Monday, September 17, 2012

Trail Maintenance Workshop: September 16-17, 2012


Peter gives instruction to the crew early in our weekend.
Less than a week after visiting Shenandoah National Parks Mathews Arm Campground for the first time while hiking through the edge of the campground on an AT loop hike, I overnighted there as a part of the 25th Annual North District Trail Maintenance Workshop.  The workshop is a Potomac Appalachian Trail Club event designed to teach new trail maintainers (and prospective ones) some of the intricacies of trail construction.  Since I have temporary custody of one section of the Appalachian Trail while a friend is in Colorado at school, and permanent custody of a second section, I figured I'd better get some instruction on what to do.

We started at 9 AM on Saturday, put in a full day on the trail as a part of one of three work crews, camped overnight, then put in another half day starting at 8AM the next day with the same work crew.  I volunteered for a crew which worked on the Thornton River Trail as it descended from the east side of the Skyline Drive.
The Thornton River Trail crosses the Skyline Drive a
few miles north of Mathews Arm Campground, near Mile Post 25.

We never made it more than a half mile down the trail.   The trail drops steadily, which creates runoff during storms.  Left unchecked, erosion can occur which can create ruts in the trail and risks for the hiker, particularly one with a heavy backpack.

Having several rocks to choose from
did not guarantee the right fit.
We constructed two types of erosion control devices on the trail: water bars and check dams.  Water bars are designed to divert water such as rainwater runoff from the trail to the downhill slope off the trail.  This is done by placing a log or series of stones at a 45 degree angle on the trail, buried in the dirt.  Choosing between a log and rocks depends on which type of material is more readily available in the vicinity, but rocks are clearly preferred as they last longer.  They are also more difficult to properly place.

Either material is to be buried in the trail to a depth where their presence on the trail does not create a problem for hikers on the trail, but still creates a barrier for water flowing down the trail.  The key is to control the amount of water on the trail.  This is done by combining the water bars with check dams in long downhills or steep sections of trail.

Noel makes sure that the rocks are buried
to the right depth.
Check dams are obstructions on the trail designed to stop erosion and slow water flow so that material is deposited on the trail, rather than eroded away.  So these structures are designed to minimize the flow of water then disperse it off the trail before it damages the trail bed. 

After the rocks or logs are properly placed, smaller rocks are used to anchor the obstruction as much as possible, then dirt is placed and graded around the obstruction.  The dirt comes from root balls of overturned trees - hopefully ones that are found close to the trail.

Joining the newbies were a host of members of the PATC's "North District Hoodlums," a close knit but apparently somewhat undefined membership, consisting of folks from the DC/NoVa area that come out to the SNP's North District once a month to engage in trail work and camaraderie.  And wear forest green shirts.  The Central District has a similar group called the Blue and White Group, and the Flying McLeods oversee the Southern District.  It appears to me that the further south one travels, the smaller the group of volunteers, as the DC area supplies a lot of willing labor.  For this reason, I was told that the Hoodlums sometimes travel south over U.S. 211 into the SNP Central District if trails need extra hands.
How do you get a rock in place?  Roll it down the trail!

Our group had a wide variety of folks, and every single one of them was interesting to talk to.  We had a couple of Hoodlums who both taught in Alexandria - one as an environmental sciences teacher, and her husband as a 9th grade English teacher.  There was another couple who met at Johns Hopkins and she was a new State Department employee.  There was a retired Ferrum College Biology Teacher who had recently moved to the mountains not far from Harper's Ferry.  There was an A.T. Corridor Manager (I had never before even heard of that!) who explained to me how he had to mark the boundaries of National Park Service land surrounding the Appalachian Trail.  He lived in Harper's Ferry and his wife works for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.  There was a History Professor from George Mason who has a son in the Scouts and used to manage a restaurant in Charlottesville back after he graduated from UVA.  And there was Peter and Noel, the experienced instructors.
The rock seen by the next hiker on the trail
is the tip of the iceberg.

After spending a day and a half volunteering to upgrade a small section of trail in Shenandoah National Park, (the National Park Services states that Shenandoah National Park has over 500 miles of trails, including 101 miles of the A.T.), I have a new level of respect for the effort that goes into keeping the trails in good shape.  And I'll probably look at the trails I hike in a slightly different way from now on.

After finishing up on Saturday there was an hour until dinner would be served, so I decided to take a quick hike.  The group campsite at Mathews Arm is also the trailhead for the Mathews Arm Trail, which descends to the Overall Run Waterfall and is shown on the map above.  I did not have time to make it all the way down to the falls, but a trail runner told me that there wasn't any water in the falls anyway.  This must have been a big disappointment to a lot of folks, because I was amazed at the number of people on the trail - I am not used to seeing so many people out hiking!  This is clearly a trail that attracts a large number of novice hikers, and had numbers that compare with Shenandoah hotspots like Old Rag, Stony Man, and Dark Hollow Falls.
My trail crew, at the end of the first day.

I was able to manage a 3.6 mile hike in an hour and seven minutes, with an ascent/descent of just over 700 feet.  I was late for dinner, but fortunately there was plenty to go around!  It was a good workout.

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