Trail maintenance and a little Appalachian Trail history

Housatonic River

Housatonic River

If you’re reading my blog regularly you know by now I am a volunteer for my local Connecticut Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, who are responsible for maintaining the section of the Appalachian Trail in our state. For those of you who don’t, I do a job very similar to the seasonal ridge runners employed by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and state maintaining clubs.

I believe it is the Berkshire AMC chapter in southern Massachusetts that hires the ridge runners for these two states. You can apply online to do this role in your region each year at the ATC website. If you get the gig, you are paid to be out there for around 5 days at a time, and off a few days for the duration of the season, something like April to October. You go back and forth along assigned sections of trail, interacting with and assisting hikers along the way. The only main difference in my role is I am out there when I can be or when occasionally asked to be at a peak time, and I’m not usually paid for it unless I am called up for these specific times. I’m pretty new on the job so this summer is when that will likely be the case for me for the first time. And pay or no pay that’s ok by me. I’m just happy to be out there giving back and taking care of the trail while doing something I love.

Fun Scrambles

Fun Scrambles

And as much as getting paid to do this all season long sounds like a dream to me, as a parent and full time employee of a marketing company, this is what works for me at the moment. Maybe one day I can work full time for the ATC. In the meantime, this role and my hikes with my family keep me happy on the trails. (See what I did there?)  The job also includes some manageable trail cleanup, campsite cleanup (including official sites and stealth sites), leave no trace education, and reporting any larger issues to the organization that are out of the scope of my responsibilities or abilities. You may also know from reading this blog that I also join the AMC for work parties on other state trails besides the A.T. when I am able.

So last Sunday I was back up on the A.T. to do some of my trail volunteer work. Despite being early February, El Nino has made for an unseasonably warm winter with little snow to date save for one blizzard (though it is currently snowing as I post this). It was in the high 30s by 9am and warming up quickly to the high 40s on this clear, beautiful day. Though I didn’t end up running into any hikers on this section of trail, just folks walking their dog or going for a walk/run on the flat river portion which begins just south of my starting point. I did my training on that section and another day walking the section from the state line to Bull’s Bridge recently, so I thought I’d pick a different area, and one with a camp site I haven’t visited recently.

Arriving at the camp site

Arriving at the camp site

I made note of blowdowns (fallen trees obstructing the trail) as I ascended up to Silver Hill campsite. This also happens to be the campsite Fielden Stream and I spent our first night on the trail together. And t’s a great one, about 800 feet up the side of the mountain, and complete with covered pavilion, deck, porch swing, water pump, and a new mouldering privy. There used to be a cabin where the deck and swing are, but that was burned down accidentally by some careless campers in the late 90s. The deck is all that remains and at some point the swing was added. I don’t know if the covered pavilion was there at the same time but it would make sense.  The campsite is only about a mile in either direction from a road and is easily accessible other than a bit of uphill hiking.

The deck & swing

The deck & swing

I enjoyed doing this section of trail again, even though it was short, and didn’t recall it being as much uphill as it was. There were a few spots where minor scrambling were required and I was proud of us for having done that on our first backpacking trip together, fully loaded up with heavy gear.

I stopped in to the campsite and cleaned up a fire ring, or should I say a fire site, because they didn’t even bother to put rocks around it! The ATC and AMC crews had recently downed a large evergreen that was a hiker risk, and the remnants were still there as the cleanup process was not yet complete. So unfortunately it made for easy firewood.

Silver Hill Pavillion

Silver Hill Pavillion

I also swept the privy and then checked for other campfire spots before sitting down to sign the register and try out my new MSR Micro Rocket stove and Toaks titanium cook kit — finally. I forgot the little peizo lighter the stove came with, but I had a mini Bic and matches along, and I was thrilled to be using it for the first time. It’s an even more compact version of the Pocket Rocket and fits perfectly in my new cook kit, allowing the lid to close fully. Ahhh, OCD. My original Pocket Rocket stove still works great and will be a great backup or loaner for friends hitting the trail with us that don’t want to make the investment for a one-time outing or the rare trip.

Coffee Break with the new stove

Coffee Break with the new stove

I had my Starbucks Via coffee and Tic-Tac container of powdered creamer and sugar (the backpackers spice and condiment hack!) and really enjoyed having the time to make a hot beverage. My only oversight was I forgot my homemade windscreen and since it was windy, efficiency on the stove fuel was compromised and I will need a new canister soon. Not to worry, as I was just out for the morning and any chance to use my backpacking gear is a good time. The stove performed exactly as its big brother, so it was familiar while being new and more streamlined. What a great product, in both cases. I then enjoyed my coffee on the swing before heading up the trail for one more ascent.

