The Great Blowdown Hunt

The Appalachian Trail in Virginia, September 25 – October 7, 2021 — What was intended to be a simple hike to help deflate the COVID spare tire around my waist became something different and an obsessive blowdown quest after a windstorm littered the trail with downed trees.

Our last blog mentioned that I dropped my young friend Chrissy off at a trailhead in Central Virginia.  The plan was to join her at the southern boundary of Shenandoah National Park and hike to Harpers Ferry.  There we’d decide whether to hike on into Pennsylvania.

Few plans survive contact with reality.  Chrissy was half way through the park before I could catch up.  That left 102 miles to Harpers Ferry, decent but far short of the 160 – 240 for which I’d hoped.

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My wife dropped me off at the Big Meadow wayside (restaurant) around noon.  We grabbed lunch and hoofed it north to the Rock Spring shelter for the night.  At some point a passing weather front generated a pretty good blow.  Our tents popped in the wind and it was noticeably cooler in the morning.  We didn’t think much of it.

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Not long after pushing off for our second day, we started finding trees down across the trail. The count reached more than 60 before we reached Harpers Ferry.  In my experience, that’s a significant number for that kind of (relatively mild) windstorm.

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Like a rumpled old throw rug, the AT is infamous for its rocky tread.  A few blowdowns here and there only add a few wrinkles for the most part.  By the time we were done, the blowdowns had become an obsession a trail maintainer could not resist.

Meanwhile, the blow continued during day two as we hiked on to Pass Mountain.  There we encountered an insufferable chaos of southbound thru hikers who were loud and obnoxious.

We retired to the tenting area and ate a quiet dinner sitting on logs near our tents.  Ironically, we were alone the next night at Gravel Spring.  The silence was lovely.

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Breakfast at Indian Run hut.  At some point I learned Crissy’s 38th birthday was up-coming.  My present was two fold.  One was a stay at Indian Run where the public is not allowed, Hoodlums keep a supply of split firewood and we could have a nice fire with chairs upon which to set.

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The other was arrange the timing so her birthday was spent at Mountain Home B&B owned by my friends Scott and Lisa.  The main building is a fully restored anti-bellum mansion.

In the restoration process, Scott and Lisa learned that the “cabbin” used as a hiker hostel was formerly quarters for enslaved people and that one of the surviving original locks displays an African motif, evidence that it was most likely wrought be an enslaved person.

The next stop was the Bears Den Hostel.  By this point, backpacking had become Glampacking.  I dubbed Crissy the “Millennial Magellan.”  We spent the last night at David Lesser shelter before my spouse shuttled us home from Harper’s Ferry.

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Along the way we passed the 1,000 mile sign.  At this point, northbounders have traveled 1,000 miles and southbounders hit triple digit mileage with under 1,000 miles to go.  For them, it’s a big deal.

Chrissy HF  Chrissy points out the length of her journey on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s relief map of the entire AT.

Phase one was over.  Chrissy left for family activities in her native Western Pennsylvania.  But what about the blowdowns?

Here’s a sample.  I toted up the numbers for each AT district and forwarded the menu to each district manager whose job it is to keep the trail properly maintained.  They will take care of their respective areas.

Me?  I started obsessing about Shenandoah’s north district where I do the bulk of my volunteering.

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As luck would have it, my friend of 25 years, Tina aka “Bulldog,” and fellow Gang of Four member reached out.  The weather is improving and it’s time to crank up our monthly hikes.

She posted on Facebook, “We haven’t hung out for awhile, I said. Let’s go to lunch, I said. His retort, let’s go clear blowdowns on the AT. Sure, I said.” 

You never miss an opportunity to recruit a swamper, especially one named Bulldog.  Never!

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I consulted with my district manager.  What could we do in a day?  Could we tackle a couple of lingering oldies in the process?  Boom.  We had a plan.

We got about half of the north district blowdowns.  We’ll get the rest on the Hoodlum’s work trip next Saturday.

I love making sawdust!
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Sisu

The page turns.

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2021 PATC Ridgeerunners absent Sara at the Blackburn Trail Center on Aug. 26.  L to R:  Witt Wisebram, me, Chris Bowley, Darrel Decker, Kaela Wilber, and Branden Laverdiere.

Shenandoah National Park (mostly) August 26 – September 14, 2021 —  Come Labor Day the summer chapter in our trail story ends and the page turns toward autumn.  The cast of characters is down to one.

When the five o’clock whistle announces the Labor Day weekend wind down, the clock runs out for five of our six ridgerunners.  For them it’s time for next steps.  Two have taken seasonal work with the mid-Atlantic AT boundary monitoring team.  They check surveyor’s monuments to ensure that the bench marks and the witness trees are still there and search for encroachment on federal land.  One headed for Vermont’s Long Trail and there bumped into the ridgerunner who had her job in 2016!  Small world.  Witt returns to endurance running.

