Treemegedon!

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Prince William Forest National Park, VA, January 2022 — The mid-Atlantic experiences a wide range of weather.  The the spring flowers are spectacular, summers are hot and humid, the autumns colorful, and the winters – well let me tell you.

The National Capitol Region winters are really mild until they aren’t.  Remember those icy presidential inaugurations?

About every fifth year or so the snow gods like to play around with us.  They want to find out how much heavy, wet snow we can take.  As I remind them, nobody is actually from around here.  We come from cold hard places named Buffalo, Missoula, Bangor, Fairbanks, Leadville, Minneapolis and the grand daddy of them all, International Falls.  We know how to sharpen our snow shovels and win the fight.

Sadly the trees are from around here.  They’re not so tough.  Wind, ice and heavy wet snow play hell with the soft and brittle ones.  The rocky soil and shallow roots don’t help the cause.

Recently we experienced a classic nor’ easter, a storm fed by tropical waters that rolls up the Blue Ridge  carpet bombing havoc all along the trace of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.  In this case, it slid a little to the east missing the AT for the most part.  It did clobber a neat little gem of a park just outside the Marine base at Quantico, VA.

Info on Prince William Forest Park

Thousands of trees are down or broken.  Large limbs have been ripped from trunks.  The hiking trails, which for trail runners are the best in the region, are impassable.

Cue Task Force Snowmegedon, an ad hoc collection of PATC chain sawyers who gathered from near and far to turn blowdowns into sawdust.  We’ve been at it for the better part of two weeks with at least another week to go.

The ratio of tree crowns, sometimes called “rats nests” blocking the path, to the number of large tree trunks is rather large.  Regardless, there are plenty of large trees blocking the trail.

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These are live trees.  They bind in ways unlike the dried out dead ones do.  We’ve learned that pole saws are much safer to use as we wade into these rats nests.  The stand off distance from branches that sometimes whip when their energy is released is a godsend.

This was the Mother of all Blowdowns for last week.  It was complex and full of stored energy as the branches flexed in different directions when they fell.

Bind, or the way a tree is compressed, is sometimes difficult to read, even for the most experienced sawyers.  The large branch that pinched and trapped this saw moved horizontally away from the sawyer.  We unbolted the powerhead and made a vertical cut on the opposite side which released the pressure and the bar.

This video is worth watching to the end.  It’s approximately three minutes long.  The sawyer is National Park Service Ranger Mike Custodio, who is responsible for roads and trails in the park. He’s tackling this one because his saw is the only one long enough to take on the mammoth trunk.  His objective is to get the trunk on the ground where it will be easier and safer to clear.

Mike knows how this tree is going to behave based on the size of the root ball and its angle.  This is his plan of attack:

First Mike clears two saplings on the far side of the trunk to ensure the nose of his saw doesn’t hit them and dangerously kick back.

Second he makes a large pie cut on top of the trunk to allow room for the tree’s eventual behavior.

Third Mike makes an undercut to prevent a “barber chair” split when the trunk is cut through.

Fourth, Mike is very cautious as he makes his reverse keystone cut to allow the tree to behave without binding.  This tree is going to release a lot of energy and he wants to live to tell the tale.

Fifth, watch all of the video.  There is a surprise ending.  No spoiler alerts.

Lunchtime planning session.

Lunch on various days.

Another one bites the dust.

Our newest sawyer scores a KO!

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Part of the park visitors don’t see.

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Instructor/evaluator sawyer, Robert Fina’s master class.

We’ll be back again next week.

Sisu

Hoodlums Trail Maintenance Workshop

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Shenandoah National Park, September 16 – 19, 2021 — Trail maintainers don’t grow on trees.  We make ’em.  The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club has a good track record of teaching the variety of skills volunteers must know to do the needed work; in the right way, and safely – everything from the use of traditional tools and chainsaws to rigging.

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For more than 30 years, the North District Hoodlums trail crew has organized a skill development workshop in September.  The workshop is designed to train people, from fresh first-timers to those with advanced skills, for the challenges they can expect to encounter doing trail work.  We can accept up to 30 participants.