My down jacket being overkill, I wore my Patagonia Houdini wind shirt this time with a synthetic long sleeved base layer and an REI safari tech shirt (my ‘uniform’ shirt) and was plenty warm, even to the point of shedding the Houdini early on the climb. It is probably my favorite piece of gear I own. While not entirely waterproof it has a good DWR coating and I haven’t soaked through in it yet, either from rain or perspiration. It breathes despite not being ventilated so it keeps warmth in but doesn’t boil you from the inside out. And at 5oz, you can’t go wrong bringing it even if you never use it.

Camp fire cleanup

Camp fire cleanup

Besides I did some research over the last few days and almost everyone says you shouldn’t long distance hike in down (especially with a pack on that prevents room for air to travel between) but instead use it for a layer in camp after you’ve shed your pack and are not moving and generating excess heat and perspiration which can then cause moisture and freeze. I can certainly attest to this moisture accumulation on the last few hikes. It’s just too warm and wets with sweat too easy. I suppose your mileage may vary but I’m pretty warm-blooded. And over long periods of time this could become a safety risk as cold + wet = hypothermia danger. Synthetic is a better choice for this application. You could probably get away with skiing and snowboarding in a down coat as long as its got a waterproof coating and you’re not carrying a backpack. So that question has been answered for the time being. And I can layer either my Houdini or fully waterproof raincoat with my fleece and wool or synthetic base layers to achieve the warmth I need and shed them accordingly to avoid overheating.

Exped Trekking Poles

Exped Trekking Poles

I also got to try my new Exped trekking poles. These things are super light, and highly collapsible, which is great when every ounce counts. I guess my only negative feedback was they popped into the unlocked position a few times during use, and particularly when I was bearing weight down on them. This makes me think either I’m not using them right or they’re not strong enough to handle the weight of my body when using them to support it without disengaging, While it was only inconvenient on this hike, it could become downright dangerous. I’m going to reach out to the company to make sure that this isn’t a defective pair. Light and compact is great, if they do as good a job for me as my current REI Traverse poles or other more stout models.

The ridges of the Mohawk Trail to the East

The ridges of the Mohawk Trail to the East

On the hike I enjoyed extended views we did not have on that first overnight due to there being no leaf cover this time except for evergreens and the occasional Beech. I had great vistas almost 360 degrees around from the ridges.

The descent down to the road was on the steeper side, and with the heavy leaf cover I opted to walk back on the roads rather than reverse and retrace my steps when I reached the trailhead. While I prefer trail over blacktop any day, I had done what I came here to do, had a time restraint, and I felt there was no need to re-traverse rock scrambles on slippery leaves when I had an alternate, safer option. Though one could argue which is worse, slippery leaves and slick rocks or a mile walk on Rt 4, where cars heading to and from New York seem to maintain a 75mph average speed! Fortunately the second mile was alongside the Housatonic on the portion of River Road that is still paved, yet only used by residents. Along this road walk I could see part of the old town of Cornwall — it’s old church, historic homes and train stations — across the river, now nearly invisible from the modern bridge above which connects Rt 4 and Rt 7.

The rocky descent North to Rt 4

The rocky descent North to Rt 4

I passed many gorgeous country homes I would happily retire in, and disturbed a large family of blue jays along the walk back to my car. I made a detour to the stunning Kent Falls State Park on the drive back, to take in the beauty of the frozen cascade, and without having to pay the park entrance fee as it was the off-season. The A.T. in Connecticut at it’s earliest route passed behind the falls on its way north.

I got the 1968 Connecticut trail guide I ordered from a rare book store in the mail the other day, and while it didn’t have this 1930’s original route behind the falls (a massive hurricane in the 30s washed out the bridge once near my starting point and forced a reroute over Silver Hill),  it did have the later original route east of the river from Rt 4 in Cornwall over Mohawk, Red and Barrack Mountains. This route is now known as the Mohawk Trail. In a similar turn of events, a serious case of bad weather — this time tornadoes —felled the famous Cathedral Pines on this section in 1988. And at that time, with local residents also worried about the implications of what a now federally-protected trail would mean for their land ownership, the trail was re-routed west of the River from Route 4 to the Great Falls in Falls Village.

An icy Kent Falls

An icy Kent Falls

The book also includes the original trail route through Macedonia Brook State Park (see my last post) in Kent which took a large circular swing out of the way for the epic views I showed in that post all the way to the Taconics and Catskills. Apparently there was also a lean-to on Pine Hill. What a spot for it. I wish I had this book a week earlier — I would have looked for the location of the old lean-to. Oh, and that first southern section over Ten Mile Hill in Sherman to Bulls Bridge in Kent? Not on the original trail. I am still trying to find out when they re-routed that amazing section.

For a map geek like me, seeing this old map was like finding dinosaur bones on an archaeological dig or a pirate’s treasure map. It’s my favorite new book. I am hoping to find an even older guide or at least a map from that very first route from the mid-1930s.

Total Miles: 4.5

— Linus

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