Branden is the last man standing, at least until Halloween.  Until then, he’ll patrol Maryland’s 42 miles during the week and spend weekends caretaking at Annapolis Rock.

This year’s team was particularly noteworthy for their dedication, teamwork, innovation, and extra effort.  Everyone associated with them will miss their enthusiasm and presence.

Meanwhile a lot happened before the story ended.

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Chris reported this rat’s nest on the AT in the middle of the north district.

I had time to kill while waiting for Chris to catch up and swamp for me.  Sawyers are not allowed to saw without an assistant – to call 911 when we screw up.  That gave me  time to recon the blowdown and develop a plan of attack.  Along the way I was saddened to discover that my favorite tree in the park had passed.

I first discovered it on a foggy walk in April 2013.  Hikers spend more time looking down than up in order to keep from tripping on the ever present rocks and roots.  In the fog that day, the old oak startled me looking very ominous, reminding me of the Whomping Willow in the Harry Potter series.  I’ve loved it ever since.  Soon we’ll be sawing up its bits and parts and nature and gravity slowly reclaim it.

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Chris’s did a great job using his folding saw to clear as much as possible to make it easier for hikers to pass.

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Chris acted as the swamper and moved most of the pieces out of the way.

The rest was a simple matter of converting gas to noise by chopping the thing up from left to right.  Now it’s history.  Elapsed time:  10 minutes thanks to the recon.

Is that it?  No!  There’s more.

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You stood tall next to the AT at Beahms Gap until you succumbed to the emerald ash borer.  Now you’ve got to go.  Since you can’t do it on your own, Mr. Stihl will help.

There’s a teaching point here.  Note how the tree is lying across the trail.  What you cannot see and neither could I is the tree’s crown.  There was too much vegetation in the way.  Here’s what happened:

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The part of the trunk on the left side of the photo should not be expected to rise.  The tree was once very tall and the majority of its weight was across another blowdown parallel to the trail.  That blowdown acted as a fulcrum allowing the trunk to rise when cut.  Once in the air I could see clearly what happened.

This is not particularly dangerous.  We are trained to watch for possibilities like this.  Nevertheless, the day you think you’ve mastered the art of bucking blowdowns, you should think again.

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Another blowdown in the history books.

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The next stop was dropping my friend Crissy at a central Virginia trailhead.  She’s walking 500 miles before moving to Colorado to be with her father who is ill.  I’ll join her in a couple of weeks to hike the last half.

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You’d think there would be enough nature on the trails, but noooooo. Backyard buck is chowing down on the landscaping to build strength for the mating season.  Note the cat in the chair.

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While the deer was destroying the flowers, the guard cat could not care less.

Next steps:  Tomorrow brings trail work with an all-woman Virginia Conservation Corps crew followed by the Hoodlums annual instructional workshop on trail maintenance.

Sisu

Hoodlums Crew Week

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Two rock hammers and a rock bar.  Guess what we did?

Shenandoah National Park, August 1 – 7, 2021 — The park is tinder dry, but the moderate temperatures and low humidity made up for the dust exploding in our faces as our picks loosened the dirt and the rocks we needed to move.

We were there for our annual Hoodlums Crew Week, an opportunity for us to tackle big projects requiring time and muscle.

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This time we continued our restoration of the CCC’s work on the AT on the north side of Compton Peak.  The primary objective was to replace a ragged set of steps with something more elegant and practical.  This staircase had to be torn out and rebuilt.

The crew totaled six permanent members and four more who augmented us on various days depending on their availability.  We had to dig up and move almost everyone of those rocks.  That’s what they call a heavy lift.

We lived at the Pinnacles Research Station, our normal crew week hangout, but occupancy was limited to four inside. We had a bug proof enclosure outside where we could socialize and the deer came to visit.

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On Sunday I came early so Chris Bowley, our ridgerunner, could join me to do so some overdue weeding, after which we joined the others for dinner and beer.

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Monday and Thursday featured an assist from a Virginia Conservation Corps group made up mostly young folks who are between high school and college.  They helped carry logs we planned to use for our project, built a couple of check dams, and also weeded some overgrown AT sections for us.

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They also helped take out of commission an illegal campsite near the Compton Gap parking lot.  It was a combination campsite and outdoor latrine.

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After cleaning up the TP tulips and burying the feces, we moved a ton of logs and sticks to make the area unusable.

Campsites that are noncompliant with backcountry regulations are proliferating at an alarming rate  throughout the park.  The culprit is social media, particularly an app called “Guthook.”  Hikers can leave notes and GPS locations visible to all users.  Once a site is established, with the aid of the app, it attracts evermore users until the vegetation is dead and the dirt is bare.  That’s when the erosion starts.

