BFRs. What are they good for?

BFRs. Yup, Big Effing Rocks! What are they good for? In Appalachian Trail maintenance, most everything.

The Hoodlum work crew had another great weekend, our final regular outing until March.

The work group to which I was assigned built two check dams and a water bar on the Pass Mountain trail – a blue blaze trail in Shenandoah National Park.

This video offers a little bit of insight into the work we do and the fun we have doing the work and afterwards.

The water bar we are constructing in the video was much needed to help keep the trail in good hiking condition.

Hikers sometimes wish the trail was in better condition with fewer rocks and less erosion. Rest assured there are a ton of volunteers up and down the full length of the AT working had to keep it in the best condition possible.

If you think the rocks are bad now, imagine the AT without erosion control and other maintenance.

All erosion control structures require building material. Stone is best, but simple swales only require mounds of dirt. Logs, particularly extra hard woods such as Ash are long lasting substitutes when stone isn’t available.

If stone is preferred. Than BFRs are the best you can get.

Rock potentially lasts a lifetime. Moreover, if the stones used are ginormous enough and set deep into the trail tread, the bears have a hard time digging them up to get at the grubs that take up residence underneath. Yup, the bears love to play three card Monte with big rocks. Sometimes they even score a treat.

Chunking BFRs around is hard work with dependent mostly on brute force and ignorance. You really only need one smart person who knows where the rocks should go for best effect. That means I’m pretty much qualified be a rock technician, but not for the engineering jobs.

Erosion control structures on the AT come in a simple variety. Check dams are perpendicular to the trail with the purpose of slowing down the water flow. They should stick up a few inches and require frequently cleaning to ensure sediment doesn’t render them useless.

Water bars are set at a 45 degree angle to the trail direction. Their purpose is to direct water off the trail. Check dams and water bars frequently work in coordination with one another

Parallel drains are canals/ditches that run parallel to the trail tread for some distance until they reach a point where water can be sent away. Sometimes the trail tread is raised and the canals are made of carefully fitted stone.

Steps help prevent erosion or may simply improve the hiking experience by adding safety or by making the trail easier. Stone is preferable and more durable, but logs and compacted dirt or gravel work.

You’ve all seen the ladders and rebar in New England. Those are special cases.

Sometimes dirt swales are dug and the spoil is mounded and compacted to form a check dam or water bar that works fine as long as it lasts.

If you live close to Shenandoah National Park, consider joining the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and channel your inner 12-year-old. Become a Hoodlum Trail Crew member. It’s fun!

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.