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For sure, trail work isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t an amateur sport either.  The necessary tasks, techniques and procedures are spelled out in manuals and policies.  Knowing what to do and where and how to do it are important if your goal is to protect and preserve the physical trail itself.

Above all is safety.  We use heavy tools, sharp axes and pruning saws, rock hammers, and chainsaws.  We lift heavy logs and rocks.  We skew older.  While we are covered by workman’s comp; it’s best not to test its limits.

Workshop preparation starts a year in advance when the workshop coordinator reserves the space in the Mathews Arm campground.  S/he reviews the lessons from the previous year and discusses them with the various leaders within the Hoodlums crew.  During the summer with September on the horizon people apply, projects are identified, and project leaders appointed.

Several of us came up early to help split firewood, collect and organize the needed tools, and generally help our fearless leader.

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Photo by Mike Gergely

For the past 15 years Mark Nebut, who is a professional chef, and his brother and sometimes other family members have cooked scrumptious meals to which we look forward with great anticipation. Note the Coleman propane coffee pot.  This is big time glamping for us.

Other brother Dave Nebut recently took charge of the workshop as our organizer in chief.

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Photo by Mike Gergely

We divided into three work groups.  The advanced and novice groups continued our summer project on Compton Peak.  I led the basic (first timers) group on Pass Mountain.  Ironically, we were working on the first and last mountains in the north district.

The basic group totaled six including me.  We gathered at the Beahms Gap parking lot where we introduced the group to the tools we’d be using and the work we’d be doing.  First the work was demonstrated, then the group members each attempted to replicate the results themselves.

We cleaned or replaced 30 check dams and 24 waterbars.

We also built a rolling grade dip.  That’s a waterbar (drain) that is made of a dirt swale instead of logs or stones.

All told we racked up six hours worth of high energy work which was emblematic of this crew’s enthusiasm.  It was a fun day.

What do you do after a day of hard work?  What else?  Gather around a campfire and share stories.  We made a decent dent in the wood pile.

Sunday featured a half day of classes on how to build a rolling grade dip, the use of string trimmers and swing blades, and on crosscut saws.  The lunch that followed capped the day.

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The Thursday before the workshop was my lucky day.  An Appalachian Conservation Corps (ACC) crew needed a project and I had one ready to go.

The section I maintain sustained some serious damage from a microburst storm right after Hurricane Ida.  The sandy soil had silted up the water control structures.  Immediate repairs were needed to prevent severe erosion.  My Hoodlum colleague Cindy Ardecki helped lead the project.

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The ACC crew is an all-woman AmeriCorps group composed of recent college graduates in subjects such as forest ecology, bio science, environmental science and the like.  Listening to their conversations was fascinating.  Most of them joined the ACC for the experience and help deciding on the direction they wanted to pursue for their careers.

The crew cleaned and repaired waterbars, built rolling grade dips and cleaned and replaced check dams.  Their work will make a huge difference.

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Beauty and the Beast

Breaking news:  The section I’ve been maintaining since 2015 now has a co-maintainer.  Caroline Egli joined the Hoodlums this summer.  She’s eager to learn more about trail maintenance and I can use the help.

After the workshop we hiked what is now our section and discussed the recent work and the work that needs to be done before winter.  For example, once the leaves are down, the waterbars have to be raked out to keep them open.  I normally do this on Black Friday.  Beats shopping.

Otherwise, most times you’ll find us working either the Friday before or the Sunday in conjunction with Hoodlums work trips.

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Once in awhile the views from Skyline Drive are simply spectacular.

Next up:  A hike of the PATC AT 240 from Rockfish Gap to Pine Grove Furnace State Park, PA.  It starts Friday.  The purpose:  Put a dent in the COVID 15 muffin top.

Sisu

Spring cleaning delayed.

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Home, April 14, 2020 — As the debate about when America can go back to work stutters along, I’ve been wondering when trail maintainers can start digging dirt again.  We want to work too. Time’s a wasting.