Previously the rangers would try and camouflage the sites, but now hikers can find them with laser precision and easily remove the camouflage.  The next step is denial with dead timber too large for one person to move alone.

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We also found that a popular boulder was being used as a bathroom where children sometimes explore.

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Not anymore.

Everything starts with the foundation.  Dig ’em in deep and they’ll still be there in 50 years.  Also building with larger rocks, aka BFRs, helps prevent bears from flipping them in search of bugs to eat.

This is a behind the scenes look at the reality of setting a step.  Ultimately the entire staircase has to fit together.

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It’s tiring work and the team has to continuously think and talk it over.  Sometimes it looks like chaos.  Sometimes it is.

Ultimately it’s like a giant puzzle.

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Steps 1.0 begins to form.  This configuration would ultimately be scrapped.  Too many voids, the tread wasn’t wide enough.  Most of all, they were ugly.  If it looks bad, it is bad.

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Final version.  If it looks good, it must be good!  We ultimately removed about a third of the steps making the trail much easier to use.

Meanwhile, further up the trail other work was happening.  This is how old men and women get stuff done!

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At this point, we’re returning the tread to its original location.  The rocks we’re digging up were the original CCC rip rap.  Here the trail had become two lanes with the old rip rap in the middle.  The trail from Panorama to Mary’s Rock has done the same.

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We also cut logs to supplement the rock rip rap.  Rip rap is waste rock and other materials used to help keep the tread from expanding; thus preventing erosion.

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We got a lot done.  In fact, we’re about two-thirds of the way through the project.  With luck, we’ll be finished with this trail by year’s end.

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Sometimes unusual things happen.  A woman leading a horse wondered off a nearby horse trail that briefly coincides with the AT.  We helped her get turned around and heading in the right direction.  The AT is foot traffic only with a very few marked exceptions.

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The last day, we split with one group weeding the Pass Mountain blue blaze trail.  I took on an AT section south of Rattlesnake Point.  This was taken after the head was refilled with string.  Crew week over.

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The weekend wasn’t over yet for me.  Sunday the Bears Den hostel was having a hiker festival.  I grabbed my grandpa’s crosscut and set up a station where people could slice off a chunk of log for themselves.  The results were entertaining.  I would carefully explain how the saw works and how important it is that the sawyers each pull, not push.  Let’s see what happened.

Testosterone is not your friend guys.

We had no idea a wedding had just happened.  The happy couple got a unique souvenir and an unusual photo for their wedding album.  The did a good job too, an omen?

The little guys did ok too.

Sisu

Oh, Shenandoah. So many stories.

Oh, Shenandoah,
I long to see you,
Away you rolling river.

https://lyricstranslate.com

Shenandoah National Park, April 17 – 26, 2021 — The park was full of delight and disappointment this past week, marked by old friends, a new beginning and a sad ending.

The week started with the first full Hoodlum work trip in 18 months. My first thought was family reunion.

Socially distant safety briefing.

First night at Indian Run in 20 months for me.  Somebody is appropriating a bunk mattress for use in his tent.  The “Princess and the Pea” was my first thought.

Work continues on the AT restoration project on the north side of Compton.  What we thought would take a couple of years may be finished this year if we can have a crew week with the park trail crew to rebuild a large flight of stone steps.

The rip rap on the side encourages hikers to stay on the tread and helps prevent erosion.

Ringnecked snake. This is a big as they get.  It was released unharmed.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ring-necked_snake

Just a couple of days later, the new long-season ridgerunner stepped into the on-deck circle.

The ritual pose at the north entry kiosk on the AT.  It’s his first official act.

The pandemic disturbed our normal routine.  Chris spent his first two days on Zoom for Leave No Trace training.  I’ve always wondered how you dig a cathole through your living room carpet.  Apparently it’s virtual with a backyard practicum on your own. 

So, we got a late start.  A nasty weather forecast predicted high wind and frigid temperatures.

The first-day orientation occurred on the second day where we met with the head of the backcountry office who coordinates the ridgerunners’ day-to-day activities.  The park rules, radio procedures, general expectations, equipment issue, living arrangements and a host of other topics are fire-hosed at them at full force.

As noted, the weather was brutal.  Sabine, our 2019 ridgerunner, was hiking in the park while waiting for her partner.   Her gear was at its cold weather limit, so she popped in for a warm up. 

FIRST PATROL

We started with unattended trail magic.  NO!  This parking lot is not the place to food-habituate bears or any other animal.  Well-meaning but ignorant has hell.

A stroll up Compton. 

The class we took three months ago taught us that the CCC scouted boulders like this and then routed the trail to connect them. 

Examination of a collapsing crib wall to be repaired later this year.  This damage is from falling trees knocking loose the upper layer of stones.

Breaking up a fire ring and later camouflaging a noncompliant campsite near the Compton summit.

A good ridgerunner has a good eye for trash.  I’m standing on the AT.

