New Jersey tries harder

Mohican Outdoor Center, N.J., AT NOBO mile 1,300.4, Thursday May 8, 2014 — Early this morning I passed a sign that said Sunfish Pond was one of the seven natural wonders of New Jersey. I know Cape May could be another of them, but for the life of me I can’t think of any candidates for the other five.

Actually, it’s New Jersey’s unnatural wonders I worry more about – the Meadowlands superfund sites, the urban blight of Elizabeth and Newark, organized crime and state politics as if you could tell the difference. Then there’s Snookie…

New Jersey has more bears per square mile than anywhere else on the trail. We saw three huge piles of bear scat today, but no other indications. We even saw a sizable stash of uneaten acorns. Bet we’ll see a bear before we’re ought of here.

To be fair, most of the day was rainy and foggy. Very little of Sunfish Pond was visible, so maybe I’m missing something. If not, old New Jersey is trying awfully hard to make something out of not much. That was confirmed when we tripped upon the state’s cache of spare hiking rocks. Nice try NJ, but you’re no Pennsylvania.

We’re at the Mohican Center, a former Scout camp operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club. The AMC is derisively know in some circles as the “Appalachian Money Club” for charging excessive fees for the use of its facilities, especially the huts in the New Hampshire mountains.

Tomorrow’s hike is 21 flat, and (we hope), moderately rocky miles to the next shelter. Here tonight is Swayed, Bus, and a male nurse section hiker from North Carolina. He makes the eighth male nurse I’ve met on the trail.

This is probably the last night we’ll see Bus. He’s much slower and can’t consistently do the mileage Swayed and I routinely turn in. He’s a great guy who will be missed.

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Chasing Winter’s Tail

Rausch Gap Shelter, Penn., AT NOBO mile 1172.1, Saturday April 26, 2014 — The theme for next week is precipitation beginning Tuesday. There is a small probability of a sleet or snow mix. Will this winter ever give up?

Today I walked through a small cluster of Rhododendrons that I thought didn’t grow this far north. The buds have yet to form. When I last saw them in Virginia, the buds were more than an inch long. Spring has a lot of work to do.

I’ll be okay if it snows, but I’m no longer carrying serious winter gear – no base layer, fleece or mittens. I still have a light down jacket and a sleeping bag. I was considering switching in about 10 days from a sleeping bag to a quilt and ridding myself of the jacket, gloves, hat, etc. I’ll continue to reevaluate that thought.

Tomorrow is another deli day as we pass through Lickdale,PA, a truck stop haven. Tomorrow’s destination is the 501 Shelter, one of those tricked out shelters with ambiance to spare. I’ll take some pics.

Walked over some excellent stone work throughout the day built by the Susquehanna Trail Club. This stuff was built over years and years – it’s hard labor. Today’s photo is of a raised trail bed with parallel drains. It’s in an area where the water springs from the ground everywhere.

The Rausch Shelter is the most uniquely designed one yet. Someone was very creative. Best of all, the water is 10 feet away! I’m with three section hikers, two ladies from norther Illinois and one from upstate New York who was also at last night’s shelter.

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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.