Seasons end but the work lives on.

 

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The Appalachian Trail, September 30 and October 2, 2022 — We’re a month early but my final chapter leading our ridgerunners has been written.  Dan Hippe will now keep the flame burning brightly with his capable leadership. 

It was a cold and drippy day as Sara and I climbed up to Annapolis Rock one last time to pack up the caretaker site and secure it for the winter.  The stuff good enough for next year was packed into the tool box while we carted the UV-rotted tarps to the dumpster at Washington Monument State Park. 

Since then, Sara has turned in her radio and keys.  She’s hiking all of Maryland’s 41 miles as this is written.  I picked her up at 5 a.m. in Harpers Ferry where she left her van, and shuttled her to the Mason-Dixon Line for a 6:15 a.m. pre-dawn start.  She expects to finish by 11 p.m. tonight.

My larger role may be changing, but the trail maintenance gig has a long runway in front of it. 

The spring on the AT section Caroline and I jointly maintain in Shenandoah National Park was, for all intents and purposes, dry.  The ground was saturated but the flow was virtually nonexistent.  Tina, my friend of 30 years, Gang of Four hiking group member, and occasional swamper, joined us help remedy the problem.

 

We dug a catchment basin, inserted a 5 ft. length of PVC pipe and anchored in with large rocks. 

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It worked!  Our next Hoodlums work trip is October 16.  We’ll check on it then.

The other reason we were working was to rake and shovel silt out of our waterbars (erosion control structures that direct water off the trail).  Our section is particularly sandy and the waterbars need annual cleaning.

This is hard pick and shovel work. 

We didn’t count the exact number, but we got three quarters of our waterbars cleaned out.  We’ll finish the rest next trip.

Exciting news!  After almost two consecutive years working with the Hoodlums Trail Crew and one year co-maintaining this section, Caroline has a trail name. 

It’s not something trite like “Sweet Caroline.”  Regular readers know that she’s an American/Swiss dual national, so she could have been “Swiss Miss.”  It’s far better than those.

Meet Caroline “Dozer” Egli” ’cause she can move dirt.

Sisu

 

It’s all about the food

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Blackburn Trail Center, Round Hill, VA, July 21 – 22, 2022 — Ridgerunners travel on their stomachs just like armies do.  We gathered at Blackburn earlier this week for the second time this season to prove the point.

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The spacious kitchen with its tandem sinks and dishwashers naturally draws crowds, especially at dinner time.  Wendy Willis, one of our split season Michaux State Forest ridgerunners, is more famous in one of her other lives.  She owns a Mexican restaurant in Winchester, Va called Sexi-Mexi. Click here: https://burritobar.sexi-mexi.com/

This year she’s been feeding us at Blackburn to the point that her scrumptious cooking has become the raison d’etre for showing up.  Rest assured, no one is late.

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As we stood at rapt attention, Julia Child would have approved of how Wendy coached us through the tostada bar she conjured from a magic cooler full of delectable ingredients.  The mob gathered salivating, ready to pounce.  The secret red poblano sauce was worth holding hostage.  Trust me, we took no prisoners.

As ridgerunners are apt to do, we talked long into the night on Blackburn’s enticing wrap-around porch brightened by the moon and a string of low wattage bulbs.

It ain’t over yet.  It was bright-and-early o’clock, but my eyes were glued shut tightly as I snoozed away.  The sound of sizzling veggies in an iron skillet popped my eyes open.  It was fritatta’s under construction. I sprinted for the coffee pot. Count me in!  Afterwards I could hardly stand up from the breakfast table.  Yum!!!

So far it’s been an fantastic year.  The hiker class of 2022 is awesome, the ridgerunners outstanding and the calendar pages turning too rapidly on what will be my final season in this role.

While the fritattas were in the oven, John Cram repaired/modified my poorly designed Zpacks ultralight pack.  In another life, John is a sailor and sail maker.  His expertise and magic sewing machine did the trick.