North Marshall noncompliant fire ring. 

One way I size up new ridgerunners is how far they are willing to carry rocks without prompting.  This guy is an all star.  I learned this from Lauralee Bliss.

The idea is to make it more difficult to reestablish the fire ring.

Fire ring removed.  Ash pit camouflaged and a log place to cover the soot scar on the rock face.  Nice work!

Take a break. 

 

Original AT marker!  Very rare.

Summit of North Marshall.  Spring is definitely visible.

Hikers beat up the trail.  The ridgerunners are the eyes and ears of the maintainers.  This is a project the maintainer can fix with a little muscle and a pick-mattok. 

This is a noncompliant campsite adjacent to an overlook.  The rangers have piled logs all over it year after year and the users pull them off.  Maybe time to iceberg it.  That means burying rocks as a means of area denial.

Practicing the chopsticks method of TP tulip extraction.  Ladies, use a pee rag or kula cloth, please.

Met up with Sabine at Gravel Spring.  She’s wearing every item of clothing she brought.  Did I say it was cold?

Loading the last of the trail trash into the car.  Headed for the dumpster.  End of patrol.

Sabine headed for my house to wait for her partner to arrive.  Meanwhile my daughter is moving and bought some stools for her kitchen island. Ever the physicist, Sabine cut the stools down to size with scientific precision.  

Flash forward a couple of days.  A park visitor was missing.  Rangers hiked into Gravel Spring a couple of days earlier with laminated posters; asking the ridgerunner to keep an eye out and post one at the next shelter.

No avail.  Our phones lit up with notifications from the park service to volunteer to help search. 

Joining dozens of professional SAR organizations, PATC volunteers mobilized and pitched in.

We bushwacked briar and blackberry thickets until the deceased was found outside our search area.

Good crew.  Hard day.  So sad.  It felt good to be of service to a fellow human being and his family.

National Parks are special places.  They have been set aside that way.  Sometimes they serve us.  Other times we serve them.  This has been a peek between the covers of a book whose story continues day by day. It is not a simple story of delight and disappointment, old friends, and a sad ending.  It is simply what happens behind the scenes.

Sisu

 

Endless Blowdowns

Shenandoah National Park, January 12, 2021 — It was 23 degrees at the Compton Gap parking lot. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. So we were masked and armored to the best of our ability against the cruelty of winter.

The reason we were there is as mundane as the presence of Nature. The never ending parade of trees blown down across hiking trails had marched on. In its wake were a list of barriers to breach. There we were. Armed with fuel, oil and a Stihl chainsaw, ready to assault and clear what might be described as potholes on the hiker superhighway.

Think about it. We’re the Hoodlums Trail Crew. Masks are totally apropos.

We managed to clear 5 blowdowns from the AT. As the day warmed up, we were as overdressed as any group of rookies that ever were.

We’d never encountered a blowdown like this until today. Then there was another one just like it. Blowdowns are like puzzles. The first time wasn’t perfect. The second was a charm.

We salami sliced this beautiful red oak because it was covered in poison ivy. Didn’t want to manhandle a large log.

After clearing five blowdowns on the AT, Wayne and Dave headed for the Elk Wallow Trail to test this ancient two-person crosscut. I drove to Jenkins Gap to checkout the AT section for which I am responsible.

Woops. Found a five-incher across the trail a few feet north of the stone steps for those who know this area. Everything else was clear so took the time to clip green briar and blackberry which are easy to see in winter. These brambles are vicious, ripping hikers skin and clothing. Some can grow a foot per week in summer. Hope I made a dent in their progress.

Same blowdown looking south.

Day’s end. Relaxed. Off the grid. At one with Nature. It was like riding into the sunset.

Sisu

Trail Design Workshop

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Determining the slope angle.

Shenandoah National Park, December 2 – 3, 2020 —  We gathered for our sustainable trails design, construction and rehabilitation field training in the Compton Gap parking lot where we engaged in initial introductions, orientation and safety talk. 

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We were leaders from the park staff and PATC who are involved with backcountry trails and the park’s historic legacy.

As each of us spoke in turn, the sharp wind assaulted our clothing like a rusty razor shaving a drunken sailor’s belly.  It attacked the tiny gaps, exploited thin layers, nipped exposed skin, and stung our nerve endings with the efficiency of a serial killer wielding an ice pick. 

Still, we focused on the subject at hand, sustainable design, restoration and maintenance of Shenandoah’s hiking trails. 

Did I mention that the wind chill was cold?

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After the preliminaries we crossed Skyline Dr. and began marching on the AT up the north side of Compton Peak.  The trek leads to a nice viewpoint to the west and to the east the best example of basalt columnar jointing in the park.  Needless to say this section of the trail is popular and receives a lot of traffic.