I am under no illusion that someone is going to flip a magic switch and the world will shift from black and white to living color regardless of the political pyrotechnics.  The virus doesn’t care.

Until there is an effective vaccine, COVID-19 can be a potentially mortal threat to anyone who catches it. Respect alone for this potential will certainly cause some people to avoid crowds and certain public places.

Nevertheless, at some point the parks and trails will reopen to the public. People think they’re far from others when they are in the woods as if civilization can’t follow them there.  It’s an attractive illusion, so they’ll be back.

For one, I’d like to have the trails safe and ready when they come.

Fall

The problem is that the trail you tidy up in the fall …

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… looks very different in the spring.

Between now and when the people come back, nature will be hard at work.  Spring has sprung and the weeds are growing.  It won’t be long before they take over the joint unless they are cut back.

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Why worry about weeds?  They are the way ticks carrying Lyme disease get to hikers.  Lyme disease or COVID-19?  Each is ugly in its own way.

Weeds are only one of the jobs that need to be done in the spring.

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The tread itself needs maintenance.  Water control structures silt up or rot over the winter.  A bear destroyed this one.  This waterbar has to be cleaned and rebuilt.  It’s clear from the detritus that it’s no longer effective.

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Blowdowns also have to be cleared.

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We’ve has several howling windstorms recently which increase the probability of finding blown down branches as well as tree trunks.

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Everyone I know is itching to get a jump on spring maintenance before hikers return.  Trail maintainers like nothing better than packing up for an honest day’s work, although I despise the two-hour drive each way.

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The tool caches are ready.  With the people gone, we could get a lot done when it’s easy to maintain safe social distance.  Maintainers in our area are spread about one to two miles apart.

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But, like they say, the trail will be there when the time comes. True dat.  Meanwhile, I’m on the bench yelling, “Put me in coach!”  Where’s coach?  He’s sheltering at home just like the rest of us.

Sisu

 

A Soggy Weekend

  Shenandoah National Park, VA, Saturday and Sunday May 16 – 17, 2015 — The Hoodlums trail work weekend was pro forma until it wasn’t.  I came up Friday to jumpstart the week and work on the section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) for which I am responsible as an overseer. 

Rain was threatening but I still managed to muck out and repair six waterbars. They are structures placed at a 45 degree angle to the trail that direct water off the trail, thus preventing erosion. I’ll write in more detail about infrastructure and how it is built at another time. 

  Friday evening was uneventful as several members of the gang gathered at the Indian Run Hut to camp and save a long early Satursay morning drive. 

With rain in the forecast we were hoping to get our projects done. A ton of chainsaw work was on the list. My team was assigned to rebuild a troublesome chunk of a popular side trail in the park. 

  Luck favored us and everyone got ‘er done and we retired to the Elk Wallow picnic area for our Cajun themed pot luck. 

   

 Well, we almost finished our dinners before the sunshine changed to its liquid form. We hustled into our rain gear and continued to chow down. There are no covered pavilions under which to shelter so we noshed in a light rain – another delight I remember from my Army career. 

  Just as we were about finished, the sky opened up. It was over.  We broke for our cars, most of us sopped through to the skin. A few of us returned to Indian Run where we have an awning to continue in front of the fire. 

Dry clothes beat a hot shower that night. I was sleeping in my hammock for the first time in the rain too with prayers that I would stay dry.  I did in spite of a heavy barrage of thunder and buckets of rain. Yea!!!

Sunday was penance day. The most onerous task for maintainers is weeding. Since vegetation is the vector for Lyme disease bearing ticks, this task is the most important thing we do for those using our trails.  Sweat stung my eyes for seven hours. Finally exhaustion and the swing blade won. Most of my section got done the rest will have to wait. 

Tomorrow starts crew week. Our first task: breaking big rocks into little ones. There is some doubt about it.  Rain continues in the forecast and you don’t swing slick-handled sharp tools and heavy rock mauls in the rain, that is unless you have a death wish. Time will tell. Stay tuned…