Seasonal Rhythms

Fall

September 22, 2022 — Today is the autumnal equinox, the day Mother Nature begins disrobing ultimately she’ll bare it all.  She showed a little ankle on my neighborhood walk today, a bright splash teasing what she has on offer.

So it goes in the world of hiking trails and life in general.  Events happen more or less in order and on schedule – the circle of life’s rhythms and flow.

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If it’s the third weekend in September, it must be the Hoodlums’ annual trail maintenance instructional workshop in Shenandoah National Park.  Thirty folks ranging from raw beginners to the well-experience gather to live an learn.  Picks are swung, fires are made and beer, shall we say, is swallowed.

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This crew repaired part of the Appalachian Trail Caroline and I maintain on the south side of Compton Peak, about 11 miles south of the park’s northern boundary.

Heavy use and heavy weather was taking its toll on a steep traverse.  Eight waterbars (erosion control drainage structures) were torn out and reconstructed.  Rocks were dug out of the tread to smooth it out and make it a bit safer.  It’s good for at least 15 more years.

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Caretaker area at Annapolis Rock – Caroline, Sara and Sierra.

This also is the time when the ridgerunner program shrinks to Maryland only.  We lost Kasey to a family matter, so Sara Leibold shifted from Shenandoah to Maryland to help us out.  She and Sierra will complete the season – my last.  I will miss the interviewing, hiring and hiking with the amazing people – nearly 60 all told – who have graced us with their selfless service to the hiking community.

Caroline let me know that she was thinking of taking a Saturday hike on our section.  Knowing I would be there Monday, I suggested she hike up to Annapolis Rock with me.  Since she and Sara are friends, I thought a two fer would be fun – see Sara and a new place.

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While inspecting the area, eagle-eye Sara spied a spotted lantern fly.  It’s an invasive insect that is wrecking havoc on the region’s fruit orchards.  Did you know that if the jar says Smuckers or Mussleman’s, it probably came from this orchard-rich area?  We made the required report.

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Unfortunately, on the way to the car I noticed this graffiti and the axe blaze on the tree not far from the upper trail to the Pine Knob shelter.  We’ll use Elephant Snot to get ride of it, but why people think vandalizing nature is ok is beyond me.  The rock is sedimentary, the remnant of an ancient sea bed.

Tina, aka “Bulldog”, my friend of nearly 30 years, dating back to our days at the White House, has been my swamper on several trips.  She pitched in again this month.

The rhythmic drumbeat of blowdowns crashing to the forest floor is quickening.  The supply is nearly infinite.  Invasive insects have recently killed the red oaks, ash, and hemlocks.  The chestnuts and elms are long gone.  A native blight is currently attacking white oaks.  Have chainsaw.  Will travel.

I’ll close on a sad note.  We lost Mittens to brain seizures.  He was 15 1/2.  As the alpha cat, he could be a pain.  But, a Formula 1 Ferrari could not compete with the throb of his rhythmic purr. Frank Sinatra’s eyes could not have been bluer.  In fact, I wanted to name him “Frank,” but was overruled by my daughter.  RIP Big Guy!

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

Ridgerunner One

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Shenandoah National Park, April 29 – 30, 2022 — The first ridgeunner who comes aboard each season  inherits the park radio call sign, “Ridgerunner One.”  The second follows as “Ridgerunner Two.”  This year “Ridgerunner One” is John Cram from Seattle.

Each season, the first stroll we take is from Compton Gap to the north boundary kiosk where we check to see if the permit box is full.  Along the way we stop at the Indian Run Maintenance Hut for which the ridgerunners have a key.  They check it each time they pass for signs of damage or other issues.  They also do the same for the AT-adjacent rental cabins and maintenance huts in the park.

In John’s case this year, some glitches led to a late start and a short first patrol from the north boundary to Panorama at Thornton Gap.  At least we covered the whole north district.