The route was originally built by the CCC and some of their stonework still stands although, after 80 years, is breaking down.  Our mission was to learn how to identify it and sustainably restore it for another generation to use.

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Brinnon Carter, Cultural Resource Program Manager, discussed CCC trail design.  Those who have hiked on the north side of Compton know the trail passes two very large boulders.  That, it turns out, didn’t happen by accident.

Along the way we discussed water/erosion management, design criteria including selecting ascending and descending grades and other design criteria such as the amount of traffic and two-way traffic considerations.  Most of this is not new, but the review fit the context of the primary purpose of the workshop which was to identify and preserve the CCC’s work.

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In the afternoon we walked to the north boundary kiosk discussing the merits of keeping the trail on the old roadbed and ways of aligning it for a more esthetic hiker experience.  Some Myron Avery’s old maps were informative. 

While Benton MacKaye envisioned the Appalachian Trail, it was Myron Avery who scouted the route and got it built.  He also was the founder of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  For more, click here.

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The stillness of the second day’s dawn at Thornton Gap was remarkable in contrast to day one.  While the ambient air temperatures were similar, the wind was elsewhere afflicting other people, and thankfully not us. 

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Stephanie passed out excellent homemade cookies to help fuel our climb to 3,300 foot high Mary’s Rock.  Info on Mary’s Rock here.

Our purpose on the climb was to examine the CCC’s crib walls and learn how people and nature have caused changes over the previous 80 years.  The question was how to catalogue, grade and monitor them for maintenance and restoration.  Climbing while masked didn’t prove to be a hardship.

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We stopped several places to look at examples of the CCC’s work and learned how to identify it and assess the condition.  Along the way we found two of these painted sticks abandoned at different places along the trail.  I brought one home to burn in my backyard fire pit.  Please, Leave No Trace!

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Lunch was pleasant absent the wind.  The program featured a well-known local comic.

After lunch we moved southward to the White Oak Canyon parking lot.  From there we examined the Skyland horse, Limber Lost and a bit of the White Oak Canyon trails.  The last is one of the busiest in the park.

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You can discuss the placement, effectiveness, merits and demerits of a waterbar ad infinitum. 

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Limberlost Trail is the only ADA handicapped accessible trail in the park.  We divided into groups and walked along entertaining discussion questions, the answers to which were debriefed to other groups.

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Once back in the parking lot we filled out a matrix informed by our group discussions.

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The workshop finished with each of us briefing back to the group what we had learned and its future application. Meanwhile there is a ton of CCC work to find, identify and catalogue.

Sisu

A special crosscut returns to service.

EE5115FA-5804-4E6E-A8B1-75809FB250D8_1_201_aShenandoah National Park, Sunday, May 31 – Jim Grant was my grandfather.  He’s been gone for 42 years, but he lived again today.  No, Mr. Grant wasn’t reincarnated in the flesh.  His memory reawakened in the form of a newly restored four-foot crosscut saw he once owned.

It was there to tackle a huge blowdown on the Little Devils Stairs trail.  The objective was a long dead, 26-inch, double trunk tulip poplar.  Venus Foshay, my fellow Hoodlum trail crew member is responsible for that trail and she requested reinforcements.  Sam Keener and I answered her call.

Following our safety discussion, my grandpa’s precious saw bounced lightly on my shoulder as we headed down the Keyser Run fire road to the intersection with Little Devels Stairs.  Along the way, I thought deeply about what my grandfather meant to me.

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Me with my grandpa.

I imagined my grandfather hoisting that very same blade to his slender right shoulder.

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It would have rested on his black-and-red-checked Filson Mackinaw coat, steadied by is work-gnarled hands swaddled in his trademark deerskin mittens with the green woolen liners that I still have.

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The blowdown was a monster.

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The smaller trunk was broken off and offered an easy bottom bind cut.

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Sam won the trophy photo.

The larger trunk presented tricky top bind for a crosscut saw.  It would require two cuts.  Normally you can make reverse keystone cuts and roll the billet out of the middle.  In this case the proximity and angle of the root ball would force the billet to bind.  We knew we were in for an “Oh joy!” day.

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After amputating the smaller trunk, we applied muscle to the larger one.  To maintain safe social distance we used the saw in single sawyer mode and rotated as our arms tired.

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I have at least 10 wedges in my car.  I only brought three because the tree was site unseen.  We had to be creative to keep the kerf open.

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We sawed from both sides to keep the cut level.

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The “easy” part was over.  This is where the real battle began.  We thought we could lever out the billet with a log.  WRONG!

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While Venus hiked and drove back to the Piney River tool cache to get a couple of rock bars, Sam and I hiked to the bottom of the trail to clear a second blowdown.

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Social distancing was a problem all day.