Stay tuned.  It ain’t over yet.

Sisu

Just in time for the Fourth

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This is the definition of a blowdown.  For perspective, Sara is six feet tall.

Shenandoah and the Washington Nationals Parks, July 1 – 4, 2022 — The month of Hades arrived right on schedule and so did Sara Leibold to pick up her AT ridgerunner duties right where she left off last year.

This tough angel does not fear the month of July in Virginia when it’s hot, hot, hot – and muggy.

We started out with the usual equipment issue and check into White Oak Cabin where Sara checked the log book to see who’d been there since her time last season.  We then adjourned for the first night at Indian Run Maintenance Hut, but not before picking up some pizza in Luray.

Muscleman Dan split some firewood.

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I’ve had to saw my way down the fire road the last three visits.

Before any of this happened, Sara stopped at my house for a special pizza and to pick up the keys she needs at PATC Hq. where she found a shelter log book from 2016 that documents her first night as a ridgerunner.

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Sara loves Apple House doughnuts, a treat from a local eatery.  Dan brought some for breakfast at our first shelter stop and Sara ate even crumbs down to the last grain of sugar.

By now, readers know the drill – break up illegal fire rings, clear brush and disguise campsites that are noncompliant with backcountry regulations.

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Tree crown across the trail.

Clearing the brush.  The reference to Silky is a professional brand of pruning saw.

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Sara notes results.

More necessary drudge.  At least she can claim the views.

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Ridgerunner perk – blackberry milkshakes at Elk Wallow.

While Sara continued her patrol, I enjoyed the Fourth with dear friends and our hapless Nats.

Sisu

Continue reading

Trail of Two Ridgerunners

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The sleeping pad is tilted because several gallons of trash are wrapped inside.

Michaux State Forest, PA, June 15 – 19, 2022 — We have a split season in Pennsylvania this year.  Chrissy Funk is the bun wrapped around Wendy Willis’s burger in the middle.

Chrissy’s first ridgerunner tour ended last Sunday.  The next day her jeep aimed for North Carolina where she would reunite with her pampered pug, Zsa Zsa. 

The day after Chrissy left, Wendy’s car crunched to a stop on the gravel near the Mason-Dixon Line in the Penn-Mar Park overflow parking lot.  From there we were shuttled to the Pine Grove Furnace General Store to begin her 37-mile journey back to Penn-Mar.

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Obligatory first picture.  Note how Pennsylvania marks its AT road crossings.

Wendy is an ornithologist who partly grew up in Mexico and most recently worked with a bird sanctuary in Peru.  She is a PATC trail maintainer in Northern Virginia whose Spanish and English are interchangeable.  She’s spending a month of her sabbatical this summer with us.

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The first couple of days were humid as Hades with sweat dribbling down our noses like a leaky faucet.  It soaked our clothing which ultimately ripened into that mellow hiker essence we all know and love.

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Someone’s TP got wet in the rain so, rather than packing it out, they parked it in a fire pit, maybe as future kindling?  Nice try.  No cigar.

The most common Leave No Trace aphorisms are “pack it in, pack it out” and “take only photos, leave only footprints.”  If people would do that much it would help.  Obviously stacking rocks surpasses leaving only footprints.  In our region rock stacks don’t survive contact with the first responsible person who finds them.

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Wendy signs in and checks each shelter log book looking for any remarkable content.  The coffee cans behind her contained food left as trail magic for hikers.  Luckily it didn’t attract any animals before she had a chance to hike it out to a dumpster 20 miles to the south.

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Breakfast at Birch Run and a little map recon of the day’s journey.

Wendy sawed this five inch obstruction and flipped it out of the way.  Her first.

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What luck to run into Dr. Ken “Nimbus” Bunning, former ALDHA (Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association) Coordinator, who was out for a few days.  Ken truly is one of the greats.

You may remember the smashed roof at the Quarry Heights Shelter from the previous blog two weeks ago.  It’s fixed thanks to the PATC North Chapter. 