Along the way we cover all  the items that are part of the ridgerunner’s weekly report which includes a hiker count, blowdowns, the amount of trash picked up and other things.  They learn quickly that TP tulips are as prolific as other invasive plants.  They apply their folding saws and clippers to remove minor trail obstructions.

They also report campsites less than 60 ft. from the trail and remove illegal fire rings.  No fires are allowed in the backcountry other than in fire pits established by the park itself.  Note the trash that didn’t burn.

No ridgerunner has ever been more zealous about demolishing fire rings than Lauralee “Blissful” Bliss.  I want her to know that, like a momma bear teaching its cubs, I’ve taught her enthusiasm to every ridgerunner I’ve trained since.  Your legacy lives on!

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There’s never a shortage of blowdowns.  Last year they were mostly red oak and ash.  This year, the ash are dominating so far.  Ridgerunners photograph each one, record the GPS coordinates, and enter the data into an smart phone app that compiles their weekly reports.  The poles and hat are for scale since ridgerunners and hikers are notorious for improperly estimating the size of downed trees.

On the way over North Marshall, we noticed the no camping sign had been vandalized.  The reason why was on top where a large new campsite had been established.  “Honest officer, I didn’t see any ‘no camping’ sign.”

The wild flame azalea and mountain laurel are budding on the south side of Compton Peak.  The full bloom photo is from May 21st last year, so we’re about three weeks away from some spectacular flowers.

The view from North Marshall clearly shows “green up” as spring slowly creeps up the mountainsides.

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We spent Saturday evening at Gravel Spring Hut.  About half the crowd was thru hiking.  Almost everyone was sporting a bear canister.  That’s a huge victory and a credit to the amount of bear education the AT Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service have been doing.

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Serendipity is one of my favorite words.  John walks in and to his total surprise meets his old friend  Cheryl.  They originally met in North Woodstock, NH at the Notch Hostel when he was hiking southbound on the AT.  Without doubt he was surprised to see her on his first overnight as a Ridgerunner.  AT trail magic doesn’t get better than that.

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Our fortunes changed on Sunday.  We made it almost all the way to the Elk Wallow wayside before the cold rain began pelting our Goretex.  The store is open, but the grill is closed until Memorial Day.  So, we settled for ham sandwiches and a dry spot under the breezeway.

The bright side is for insiders.  Chugging up the extra long Neighbor Mountain traverse out of Elk Wallow is much easier without a greasy burger and fries combo riding high in your gut. Serendipity?  Maybe.

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The rain soon morphed into fog and the afternoon into lazy foggy climbs.

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The day ended around six o’clock with a gimme blowdown at Thornton Gap.  I know the backstory behind the cut that didn’t count, but I’ll never tell.

Up next.  Gravel Spring privy on Friday and an encore appearance by a very special guest star.  Stay tuned.

Until then…

Sisu

I love PEOPLE!

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You think we were tired!

The AT and My House, April 12 – 17, 2022 — It’s been people time recently – lots of interesting people and even more fun.

The week opened with a visit from a German public radio producer, her lovely children, and her colleague.

It ended with a day spent with Caroline and her dad.

In between the Hoodlums April work trip brought out 31 people, a record for this time of year.

The time of year is important.  The weather went from sunshine Sunday to snow on Monday.  Weather this time of year is a crap shoot.  We got lucky.  It’s going to be in the high 60s again later this week.  Go figure…

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Susi Weichselbaumer and her children were lovely.  We haven’t had little kids in the house since we bought it.  Fortunately we found some of our daughter Liisa’s old Duplo Lego toys.  Susi works for Bayerisher Rundfunk, Bavarian Public Radio in Munich. She and her kids travel the world having adventures for the radio.  The name of their program (radioReisen) translates to Radio Travels.  What a gig!  Mom, you’re amazing!!!

Susi contacted the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in search of an AT adventure.  As we corresponded, I thought it might be fun to host them, get to know them and fit the hike to the family.

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I invited them over and pitched a tent in the yard.  The girls packed one of my packs with two schlaufsacks and had a short camp out after which we made SMORES around the fire pit.  If stickiness is any measure, they were happy.