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Little Devils Stairs is one of Shenandoah’s picture book hikes featuring several waterfalls, many creek crossing and lots of rugged scrambling.  She’s on the trail, by the way.  With this many rocks, I’m befuddled why the AT wasn’t routed through this canyon.

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Rock bars are all about brute force and ignorance.  It’s all muscle.

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Almost there.

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Success!

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Sam’s look says it all.  Thank heaven she’s a power lifter.

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Victory.  All that for this.

_____________________

Here’s the backstory.

I thought all of my grandfather’s tools and gear were lost to history.  Family legend was that my mother sold everything when she moved her elderly parents from International Falls, Minn. to her home in Greeley, Colo.

Last October.  Location:  My brother’s garage in Loveland, Colo.

Me.  “Wow!  A crosscut saw.  Where’d you get that?”

Brother.  “That was grandpa’s saw.”

Me.  “I thought mom sold all of his stuff when she moved grandma and grandpa out here.”

Brother.  “Not this.”

Me.  “What do you plan to do with it?”

Brother.  “I was going to hang it on the wall.”

Me.  “No way.  I could use it.  I have a friend who restores old crosscut saws.  I’ll ask him to fix this up and I’ll put it to work clearing trails.  Grandpa would like that.”

Brother.  “Ok.”

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Me.  “I’ll make a box and ship it today.  Where’s the nearest UPS store?”  The truth is that I wanted to get it out of there before he could change his mind.

The story added a new chapter today.  But, where did it begin?

_____________________

James Grand circa 1920

International Falls, MN circa 1920.

Who was Jim Grant?

James Earl Grant was my namesake.  Growing up, he was “Big Jim” and I was “Little Jim.”

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Favorite fishing rock.  My brothers and I have caught a lot of walleye there.

Jim Grant was a lumberjack, teamster and avid fisherman who immigrated from Alberta, Canada to International Falls, Minn. to cut trees for the Minnesota and Ontario paper company, now Boise-Cascade.  We’re not sure when.

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Born in 1900, Jim Grant was a good and kind man who had lived his life well. A third-grade education limited his opportunities, but he worked hard and made the most of those that came his way. He lived to be 78 before succumbing to prostate cancer.

In reality Grant was my mother’s stepfather.  He had once asked my grandmother to marry him, but she declined and later said yes to another man, also a Canadian.  Her husband, John Wesley Jordan, died at age 30 of kidney failure in 1930 as the Great Depression sunk its jaws into the Northern Minnesota economy.  In those days there was no safety net.  She was 30 with three children and they struggled.

After arriving in International Falls with his two brothers, Walker and Clarence, Jim Grant cut and skidded pulp wood in Minnesota’s north woods until he was drafted in WWII.  In the war, his age and lack of education led to work as a hospital orderly making beds and emptying bedpans at Camp Carson, Colo.

He loved Colorado and regaled me in childhood with stories of his Rocky Mountain adventures and tall tales of ghost towns like Cripple Creek.  Later on when I was stationed at that very same Army post, the first place I went was Cripple Creek where I imagined his stories playing out among the mining relics.

Fortunately Jim Grant was a patient soul who truly loved my Grandmother.  When he returned from his WWII service, he proposed a second time to my widowed grandmother and she accepted.  He never could have become my hero without that unfortunate chain of events.

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After the war, he purchased the saw I now have.  It is a Simonds Crescent-Ground, One-Man Crosscut Saw model 223.  The aux handle can be moved to the far end allowing for two-person use.

I found the saw in excellent condition, still sharp with very little surface rust.  It wasn’t used enough to completely erase its factory markings which is how we know the model and approximately when it was made in Fitchburg, Mass.

Link to Simonds Saw Catalog

The catalog says that this saw “will stay sharp longer than any one-man saw made.”  It also notes “Large hand hole in handle permits sawing with mittens or gloves in cold weather.”  That would have been practical because most of the timbering was done in winter when the lakes and dirt logging roads were frozen solid.

The light usage suggests he didn’t do much lumberjacking after the war.  We know that he found less strenuous employment on the papermill loading dock where he worked until retirement in 1965.  Thanks to a strong union, he had earned health insurance and a modest pension that he and my grandmother could live on in their own home for the rest of their lives.

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Today Jim Grant’s Simonds model 223 was reborn as a working tool in Shenandoah National Park.  When my time ends it will pass to the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club where it will enjoy a long and noble life thanks to, and in memory of James Earl Grant, lumberjack.

Sisu

 

 

 

Shenandoah. At last!

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Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. May 27, 2020 — The park is open, sort of.  Skyline Drive, the 105-mile-long ribbon of a road that curls along the crest of the Blue Ridge, is open for traffic.

With the exception of a small number of public restrooms, all other facilities are closed including campgrounds.   The trails, except the most popular trails where social distance can’t be maintained, are welcoming footprints.  The huts/shelters remain off limits for use.

