Clearing the Blowdown Backlog


Shenandoah National Park, August 5, 2020 — The purpose of this blog is to offer a peek behind the curtain so you can see what it takes to keep the hiking trails open and well-maintained.

There are hundreds of volunteers who do this work.  We are organized by park district, south, central and north.  Swift Run and Thornton Gap mark the boundaries.


A young friend who volunteered with the Hoodlums for a year before being transferred to California said that she’d been hiking and backpacking all of her life and had no idea how much effort went into maintaining backcountry trails.  She loved volunteering.

And now a word from our sponsor:

PATC always needs volunteers.  No experience or tools necessary.  We maintain nearly 500 miles of trail within the park and another 1,000 outside of it, including 240 miles of the Appalachian Trail, trails within the national battlefield parks, C&O Canal, Prince William Park, and many more. Join us at

The pandemic protocols – mask, avoid as many people as possible, groups of  no more than four, sanitize – don’t impose much hardship.  After encountering hoards of people on the weekends, we decided to do group work only during the week. That pretty much limits crew members to retired folks with sore muscles.


Yesterday we cleared 11 blowdowns on Pass Mountain.  Several hikers reported this one on Facebook.  This is a “leaner” in sawyer speak.  Leaners can be dangerous to clear and we only clear them if it can be done safely and they are blocking the trail.  Otherwise park and PATC policy is to let Mother Nature take care of business.

In this case, the giant tree is not blocking the trail.  Moreover, it’s larger than all but one of our saws.  If it were on the ground, it would be a hellova project. As it is, it’s beyond our capability in a wilderness area where only muscle powered tools can be used.


Judging from this angle, it’s going to be up there for a long time.  Anna Larsen Porter’s granddaughter may be a maintainer by the time it comes crashing down.


You could tell it was going to be a special day for August when we spotted a car at the Pass Mountain hwy 211 trailhead.  The sun was gentle with a cool breeze.  A perfect day to be roaming the park.

The plan was to drive up the Pass Mountain fire road and park at the hut/shelter and then work our way downhill to hwy 211.


First we would use a chainsaw to clear the AT near the hut trail.  That area is not wilderness.  Note that this leaner is much different from the previous one. The bind is on top, so you saw it from the bottom to keep the bar from being pinched.

We then locked the saw in the car so we would not be tempted to use it in the wilderness area we were about to enter.


This one had also been reported on Facebook.

It was cloaked in grapevines and brush which had to be cleared before we could get after the trunk.


The trunk required two cuts.


Sometimes it’s easier on the back just to sit.


Two down and as far as we knew, one to go.  Instead we found nine more.


Easy one.  Bottom bind.


Quick work.


Hwy 211 parking.  That was a clean mask when we started.  Dave looks like Peter Fonda in “Easy Rider.”


Decided to make a Subaru commercial on the way down the fire road.

The Pass Mountain trail was very weedy.  Being in a wilderness, it must be weeded with swing blades vs. the string trimmers we can use elsewhere.  We understand an AmeriCorps crew will give that trail a haircut this Friday.

Speaking of haircuts, I could not stand it and gave in.  Pandemic beard and hair excuse expired.





Don’t Ask for Whom the Trekking Pole Clicks



The Appalachian Trail in the central region is a lot quieter now.  The northbound (NOBO) bubbles are long gone.  Students are returning to school.  And the southbounders (SOBO) are still many miles to the north.  The trekking poles are quiet.

I took a long walk along the AT Friday NOBO from the Compton Gap parking lot in Shenandoah National Park.  It was a chance to test some gear and carry a full winter weight pack as a prelude to the Hoodlum’s monthly trail maintenance Saturday.

Wouldn’t you know it.  I started breaking spider webs right from the get go.  There aren’t too many things in this world that I actually hate, but spider webs are on the list.

Walk through a spider web and it sticks to your hair, glasses, face or arms in the most inconvenient and annoying way possible.  You almost never see ‘em comin’ either.

Then I thought about it.  If the trail was heavily draped in spider webs, that meant nobody had passed by in quite awhile.  Me and the critters had the woods to ourselves.  That’s pure joy.

The day was especially perfect.  Just warm enough and sunny with low humidity.   Then bingo!

I hadn’t yet schlepped a mile when a bear cub trundled across the trail not more than 50 feet ahead of me.  I think it may have been the tail end Charlie because I never did see the momma or a sibling, but I sure was lookin’ for all the obvious reasons. 

Later I saw a huge doe that was big enough to remind me of an elk.  At first I thought she was a buck, but they’re sprouting horns now, so she was just big.

Within a short time I cruised by the Tom Floyd shelter to read the register and snack.  I was greeted by a friendly toad, and best of all, lucky enough to find amusing entries from thru hikers whose blogs I’ve been following.  Some of the handwriting didn’t seem to match their personalities.  That was enough to make the day by itself.

Near the end of the return trip, a couple of bard owls serenaded me with their hooting – the decibel level can drown out a heavy metal rock band. I camped at the Indian Run maintenance hut with a few of my Hoodlum crewmates.  The owls played their rowdy concert all night long.  We loved it.

One gear item I was testing was my new (and first ever) set of trekking poles. 

Poles first began to appear back in the days when getting home to hike in the Colorado Rockies was regular fare.  They were seen most often in the hands of clueless tenderfeet.  These dude ranch types always appeared to have been outfitted by Abercrombie and Fitch.  This was back in the days when the store equipped great white hunter wanna bees headed out on city park safaris.

We (then) studly types thought they were pretty dorky.  Not for us.  Moreover they were a European invention where the trails are very unlike most of ours here in the U S of A.  So, in spite of solid recommendations that I try them, I never seriously considered acquiring poles.

Jump ahead to now, and trekking poles have almost become prosthetic aids for hikers.  Everybody’s leanin’ on ‘em.

Honestly, I was surprised.  The test didn’t go well.  As a cross country skier, I expected far better results.

The good news is that poles do provide thrust and tend to slow me down.  I desperately need slowing down.  Their use may be worth that much alone.

The bad news is that on ugly rocks and rough terrain, I kept much better balance without them – a key point when remembering how damaging and frequent falls tend to be.

The AT is mostly down hill from Compton Gap to Virginia highway 522.  The opposite is true for the return trip.  Just after Tom Floyd, the trail gets steep and rocky for a good stretch. 

From my point of view, the poles were useless in either direction in rough terrain.   I actually tripped on one pole trying to negotiate some large rocks, but enjoyed a fortunate outcome.

I didn’t like the tick, click, tick noise they make either.  The racket makes sneaking up on wildlife especially challenging.

Not going to toss ‘em.  Not gonna do it – yet. 

On September 24th my first long shakedown hike will be the 160 miles from Waynesboro, VA to Harpers Ferry, WV.  The trail is well maintained over that course by my PATC compadres. 

If the sticks haven’t won me over by the time I reach the Appalachian Trail Conservancy GHQ, they get aced off the gear list.  If that’s the case, I’ll have to find a new handy spot to stash my bright yellow duct tape.  Damn!

The trekking poles may click the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, but probably not for me.  Like my mom used to say, “Just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t mean you have to. “  Could be that I’m just incorrigible.  Time will tell.


A Hoodlum trail crew on the march.