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Susi’s colleague Arthur gave the crosscut a go.  The girls sawed off a couple of pieces as souvenirs.

A couple of days later we trekked up to Annapolis Rock for a picnic.  Adventure complete.

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Meanwhile, my wife and a bunch of Lashley Lounge/Gang of Four friends popped in to see the newly renovated Mormon Temple which towers over our neighborhood.  It will be open to the public for a short time before its rededication.  Secrets inside?  We won’t tell.

That was the week.  Now for the weekend.

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Dawn cracked on the Hoodlums meet-up with a breeze that chomped at us with a seasonal reminder.  We were delighted to see some pre-COVID stalwarts return to the fold.

This group broke into work parties that cleared blowdowns on several north district hiking trails. Another group continued tread work on North Marshall.

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Sporting my new prescription Z 87+ prescription but dorky safety glasses, I led a group of seven down a side trail called Jeremy’s Run.  That’s creek to most folks.  It’s in a designated wilderness so only muscle powered tools are allowed.

It was like a war story.

There we were.  Armed with my grandfather’s crosscut, a bow saw and a couple of Silky Big Boy 2000 folding saws.  Yes that’s a Japanese brand of professional pruning saw, not a Harry Potter Quiddich broom.  We launched what the military calls a movement to contact.

Movement to contact:  Cross the line of departure into the backcountry.  Search for the enemy.  Find the enemy.  Maneuver and destroy the enemy.

What’s the enemy?  The enemy is blowdowns.  Here’s our after action report:

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We made contact almost immediately after entering the backcountry.  This little one must have been an enemy scout.  We needed to demonstrate practice and teamwork.  Rachael dispatched it without fanfare.

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Must be getting closer to the main body.  We unlimbered the big saw.  With the team taking turns, Jim Grant’s crosscut dispatched this enemy outpost posthaste.

I wish my grandfather could see and hear this.  This saw was the best you could buy at the time.  I hope he would be proud that it’s still productive.

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The secret to success it taking turns.  That way nobody gets tired.  This crew had a seven limber arms in the bullpen.  We used all of them.

Missed you Sam Keener.  Sam is the only Hoodlum with a good excuse.  She was running the Boston Marathon.  BTW, she smoked it.

We didn’t always use the heavy artillery.  The lighter silky saws did their share.  Slo mo on the replay.

Ana clears an obstacle!

The outer defenses are defeated.

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Lunch prior to the main objective.  These are grad students from the Johns Hopkins school of public health taking a needed break from thesis season.

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Happiness is…

All told, we made four stream crossings and hiked down to the fifth.  The water is about 12 inches deep.  Don’t fall in.

The wedges keep the kerf open so that it doesn’t close and pinch the saw.

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The objective.  In total, we defeated nine blowdowns.

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Clearing the battlefield.

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Victory party at the Elk Wallow picnic area.  First in two years.  You go Hoodlums!

R&R at the Hoodlum’s home base, the Indian Run Maintenance Hut.

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This is better than the sunrise at Campobello.  Eat your heart out Teddy.  That’s my morning coffee on the reflector fire wall.

A little drama in the morning breeze as Steve’s tent decided to take itself for a walk.

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Turn the page to Sunday.  Marching in, we found a benchmark for the original AT which was moved away from Skyline Drive a long time ago.  It’s amazing what you can find without the summer vegetation choking the view.

Let’s switch gears from trail crew to the AT section that Caroline Egli and I maintain.

If you recall, last month we cut logs to replace rotting drainage structures.

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We were joined by Caroline’s father.  The first thing we did was camouflage an illegal campsite by spreading dead fall and leaves over the bare spot.

We replaced rotted logs.

Sometimes twenty-somethings vent a little.  It’s about a couple of good guys who downplayed how tough busting rocks was for the North Marshall crew with whom Caroline worked the day before.  You tell ’em lady!

She said she was strong!  She drove the pick clean through the log.

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Good time had by all!  That’s why I love this life and these people.

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…

Sisu

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