This limited opening makes sense.  Reports say the primary means of COVID-19 is respiratory droplets inhaled when people congregate in small spaces.

Imagine up to a dozen people sleeping in an AT shelter with one of them who arrives late in the evening, asymptomatic with corona virus, infecting those sleeping nearby.   The same logic applies to crowded communal picnic tables and for visitor centers.

The good news is this. After nearly three months, volunteers may now return.  For awhile I thought the most useless card in my wallet was my dormant Shenandoah volunteer pass.

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On Saturday the entry stations opened and we were turned on again.  Fearing a Black Friday-like run on the park, most of us opted to pass on the weekend.  I chose Wednesday to return because I was committed Monday and Tuesday, and heavy rains are forecast for Thursday, Friday and early Saturday, a day on which I am unavailable.

Saturday the Maryland ridgerunner and I will be pitching the caretaker tent and stringing the rain tarps at Annapolis Rock.  It is always a more sane exercise in better weather.  This annual ritual is two months late, delayed by the pandemic.

Back to the park.

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Ready to crank on a foggy day.  The aggressive weeding of previous years has retarded the growth of jewel weed which is the bane of string trimmers.  The width of the corridor is needed because certain briars can grow a foot per week and the width buys me time to return before the trail is impeded.

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Eight hours later.

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Just around the corner.  When you’re running a string trimmer, your head is usually down.  You’re wearing a helmet with face shield which further impedes vision.  Then you look up.

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Black birch is easily dispatched with a folding saw.

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The aesthetics were amazing.  Wild azalea blooming.  The laurel will start soon.

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The tall grasses grow quickly.  People often ask why we remove the weeds and make such a racket in the process.  The answer is simple, Lyme Disease.

Animals use the hiking trails to get around just like people do.  The mammals such as deer, bear, coyotes, squirrels, and rabbits pick up ticks which drop when engorged.  Their babies instinctively crawl up on the vegetation to seek a host of their own.

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Remove the vector.  Reduce Lyme disease risk.  Mowing tall grass reminded me of harvesting wheat.  Weeding is arguably the least enjoyable, but probably the most important task trail maintainers do.

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Just over the hill from the last photo.

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Trusty Silky Big Boy 2000 saw to the rescue.  I thought about coming back dragging a chainsaw for this one, but for one, it would be a long carry for two minutes work – literally a long climb for a short slide.

Secondly, we’re going to attack a large blowdown at the bottom of Little Devils Stairs Sunday using a crosscut saw that is special because it once belonged to my grandfather.  Not sure there would be enough time or energy left over when we’re done to climb half way up Compton Peak to make, honestly, thirty seconds worth of noise.

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I always check the campsite above the spring on Compton.  It’s now official.  The park trail crews have been defining its perimeter with logs to help contain the site and limit spreading.

People are inherently predictable.  Anyone who has been a ridgerunner can tell you where you’re going to find the TP.

Speaking of ridgerunners, they were defunded in the park this year because thru hiking was discouraged and park gate receipts were dramatically down.  Tuesday and Wednesday a fellow maintainer and I counted 14 thru hikers.  The noobs are making a mess.  Help!

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There’s a reason I always carry potty trowel.  All told I buried two deposits this trip.  As previously reported, there are more noobs in the woods now and it shows.

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Long day.  Sweaty and tired.  The COVID beard is coming along.  String trimmers turn the weeds, which include poison ivy, into pesto.  I’m coated with it.  Time to get a shower.

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Spring in the park is awesome!  Did I say I love this job?

Sisu

 

 

 

Hoodlums October Work Trip

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Nine a.m. safety briefing at the Piney Ridge ranger station.

Shenandoah National Park, October 19, 2019 — Beautiful autumn weather welcomed around two dozen Hoodlums to our October work trip.  The turnout was as brilliant as the weather.

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After roll call and introductions we divided into four work parties – two on the AT, one for general maintenance, and one to construct a lateral drain.  Two crosscut crews attacked blowdowns in wilderness areas on the blue blaze side trails.  One of the crews cleared 29 down trees.

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Constructing a drainage dip.

My work party did general tread work on the AT section from Jenkins Gap to the Hogwallow overlook.

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In total we cleaned all the waterbars and check dams, replaced four log waterbars with drainage dips, and removed four blowdowns.

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We took advantage of the perfect weather to break for lunch.

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As we completed our work at Jenkins Gap, we met two thru hikers finishing their hike.  His partner was camera shy.  They were constructing a 2,192.0 marker out of leaves to memorialize their finish.  We were delighted to congratulate them.

The pot luck theme was Oktober Fest.  Everyone supplied their favorite German delights.

November encore?  Stay tuned.

Sisu

 

Hoodlums Crew Week

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Butterfly on short final for thistle pollen.  They have been abundant this year.