Quarry Heights may be the most intimate shelter space on the trail.  It’s enclosed by a grove of rhododendrons, features a porch swing, potted flowers, tent platforms and is always in mint condition.

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Preparing to truck some trash down the mountain to the dumpster in New Caledonia State Park.

Sawing another small blowdown.  Sometimes you apply too much energy and bend your saw which then binds in the kerf.

The Mountain Laurel were peaking while the caterpillars are about to feast upon the oaks.

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Meanwhile, a few miles north of us in Maryland, Kasey was wrangling copperheads to help them avoid unsuspecting hikers at a popular overlook.

Sisu

Michaux State Forest

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Stuffed bear at Michaux State Forest headquarters.

Michaux State Forest, Pennsylvania, June 1 – 5 — Contrast is the name of the game.  This year the predicted rains never came.  Last year it never stopped raining.  This year the temperatures were in the low-80s.  Last year hypothermia lurked around every corner as the rain-soaked thermometer registered in the high 30s.   In both cases, the hikers were in good spirits, the rocks were happy, and so were we.

Ridgerunner recruiting this year has been a proverbial bear.  Qualified seasonal employees are in short supply.  Thanks to a stroke of luck, two ridgerunners will share the season in Michaux.  Chrissy has the first part.  Wendy has the second.  Chrissy will return to close out the season.

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After meeting the the state forest rangers, we encountered our first blowdown almost straight out of the door. We quickly hacked a path through the branches leaving the bigger stuff for the chainsaw folks.

Our first night was spent at Tom’s Run Shelter.  The crowd was convivial.  We saw several people using bear canisters.  Everyone took advantage of the bear poles to protect their food.  Given the increasing number of bear incidents, this is an excellent sign.

With early morning temperatures in the low 60s, hot coffee is still a welcome treat.  That season is about to end as the summer heat and humidity sets in.

Our section of trail in Pennsylvania is only 37 miles long.  It packs some respectable hills, so it’s not a snap. 

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A line of thunderstorms was expected to pass about lunch time at Birch Run.  Several hikers ducked in for lunch and some decided to stay.  Fortunately the storms never materialized.  We pressed on for a total of 18 miles to Quarry Gap, probably the most famous and aesthetically pleasing shelter on the trail.  It is famous for its flowers and kitschy decorations.

Sadly one of the twin shelters at Quarry Gap got bonked by a blowdown.  Most shelters are built like bunkers and can withstand a significant hit.  This was Wednesday.

By mid-day Saturday repairs were well underway.  The PATC north chapter mobilized to sneak repair materials in via the “secret squirrel” side trail.  By nightfall, almost like new.  Photos courtesy of the PATC north chapter.

Meanwhile, other members of the north chapter were organizing at nearby New Caledonia State Park to prepare a trail magic feast featuring hamburgers, hot dogs, pasta salads desserts, and soft drinks!  After the work day, the crews descended to polish off the fixin’s.

Ours wasn’t the only trail magic.  A well-intended generous soul left water near a road junction.  We left it overnight, but cleaned it up on our way back to New Caledonia.  Trail magic should not be left unattended, even if it is water which, unlike food and sugary drinks, does not attract animals.

A hiker’s favorite sign.  This is trail magic done the right way.  This guy comes out several times a year to cook hot dogs and serve snacks at the Old Forge picnic area.  He retrieves his signs when the day is done.  I loved his dogs last year and my dreams were fulfilled that he’d be there again this year.  Before we left, the pavilion was full of hikers.

Our chunk of Pennsylvania has its scenery.  Eponymously named Rocky Mountain is our signature site.  In other places pine needles carpet the straightaways.  

Houston, we have a malfunction.  I’m still adjusting to switching to ultralight equipment.  This Zpacks frame has had its issues.  One reason the gear is lighter in weight is that it simply is not as rugged as the heavier traditional equipment.  In this case, the design is flawed.  Now both sides have been repaired with zip ties.

