn't have to use it.

The Park Service sets up an awning for us. Thanks to good weather we didn’t need it.

We have a convenient fire pit.

I could get used to car camping.  Unlike backpacking, if you think you might need it, you just pitch what ever ‘it” may be into the trunk of your car.  That’s why everyone brought a cooler full of beer!

Saturday night is the only “official” night of the workshop. One of our rituals is torching a “cowboy candle.”  A log about three feet long is chainsawed into eight standing and numbered sections.  Everyone bets on the upright they think will be the last one standing.

This year about 90 percent of us bet on pillar number seven.  It was up wind and seemed a bit thicker than the others.  Wrong!  It was the first to go.

This year about 90 percent of us bet on pillar number seven. It was up wind and seemed a bit thicker than the others. Wrong! It was the first to go. 😦

As we cheered for our cowboy candle favorites, the breeze sharpened in a way that signaled that we were on the doorstep of a new season.  From now on, the year will age quickly.  For that reason, we have only one more monthly work trip left in our regular season.  Sometimes there’s a November encore trip, but that’s nature’s call as much as anything else.

It could have been the food, the friends or even the beer, but on Saturday night I snuggled into my trusty sleeping bag and was lost in dreamland before my head dented my inflatable pillow.  The morning dawned crisp.  I turned up the collar of my fleece as I shivered in line for coffee.

Steve Dannenfeldt and his daughter Shelby were in our group.  Steve oversees the trail atop Compton Peak where my section terminates.  His trail leads to the columnar basalt formation about which I've previously written.

Steve Dannenfeldt and his daughter Shelby were in our group. Steve oversees the trail atop Compton Peak where my section terminates. His trail leads to the columnar basalt formation about which I’ve previously written.

Unfortunately people in three separate groups were stung by yellow jackets.  Paperwork!

Unfortunately people in three separate groups were stung by yellow jackets. Paperwork!  I was delighted that our  group didn’t find any.

Went for a walk on a winter’s day

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Compton Peak

Appalachian Trail, Shenandoah National Park (SNP), Compton Peak to Jenkins Gap, Saturday February 7, 2015 —  Each inch of the Appalachian Trail has a human who is responsible for its upkeep.  These folks are called overseers.  Stewards would be more like it.

Overseers remove blown down trees, branches, clean and repair erosion control structures like check dams and waterbars, build new ones as needed, cut back vegetation that may harbor ticks and pick up trash when necessary.

As luck would have it, yours truly is about to become responsible for one mile of the Appalachian Trail from Jenkins Gap to the top of Compton Peak (SNP north district).  That’s AT northbound miles 957.4 to 958.7.  I’m about to become a proud papa.

This is a handsome section of trail if I do say so myself.  From the Jenkins Gap parking lot, it’s optically flat for about a half mile.  This part has been burned over in the past. I’m going to have to learn more about the fire.  Consequently it is infested with lots of vines and thorns. These will require a lot of attention.

The second half begins with a nice flight of stone steps leading to a sluice a bunch of us built two years ago.  The Sluice keeps water from a healthy spring from washing out the trail.  The grade to the top is gentle by any standard.  The treadway throughout has a minimal number of rocks.  Yea!  This isn’t Pennsylvania, you know.

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The trail section ends on top of Compton peak.

A blue blaze trail crosses the AT on Compton Peak leading west to a nice overlook and east to a columnar basalt formation which is one of the few on the east coast.  Eighteen months ago we built 68 stone steps to help make the trail to the basalt formation more passable and to help control erosion.  Judging from the tracks in the snow, it’s popular year round.

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The primary reason for building the steps to the basalt formation was a spring that washed out the trail.  Looks like we’ve got more to learn about water management.

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Columnar basalt.

The day was pleasant.  The temps hovered around 32F with zero wind.  The sun was mostly cloaked by heavy lead-colored clouds.

Without overseers, trails would quickly become impassible no matter whether they are in a state or local parks or one of the big ones in the national trail system.

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Before and after.

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In total there were a even dozen obstructions that had to be removed.

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Jenkins Gap.  End of the line.

Cool Rocks. Bad Trail. Hoodlums’ Mission: Fix it.

Hiking trails are like smart phone aps. Sometimes they need to be up-graded. Unlike phone aps, you can’t just punch up the ap store and push a button.

Upgrading a hiking trail is hard work. Normal maintenance such as weeding, clearing blowdowns, and repairing check dams and water bars only maintains the status quo. Adding features takes it to a whole new level. This is the story behind a trail upgrade that changed everything.

The Appalachian range is chock full of remarkable rock formations. Many of these iconic nature works are on the Appalachian Trail (AT) itself which has been purposefully routed so hikers can appreciate them. Others are nearby on side trails marked by blue blazes.

One blue blaze you hardly notice passing by crosses the AT on Compton’s Peak in Shenandoah National Park (SNP). It leads to a delightful, and one of the more geologically interesting columnar basalt formations in the eastern U.S. It’s well worth a look.

Compton Peak columnar basalt formation.

Compton Peak columnar basalt formation.

Better yet, the trail intersection is about a mile south of the Compton Gap parking lot on Skyline Drive. It’s an easy approach hike to the top of Compton Peak. With the side trail, it’s a snappy 2.5 mile round trip. Wow! Let’s go.

Not so fast. – literally. The blue blaze was not only steep, but was treacherous featuring spring-saturated mud-covered boulders and unstable talus on the final half. Not fun to hike and an easy way to turn an ankle or worse.

That’s a problem. The solution: Send in the Hoodlums.

By way of full disclosure, the Hoodlums aren’t criminals. This grubby group of trail maintainers just looks that way. In real life they’re educated professionals who love the AT, Shenandoah National Park. They volunteer their time, sweat and energy to protect and maintain them for everyone to enjoy.

The moniker came by way of an unknown tourist in SNP. When she saw a gang of filthy, tired folks staggering out of the woods, she was overheard observing that they looked like a bunch of “hoodlums” to her, and a brand was born.

Over three hard days last week, a Hoodlum crew of seven led by three National Park Service pros proved that rolling rock isn’t always a brand of beer as we pried, pushed, rolled, dragged, levered, and pounded chunks of basalt, some weighing hundreds of pounds, into 64 stone steps and hundreds of feet of rip rap.

When we were done, the new trail was like a stone escalator down and back up. Thanks to National Park Service folks – Don, Eric and Lyndon, plus PATC Hoodlums – Wayne, Noel, Scott, Steve, Jim, Amy and Cindi – we got ‘er done in three days. We used the last day of our volunteer week to build stone erosion control structures further south on the AT.

At the end we were an exhausted and bruised, but happy lot. As a bonus, I was able to meet some of the thru-hikers I’ve been following this year. Hike on folks, and have fun ya’ll. Meanwhile, we’ll keep improving the AT for those yet to come.