Shenandoah National Park, August 18 – 23, 2019 — Every year the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) Shenandoah trail crews organize crew weeks.  That’s when members can work closely with the park’s professional trail crews. It’s good for morale and camaraderie.  It’s also fun to play in the dirt like a five-year-old.

The five-day experience couples the satisfaction of teamwork and hard work with the joys of barracks-style living – nine people sharing a single bathroom and rush-hour-like  kitchen congestion.

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On the way to our work base in the park’s Pinnacles area, I stopped at my AT section at Jenkins Gap to refresh a flaky blaze.

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First you need exterior grade white paint, a brush and a scraper.

Next you remove the old paint and just enough bark to help the paint stick.

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Andy Warhol would be proud (I hope).

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Raiding the tool cache for tools needed for the the week.

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Loaded van, ready to rock and roll.

Monday we split up for a range of jobs.  Mine was on a “weeding” crew for an overseer who has been ill.

For arm chair trail maintainers, weeding translates to a roaring string trimmer frapping poison ivy into an evil green pesto that coats exposed skin like white on rice.  Need I say more?

It’s hot, sweaty and buggy work, all necessary to remove habitat for the ticks that cause Lyme disease.

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Day two dawned with the full brutality of mid-Atlantic summer heat and humidity.  It was so hot that the burning crosscut kerf spit fire and brimstone.

We teamed up to rip our way through this 18-inch blowdown.  It’s in a federally designated wilderness near the park’s western boundary.  By definition, power tools cannot be used for trail work in wilderness areas, hence the muscle power.

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Anna, 65, and Mary, 68, proved age is no limit.

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The guys had several bites at the apple too.

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Half done, but the heat index was oppressive.  We were working at least 1,500 feet lower than the ridge above us where the temp would have been 10 – 15 degrees cooler.

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Shortly after we snapped this victory photograph, one of our members showed symptoms of heat exhaustion.

In this case the symptoms were: dizziness, dark urine, fatigue, transient nausea, vision issues and lack of coordination. Skin was cool and normal color, but she wasn’t sweating much.  Heart rate and breathing remained within a normal range under the conditions.  Her awareness and alertness (A/O) score remained at 3 for the entire time.

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Treatment included moving the patient into the shade, soaking her with water, placing chemical cold packs against her carotid arteries, taking her vital signs, and ultimately getting her to sip a liter of Pedialyte.  In total she drank 2.5 liters of Pedialyte and water.

We radioed Shenandoah dispatch about 15 minutes after the onset of symptoms for a backcountry EMT.  Her symptoms were worsening.

We knew it would be awhile.  The plan was to continue treatment until the EMTs could arrive or, if she improved sufficiently, to walk her out over the mile-and-a-half down hill to the trailhead.

Unfortunately emergencies in the backcountry are never trivial.  Help can’t arrive easily or quickly.  We coach our ridgerunners to prepare to be on scene without help for up to three hours in a worse case scenario.  Depending on the nature of the injury, that’s a lot of time for bad things to happen.

After an hour, our patient improved and felt strong enough to attempt to walk out.

The EMTs were still on the way, so we radioed dispatch that we were walking out.  We met the EMTs and park rangers at the trail head where they were preparing to hike in with the guide we had sent ahead.

Our patient was assessed and monitored for almost an hour before being discharged to our care.

A law enforcement ranger who responded paid our team the ultimate compliment.  “It was,” he observed, “nice to see people in the backcountry who were properly prepared.”

Amen to that.

The next day’s weather forecast was for molten metal falling from the sky, so we decided to take a zero day which would allow us to slip behind the public access curtain to see what we could learn. Our thanks to Rebecca Unruh, the ranger who coordinates our volunteer activities.

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The park archives are an amazing collection of records and artifacts dating back before the park’s creation in the 1930s.

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What’s in this box?

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Original maps.

Next stop, Rapidan Camp. The camp was President Hoover’s country (very rustic) retreat.  It was the model for Camp David, the current presidential retreat, located about 150 miles north in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Park.

fullsizeoutput_2064Our zero day ended on a Sundae.

fullsizeoutput_2056  Throughout the year we partner with the National Park Service rangers.  Dave Jenkins is responsible for trail maintenance in the northern half of the park.

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Building a drainage dip for a wet spot.  We are shifting from hard-structure waterbars (drains made of wood and stone) to dirt mounds variously called swales, rolling grade dips, or as the trail maintenance manual (p. 65) calls them, “drainage dips.”  They are more natural and have less environmental impact.

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The dirt is raked down hill and hard tamped into a mound set at a 45 degree angle to the trail forming a ditch-like structure.

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We also cleaned and repaired serviceable log and stone waterbars.

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Some people pose with trophy animals.  We, on the other hand …

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Last project.

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Closeout discussion with Ranger Rebecca Unruh at our barracks.

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Final portrait.  One more crew week in the books.

Sisu