Graffiti continues to be a problem, although not nearly as bad as it was last year.  “Sunshine” seems to be this year’s problem child.  The first instance is in PA.  The second is in NJ.  We’re looking for you girl. “Pyro” last year’s biggest jerk has been painted over everywhere except in this one spot where someone seems to have had a sense of humor and maybe is trying to message others.

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Literally rubbing out graffiti can be a sport.

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The patrol ended with the last piece of microtrash at Penn-Mar, aka the Mason-Dixon line.

Sisu

Hoodlums spring cleaning!

Caroline is a beast!

Shenandoah National Park, March 19, 2022 — The daffodils are up and so is the Hoodlums trail crew.  Yesterday 26 Hoodlums gathered in three different places to begin spring cleaning on the north district’s hiking trails.

The three groups gathered at the North Marshall trail head, Piney Ridge and the Pass Mountain blue blaze trail.  My assignment was to report to North Marshall where Caroline and I won the bonus prize of breaking big rocks into little ones with sledgehammers!

Ultimately fate spared us and our mission changed.  We were dispatched on a blowdown search and destroy mission.  So, that’s the story we can tell.

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Photo by Mike Gergely

The Pass Mountain crew, led by Head Hoodlum and north district blue blaze district manager, Noel Freeman, removes a large locust blocking the trail.  The trail is in a federally designated wilderness, so muscle-powered tools  are required.

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While everyone else was “working,” Caroline and I were eating blowdowns for lunch with my Stihl MS 261 with a 20″ bar.  That’s the military equivalent of an 8 inch howitzer.

Our itinerary included a big honker on the Gravel Spring hut blue blaze access trail, a smaller one on the AT near the Keyser Run parking access trail and several near Beahms Gap and Neighbor Mountain.  We left for our first objective at 0920.

A hiker told us the blowdown at Gravel was near the bottom so we used the fire road to get closer.  Oops.  Not so fast.  The tree broke apart after we sawed it.  Made it easier to move for sure.

The tree we were after was a hundred yards up hill from the hut.  The double trunk and the slope made bucking this one a little more challenging than normal.  The base was about 20″, making the salami slices large and heavy.  Caution required.

We’re not fake news.  Not every chunk we moved went as smoothly as the one at the top of this page.

In this case, Caroline is the “swamper” or sawyer’s helper.  Her job is to caddy the saw, and help remove the debris.

Ultimately the path was cleared.  The two blowdowns near Gravel Spring consumed nearly an entire tank of gas.  In comparison, I can usually saw for an entire day on a single tank.  We finished at 1140 and drove to Keyser Run parking for lunch.

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Our next objective seemed fairly simple, but it wasn’t.  The fall created several spring poles,  live trees bent over and held down.  Spring poles can be very dangerous.  The amount of energy stored in any one of them can be shocking.  Don’t let the size of these saplings fool you.

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Caroline checks out one of the spring poles.  She was surprised at how much energy was released when I demonstrated an improper cut on one of the tiny ones.

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The first blowdown at Beahms Gap.  It was a single cut.  The rest were similar.  Nothing found on the hike over Neighbor Mountain.  Time out:  1530.

Fortunately or unfortunately, Mother Nature never seems to run out of blowdowns.  That said, Caroline was disappointed that she didn’t get to bust rocks.  Maybe next time…

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The final act. The curtain falls.

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Shenandoah National Park, November 26, 2021 — While Black Friday shoppers ravaged suburban malls and cyber stores, we five chose a day of service to prepare a bit of the AT for winter.

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I packed the car while the turkey was cooking yesterday.  The chainsaw comes along for the ride in case it’s needed to obliterate a blowdown too large for a pruning saw.

An unanticipated snow squall nearly forced us to stop at one point on Skyline Drive in the park. 

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Not much snow.  Most of it melted, but it did cover the tool cache when we picked up some tools.

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We hiked to the top of the mountain and then fanned out to rake leaves out of the waterbars.  The power of five did the job in two hours.  That’s 10 hours of labor, about average, so it all makes sense.

We want the leaves out so they don’t freeze and dam the flow of water through the waterbars which are features that shunt rain and snow melt off the trail to prevent erosion.

After work we retired to the Rappahannock Pizza Kitchen in Sperryville, VA for wood fired pies.

This is the last required maintenance of the year.  Next up will be the monthly inspection hike in December looking for damage and blowdowns.

Sisu

The End is Near

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Shennandoah National Park and Annapolis Rock Maryland, October 22 – 23, 2021 —  It’s that time again. In the park the end of the trail crew season is in sight.  We have one more trip next month.  In Maryland time expires for the last ridgerunner standing.

In the mean time, the AT section on the south side of Compton Peak, for which I have been responsible and now shared by Caroline, needs a lot of work before the ground freezes.  A recent high intensity storm literally wiped out some of the erosion control structures.

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A Virginia Conservation Corps crew rebuilt the upper two thirds, but the lower third, which is sandy like Saudi Arabia, was completely silted up.  If we don’t get it done before the ground freezes, mother nature herself will rebuild it over the winter.  We may not appreciate her work come spring.

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Meanwhile, the Hoodlums divided into two parties.  One was dispatched to Jeremy’s Run, a serpentine blowdown factory featuring a number of wet-feet stream crossings.

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Jeremy’s Run is located in a federally designated wilderness area meaning only traditional tools may be used.  Photo by Ruth Stornetta via Facebook.

The other group continued to work on the rebuild of the AT on the north side of Compton Peak.  I’m told we have surpassed 700 hours of volunteer labor on this project so far this year.  Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll git ‘er finished in November.

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The Hoodlums at Compton split their labor.  One group continued to repair and replace waterbars and check dams at the bottom of the mountain.  This trail is one of the most popular in the park featuring a nice viewpoint and a unique columnar basalt formation at the summit.  It’s also the first time hikers can be on the AT from the north (Front Royal) entry station.

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The work party I joined was assigned to finish the stone staircase near the top of the mountain, so that’s the bulk of the story we’re telling today.

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The first thing you do is find a large rock, one that will stay put and heavy enough to resist bears checking for lunch underneath.

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Step two is to dig a hole to put it in.  We use pick handles to measure the size of both rock and hole.

Then you have to get the rock to where you want it to be.  The rocks are hard to move because they are too big for people to pick them up, the terrain is lumpy with other rocks, and they are awkward.

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Watch the fingers and toes!

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Then you have to set it and test for wobble.  We broke off the piece that stuck out.

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In the interim, the hikers keep coming.  It was a picture perfect day and the park was jammed.

The number of hikers passing through can hinder progress.  We give them priority except when we’re doing something that could be a safety problem for them.

Rinse and repeat to create more steps.

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We finished early enough that Caroline and I could clear three blowdowns on the AT between Compton parking and the north park boundary.   This was the most magnificent of them all.

This large ash likely fell during a wind storm Thursday before last.  There are many reasons you don’t want to near one of these trees when they come down.  This is not the first time a branch has been driven so deeply into the trail tread that we couldn’t get it out.  Had to cut it off.

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Done.

A day earlier I helped the ridgerunner decommission the Annapolis Rock caretaker site for the winter. Thanks to REI for donating the tent.

When leaves begin to fall so does the caretaker tent at Annapolis Rock. The autumn continues, but the ridgerunner season ends. It’s the saddest day of the year for me. 

To date we’ve had more than 30 ridgerunners since I became responsible for the program.  They are special people who join a long line of others who have selflessly helped protect and preserve the AT which, in and of itself, is a national treasure. But there’s a lot more.  In our area alone, it runs through three national parks, one state forest, five state parks and a couple of wildlife conservation areas.

Sisu